Did Mickey Cohen really own Slapsy Maxie's nightclub?
I recently wrote a piece about "The Gangster Squad," a Warner Bros. film that's been shooting around town. It chronicles the exploits of a "Magnificent Seven"-style group of L.A. cops who banded together in 1949 to bust up gangster Mickey Cohen's gambling operations and run him out of town. When I visited the set, the film (which stars Sean Penn as Cohen and a host of great actors, including Ryan Gosling and Josh Brolin as Gangster Squad members) was shooting at an abandoned grocery store in Bellflower that has been transformed into a replica of Slapsy Maxie's nightclub, a popular 1940s and '50s Hollywood hangout.
According to most historical accounts, Maxie Rosenbloom, a former prizefighter, was simply the front man for Cohen, who actually owned the joint. In the film, Cohen has a special table at the club, which has his bookmaking operations housed upstairs. But the nightclub's ownership history turns out to be more complicated than I realized.
After my story ran, I got an email from Marti Devore, setting me straight. Even though the club was originally in Cohen's hands, from 1947 through 1950 it was owned by Sy Devore and his older brother, Al. Marti, who is Al's daughter and Sy's niece, is the Devore family's unofficial historian, which, as it turns out, makes her something of an expert on Hollywood history too.
Her uncle Sy, who ran a men's store originally located on Vine near Sunset, was known for years as Hollywood's "tailor to the stars." Born in Brooklyn, Sy Devore was a natural-born hipster, operating a store in New York, at Broadway and 42nd Street, before he moved west. "Sy was a very colorful, interesting guy," Marti told me. "He was a real party guy. He had a couple of very brief marriages to starlet types, but he loved to enjoy himself. As his friend [jazz trumpeter] Harry (Sweets) Edison liked to say, 'Sy's real talent was knowing how to hang out.' "
Sy spent a lot of time in Harlem, running with the likes of Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and the Dorsey brothers, who bought their threads at his store and were the ones who told him that he'd be a natural fit in Hollywood. So he moved west, doing custom tailoring and throwing parties. His regular showbiz customers included Frank Sinatra and most of the Rat Pack as well as Bob Hope and Nat King Cole. Being flush with cash, they made Sy a lot of money. Marti says that Jerry Lewis used to boast that after hitting the bigtime, he bought 100 suits from Sy in 1949 alone.
Being so good at hanging out, it was inevitable that Sy would try his hand at running a nightclub. He knew Slapsy Maxie well--according to Marti, the ex-boxer turned bit actor showed up nearly every day at a barber shop that was located inside Sy's Vine Street store. So Sy and Al bought themselves a nightclub. For a while, things were flush--Martin and Lewis made a big splash when they played the club, which also hosted performances by the likes of Jackie Gleason and Danny Thomas. Marti says that the Hollywood royalty who came by to see shows included Cary Grant, Joan Crawford, Jimmy Stewart, Ronald Reagan, Gary Cooper, John Garfield, Darryl Zanuck and Sam Goldwyn.
But competition was stiff and by 1950 the club had fallen on hard times, forcing Sy and Al to sell. Marti isn't so clear about who operated the club after her father and uncle got out of the business.
My favorite story about Slapsy Maxie's comes from Ben Hecht's memoir, "A Child of the Century." In 1947, the Oscar-winning screenwriter teamed up with Cohen to stage a benefit for the state of Israel at the club. According to Hecht's account, Cohen told him that he would handle the invitations. All Hecht had to do was give a brief speech. When Hecht saw how many people showed up, all flush with cash, he suggested that maybe he didn't need to give a speech after all. Cohen's bodyguard replied: "The speech is what Mr. Cohen wants to hear."
So as Hecht tells the tale, "I addressed a thousand bookies, ex-prize fighters, gamblers, jockeys, touts and all sorts of lawless and semi-lawless characters; and their womenfolk." The hat was passed and with Cohen standing in the footlights, his ferocious glare serving as a warning to any welchers, the crowd ponied up $200,000. When Cohen complained that the bums should've given even more, his bodyguard told him: "You can quit crabbin'. We raised two hundred G's. Furthermore, we been here three hours and nobody's taken a shot at us."
If that was what life was like at Slapsy Maxie's, I can see why Sy and Al Devore must have loved owning the club. And it certainly makes you understand why Warners is making a movie about Cohen's battle against the Gangster Squad. It was a time when Los Angeles was crammed with characters who were bigger than life.
Photo: Slapsy Maxie's nightclub on Wilshire Boulevard, circa 1948. Credit: Mark Wanamaker/Bison Archives