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Gangland L.A. in the 1950s, via pulp nonfiction

November 9, 2009 |  4:41 pm


In the 1940s and '50s, Los Angeles was home to a remarkably high-profile mob presence. Gang boss -- or former gang boss -- Mickey Cohen was a target, not only for teens with autograph books, but also for people with firebombs and guns. And he was also a target of LAPD Chief William H. Parker. Their struggle for power in the city is the focus of "L.A. Noir" by John Buntin. In our review, Tim Rutten wrote:

By recounting [Parker and Cohen's] biographies in parallel, Buntin creates a social history of Los Angeles in the 20th century, and it makes for compelling reading. Parker and Cohen both were outsiders (one a Catholic and the other a Jew) in a city where commerce and politics weren't the only white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant possessions -- so were the rackets. The author sets up the two men as polar opposites -- and, ultimately, antagonists -- in a city rife with vice of every kind.

It makes for utterly compelling reading, and Buntin's research is copious and fresh enough to inform even those steeped in local history.

On the Powell's Books blog, Buntin reveals some of his sources: true, or mostly true, tales of the times. He recommends two books by journalists, "For the Life of Me" by James H. Richardson and "Headline Happy" by Florabel Muir; Richardson hated Cohen, but Muir was pretty cozy with the mobster. When he was shot (in the shoulder) at a Sunset Strip restaurant, she took a bullet in the bum.

Seems like people were always crossing the line between good guy and bad. "Why I Quit Syndicated Crime" tells the tale of Jim Vaus, a mob henchman turned born-again by Billy Graham, who once tried to convince Cohen to accept Jesus. Charles Stoker, the author of  "Thicker'n Thieves" (billed as "the factual expose of police payoffs, graft, political corruption and prostitution in Los Angeles and Hollywood by ex vice-squad officer") was himself arrested for burglary.

As for his final recommendation, Mickey Cohen's "In My Own Words" -- well, it could only be as honest as the man at the top -- or ex-man-at-the-top -- of the rackets could be.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Mickey Cohen, at court on an assault charge for hitting a waiter, signs autographs for teenage fans. Credit: Los Angeles Times