"Public Nuisance No. 1"

The most famous gangster in Los Angeles, Mayer "Mickey" Harris Cohen was born in 1913. During the 1940s and 1950s he became somewhat of a cult icon in the city. Cohen was known for his large bookmaking operation as well as his lavish lifestyle. For many years he was the focus of the celebrity crazy Los Angeles media and it was something of which he relished all his life.

Cohen first gained fame as Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel's close friend, bodyguard and associate who just so happened to be absent when Siegel was murdered. Many believe that mafioso Meyer Lansky may have been at fault. Nonetheless, the death of Siegel lead to Jack Dragna's return as the the leader of Los Angeles' Mafia who had been forced out when Siegel arrived. However, Siegel's death did not lead to a friendly relationship with the Dragna family from Cohen. As the inheriter of Siegel's regional gambling business, he was unable to be persuaded to work with them and Cohen's personal style soon began to cause trouble for the Dragna's operations. As one might suspect, Dragna marked the rival gangster for death.

During one of these attempts an explosive was tossed into his Westwood home and left a 7 foot deep crater in what was his bedroom, as well as leaving every window in the neighborhood shattered. Cohen and his family escaped without so much as a scratch, but the incident had the neighbors calling him "Public Nuisance No. 1."

If Dragna's petty war against him and his lavish style were media eye catchers, so was some of his "public services." One of these was his vigilante justice against Alfred Pearson who manged to get the city marshal to put up for auction, a 63 year-old widow's $4,000 house and then purchase it for $26.50 because she refused to pay a absurd charge for radio repair. The outraged Cohen sent 7 of his toughest men to beat Pearson up. Although all 7 were arrested, as well as Cohen for conspiracy to commit murder and obstruct justice.

Cohen quickly put up all his tangible assets and paid the $300,000 bond for his men and he. Then, he managed to return the widow's house back and with quite a bit of money. The media was all over the story.

Eventually though, Cohen was sentenced for 5 years in jail for tax evasion. This was an ideal chance for Dragna to sieze control of his archrival's rackets, but as luck would have it, a corruption investigation cut it short. In 1962 Cohen was again sentenced to prison, this time for 10 years involving tax violations. When he was released in 1972, the now partially paralized (He had been attacked by another inmate with a lead pipe.) declared himself reformed and even holding a campaign 2 years later for prison reform.

Los Angeles' favorite gangster and probably the most shot at since Bugs Morgan, a man who never drank or smoked, died of natural causes in 1976. He still lives on however, most recently in the book based movie, L.A. Confidential.


Los Angeles Times. L.A. Unconventional: The men and women who did L.A. their way.

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