This Day in Jewish History

1913: Mobster Mickey Cohen Dies a Natural Death

Crooked from toddlerhood, Meyer ‘Mickey’ Cohen muscled to the top of the California mobs, surviving a remarkable number of assassination attempts.

Meyer "Mickey" Cohen in a mugshot from Alcatraz prison, July 28, 1961.
Wikipedia

September 4, 1913, is the birthdate of Mickey Cohen, a quintessential 20th-century mobster, who inherited the mantle of Los Angeles crime boss after the assassination of his mentor Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, in 1947. Cohen himself survived a reported 11 attempts on his own life to die a natural death, in 1976.

Meyer Harris Cohen was born and spent the first months of his life in Brownsville, Brooklyn. His Kiev-born father, Max, died several months after he was born, and a short time later, his mother, Fanny, also from Kiev, picked up herself and her six children and moved cross-country to Los Angeles. They took up residence in the teeming immigrant neighborhood of Boyle Heights, which at the time had the largest Jewish community west of Chicago.

Some kids have hobbies

Fanny ran a small grocery in Boyle Heights, but her oldest son, Harry, was involved in less legitimate enterprises, and it was he who introduced the young Mickey to the criminal life. During Prohibition, for example, the Cohen children operated a small still in the rear of a neighborhood drugstore.

Late nights led to frequent absences from school for Mickey, and by the time he was 10, he had already had two stints in reform schools, which only reinforced his incipient violent tendencies. According to biographer Tere Tereba, Cohen did not learn to read properly until he was 30.

It’s said that Mickey began selling newspapers on a Boyle Heights street corner at age 4. When he was a little older, he added operation of a craps game to that. Later, when he was selling the Los Angeles Examiner downtown, he supplemented his income by extorting payments from other paperboys for the right to sell at choice corners.

After an initial exposure to boxing in the paperboys’ league, Cohen headed east to Cleveland in 1929, where his brother Harry was then living. There, he trained for a professional fight career while learning about organized crime, two overlapping worlds.

Cohen had his first pro fight in 1930, and his last one in 1933. Like many other Jewish prize fighters, he sported a large Star of David on his blue satin trunks.

Not even a cat has that many lives

After retiring from the ring, Cohen devoted himself full-time to crime. His teachers included Al Capone, in Chicago. When he moved back to Los Angeles, in 1939, it was to work as an enforcer for Bugsy Siegel. And as Siegel became deeply involved, and then mired, in his gargantuan Flamingo hotel-casino project in Las Vegas, it was Mickey Cohen who assumed responsibility for mob operations in Southern California.

Siegel, as noted, was shot to death in his own home – in 1947. Biographer Tereba asserts that “[b]eyond a doubt, Mickey Cohen was complicit in the plot.” In any event, he quickly replaced Siegel as top dog in L.A., and became a target for assassination attempts himself.

Once, in July 1949, before he was scheduled to testify before a grand jury investigating police corruption, Cohen and his entourage, which included a police bodyguard, were ambushed with machine-gun fire as they emerged from Sherry’s nightclub. One of his henchmen died, but Cohen survived his wounds. Most dramatically, a bomb was planted in Cohen’s home, in upscale Brentwood, in 1950. When it exploded, in a blast heard from a distance of 10 miles, it destroyed his bedroom — but not Cohen.

Cohen had a friendly relationship with the press, and was ready to offer its members colorful anecdotes and quotes. In 1962, during one of his several prison terms, he was attacked by a fellow inmate armed with a lead pipe; later, describing the incident to a journalist, he commented, “It was some lunatic, never knew him, never saw him. Can you imagine them putting some lunatic in there with normal people?” What’s more, Cohen sued the government over his injury and won $100,000 in damages.

After his last release from prison, in 1972, Mickey Cohen wrote his memoirs and made the rounds of TV talk shows. With all of his vices, Cohen never drank or smoked. But when he died, on July 29, 1976, the cause of death was stomach cancer.