Johnny Stompanato sits at a behatted Mickey Cohen's right.
(Photo from Bloodletters and Bad Guys by J. Robert Nash)
Arty Pomerantz is the only guy I used to work with on the New York Post who ever cared enough about me to look me up after the Post fired me, shoving a shaft up my ass that went all the way up to and into my brain, disabling it for some 23 years. I'm so slow, it took me eons to figure out that the reason I got fired was just that: because I was so slow. I was a naive nerd, a ninny and a jerk, especially when it came to women. I thought all women were chaste and pure and faithful like my big sisters, and I especially thought so about my own wife. I loved my wife. I've said it before and I'll say it again: the happiest days of my life were spent raising a family with her. To me, the family is the building block of civilization.
First, I became one of the Post's star feature writers and later, as Pop Scene columnist, I became one of the most powerful pop journalists in the world. But as far as the editors were concerned, I was just a jerk who didn't know anything about the unfair sex. The question of whether I had talent or not never arose in my bosses' minds. To them, the only reason I ever got ahead on the Post was because of the clout my wife wielded with them.. Ask my good buddy Pete Hamill. He used to keep telling me that to become a good writer, I had to suffer a loss of innocence. I never knew exactly what he was talking about at the time.
* * *
ARTY POMERANTZ The reason I introduce Arty is that he is a reliable, knowledgeable and impartial witness who can testify as to what a square-assed, innocent and sexually unsophisticated nerd I was. Arty was a New York Post photographer who became the 1995 president of the New York Press Photographers' Association. At this writing, he has a 1993 Ford Taurus in his garage that is plastered with shields and parking credentials from a powerful array of local, county, state and federal law enforcement authorities. Arty is even equipped with a deputy sheriff's badge. His entire life has been focused on getting through police lines in a hurry so he could get the picture fast and rush back to the newspaper office to develop the film. Obviously, Arty has made some connections in the more than 20 years since my former colleagues at
gave Arty the same heave-ho
that I got
the Post kicked me out of journalism. Except Arty doesn't work for the Post any more, either. With Australian global junk journalism tyrant Rupert Murdoch pulling the strings, the Post gave Arty the same kind of heave-ho I got. Neither one of us ever got our severance pay and pension, into which both Arty and I had contributed many years of fair share. And of course, that lame excuse for a labor union, the American Newspaper Guild, wasn't of any more use to Arty than it was to me. In fact, I consider the eternally ineffectual Guild to be just as adversarial to its members as management. The Guild keeps doing nothing but selling its members down the river. That's what the Guild did to both Arty and to me.
Anyway, back in the '50s, Arty was one good-looking dude, slender and handsome, with wavy blondish hair and a mustache. Today, he's got a big pot belly and a double chin or three, but I still see that gorgeous Arty of old in his face. Arty was so good-looking, the girls used to drool over him until a blonde Swedish beauty named Ulla Malmgren nailed him for good.
Arty and I are friends from way back. When I was on night rewrite at the Post in the late 1950s, from 1 a.m. to 8 a.m., Arty and I would get sent out on stories all the time. He'd take the pictures and I'd do the writing. Arty remembers that it wasn't too long after I got my job on the Post that Liz Renay came to town. Leggy Liz was advertised to be the girl friend of L.A. gangster Mickey Cohen, who had told her to look me up when she got to the Big Apple. God knows what Mickey told her about me or what kind of guy she was expecting to meet, but she obviously was expecting somebody a little hipper than I turned out to be. It was clear not only to Arty but even to a nerd like me that what she was looking for was a little action. Mickey had paid for the trip to New York for both the gorgeous Liz and the equally statuesque girl friend who accompanied her. I'm forced to agree with Arty that the two of them were steamily hot to trot.
For all I know, mine might've been the first telephone number they called when they hit town. As soon as they saw Arty, they fell all over him. The official reason for their trip to New York and the reason I got the OK from the city desk to go out on the story with a photographer was that notorious gangster Mickey Cohen's gorgeous stripper girl friend was in town to audition for a part in a Broadway play. That was worth a headline and a picture in the tabloid New York Post, wasn't it? This was in that innocent Ozzie-and-Harriet pre-AIDS era, when, sexually, you only had to worry about the clap or the syph or the crabs or other such minor stuff. Herpes hadn't even been invented yet. We were still a couple of decades away from sex turning into a game of Russian roulette. Sex was free for the taking if you had somebody like Liz to give it and somebody not like me to take it.
Obviously, Liz was one spectacular-looking woman. She had worked as a showgirl and as a stripper and would later act on TV and maybe even in the movies. It has been rumored that she starred in at least one x-rated skin flick, but I don't really know. In 1992, as a Las Vegas grandmother in her 60s, she wrote a book entitled, My First 2,000 Men, a group which, she boasted, included the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Marlon Brando, Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra. The group also could have included me, but I was too much of a nerd to realize what a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I was missing out on. I'm so thick, I wouldn't know a woman was coming on to me unless she hit me over the head and dragged me into bed. Stupid is as stupid does. I'm my own version of a Forrest Gump. When I told Arty I wanted to tape him telling his story about Liz Renay and me, this is what he said:
We went into this hotel room, I remember. And there was Liz Renay and another girl and there was Al, a young reporter who had just left a Newark paper and was over on night rewrite at the Post and they sent him out on this story and these two girls really wanted to play. Al was absolutely afraid. He was a newly married young guy who just wouldn't. They were making all kinds of suggestive moves, like lying on the bed and kicking their heels up in the air and trying to lure him into the sack. And Al kept backing away and all he had out was his notepad instead of another thing he should have had out. And that's what I remember.
Mickey Cohen was sort of a friend of mine. I was proud of Mickey. I was proud that I knew him. A Jewish gangster? I used to look Mickey up every time I was sent to Hollywood. But when I dig into my past to unearth a picture of how or where or when I met him, I hit the impenetrable rock of metamorphosed memory. Maybe I met Mickey while I was a police reporter for the Newark Evening News. No, Mickey never operated in Jersey. I must have met him through my old buddy, Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky, who used to rule movietown from Schwab's fabled Sunset Strip drug store, in which Sidney had an office on the mezzanine, overlooking the store's soda fountain, where Hollywood starlets such as Lana Turner used to get discovered. Sidney, who died in 1983 at the age of 78, was the newspaper columnist who took credit for originally baptizing filmdom's Academy Award. To me, at least, Sidney claimed to have given the Award its nickname of "Oscar."
"When I covered the first Academy Awards ceremony," he once told me, "I had to write the story on deadline and I couldn't keep typing out the words 'Academy Award.' I had to give it a shorter name, so I nicknamed it 'Oscar.' And the name stuck!"
When I started out on night rewrite at the Post, Sidney would phone all his stories to me and I would write them under Sidney's byline. He liked the way I ghosted his stuff and that's how we became buddies. When I was sent out to L.A. to do a feature series on Frank Sinatra was when I first got to meet Sidney. Was that when he turned me onto Mickey? Mickey had the inside dope on everybody in Hollywood simply because one of Mickey's sidelines was blackmail. I can't say Mickey turned out to be one of my asshole buddies, but he was one of my best "sources." In April of 1958, he called me from California every day at my New York Post rewrite desk to give me another scoop. He'd tell me what the testimony was going to be in the "trial" of film queen Lana Turner's 14-year-old daughter, Cheryl Crane, accused of murdering Lana's mobster toy boy, the much younger and excruciatingly handsome Johnny Stompanato. Johnny was 32 but he told Lana he was 42. At the time, Lana, who rose to stardom as Hollywood's original "Sweater Girl," claimed she was 38.
"Mommy had found out he was 10 years younger than his age," Cheryl testified, and that led to a screaming argument between Johnny and Lana, who insisted on breaking off their romance. "He was threatening to kill her, to hurt Daddy, Granny and me," Cheryl testified. "He said he had ways of doing it."
Cheryl, who had been listening to the argument through her mother's closed bedroom door, went down to the kitchen and came back with a 10-inch butcher knife.
"I didn't want him to hurt her, so I rushed into the room and stuck him with the knife. He said, 'What are you doing?' and started falling down. I then went into my room and called my father but I went back to my mother's room as she kept hollering for me to help her."
The "trial" was actually a coroner's inquest and the jury ruled the killing "justifiable homicide." Johnny, financed by Mickey, had been assigned to seduce Lana, rip her off and set her up for blackmail. According to the Beverly Hills police, Johnny had already blackmailed more than $80,000 out of other women. The cops thought blackmail was probably the reason somebody broke into Johnny's apartment after his death. The cops speculated that someone apparently was in search of Lana's love letters to Johnny, which, by the way, ended up in Mickey's hands. I know because he read parts of them to me over the phone. I was writing the Post's lead story in those days and I was scooping the town. The Herald-Examiner, Hearst's L.A. daily, is said to have paid a tidy sum for the exclusive rights to print those letters.
Probably Mickey was behind accusations that Lana really stabbed Johnny. The rumor started flying that Cheryl, as a juvenile, wouldn't get much more than a slap on the wrist and so somebody was able to talk her into taking the rap for mama, or so the story went. Mickey could be as cold and vicious as he could be witty and charming. It was easy for Mickey to seduce me. The truth is I fell for him hard. Even today, I still have fond memories of him. To me, he was his own Billy Rose. He was a showman. Oh, I know he killed people and he was a Yiddish momser and he was just plain no good. But I was a kid writer who loved colorful characters. I had always read about newspaper columnists hobnobbing with the mob and I felt chosen to be able to hang out with such a big-time Hollywood racketeer. I thought I was coming up in the world. Like all kids, I was star-struck, proud and thrilled to be able to hang out with a real live headline. I also related to Mickey on the level of our Jewishness in the same way African-Americans call one another "Bro." Mickey and I both grew up in immigrant Orthodox Jewish households and, in my heart of hearts, I was rooting for Mickey as a Jew who had achieved gangster stardom in an Italian underworld. But mostly I liked Mickey because he was fun.
Some joked that he was built like a barrel, but he was a barrelful of bellylaughs for me. He was always the punchline of his own jokes. He kept casting himself as the fool, always making hilarious mistakes. With me, Mickey took care to show only his Gang-That-Couldn't-Shoot-Straight image. With a persona which could have been invented only where it was invented, in Movietown, U.S.A., Mickey to me was a spectacular clown who seemed to have stepped into real life right out of a Hollywood gangster comedy. A typical Mickey caper? In 1959, he embarrassed the American Bar Association by delivering a lecture at its Miami Beach seminar on legal tactics after having had himself introduced as "Professor O'Brien," an expert on tax evasion and other criminal cases. Mickey's put-ons epitomized a brand of in-your-face gutter humor shared by cops and crooks alike.
As a newspaper reporter, I felt immune from harm when dealing with gangsters like Mickey, just so long as I wrote truthfully. As for Mickey, he was protected by a legendary force field which he obtained not only from his grisly reputation but he also dodged a lot of bullets with his ability to make people laugh. He was not the kind of guy who would stick the unlit end of a cigar up his ass just to get a laugh, but that kind of behavior comes to mind when I think of Mickey Cohen. Who could play Mickey in a movie? There are no longer any Mickey Cohens. He was an original. Any attempt to recreate Mickey on film would be in danger of ending up as awkward as an elephant on roller skates. Back in 1959, Mickey was telling everybody he was going to play himself in his own movie, The Mickey Cohen Story. The Senate Rackets Committee learned that Mickey sold almost 200 per cent of that movie to investors, who paid $1,000 a point. This was after Mickey already had signed away the rights to his life story eight years earlier, back in 1951. There also later came a time when he got author Ben Hecht interested in his biography. After Hecht had written a few pages, Mickey went out and started selling pieces of his book and movie rights all over again.
Saturday Evening Post writer Dean Jennings once told what it was like to spend seven weeks hanging out with Hollywood's most flamboyant little gangster. Jennings wrote of sometimes dining with Mickey in his apartment, with "monogrammed linen and imported silver."
I sat in expensive nightclubs with Cohen and occasionally drove him around Hollywood or Beverly Hills as he ran mysterious little errands. I watched him get fitted for new suits at $250 each, and saw wardrobe closets filled with 1,500 pairs of socks, 50 pairs of $50 silk pajamas and neckties by the hundreds.
That's what it was like for me when I was hanging out with Mickey. But Dean Jennings may as well have been a federal agent, because his testimony later helped send Mickey to Alcatraz. Like Al Capone, Mickey finally got nailed on income tax evasion. Mickey, in fact, got the longest prison term ever imposed on an American citizen for income-tax evasion.
According to his New York Times obit, Mickey, like me, was the baby of his family. He was born Meyer Harris Cohen in 1914 in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, the sixth and last child of Sam and Fanny Cohen, who, like my own parents, were Russian immigrants. Mickey's father, described as a "produce worker," died when Mickey was two months old. Less than a year later, Mickey's mother parked his three sisters and two brothers with relatives and took Mickey with her to Los Angeles, where she opened a grocery store.
Mickey began selling newspapers when he was eight. Later, he started hanging out at gyms, got a job as a sparring partner, dropped out of the sixth grade and, at the tender age of 13, began work as a professional
It was a natural step
for a 'washed up' boxer to end up in the rackets
bantamweight. He was one tough little kid and, when his mother remarried, he ran away to Cleveland to follow his ring career but felt washed up while he was still in his teens. Mickey once described it as a "natural step" for a washed-up pugilist to wind up in the rackets. By the time he was 19, he had his own underworld operation going. From Cleveland, he expanded to Chicago and from Chicago he jumped to L.A., where he teamed up with notorious bookmaker Bugsy Siegel, legendary founder of Las Vegas.
According to the Times obit, when Bugsy got rubbed out, Mickey becamethe undisputed boss of Los Angeles gangdom and lived in a mansion surrounded with an electronically equipped fence and spotlights and containing closets filled with expensive suits and shoes. He bought a haberdashery, invested in a supermarket chain, dabbled in promoting prize fighters and traveled in a Cadillac followed by another car carrying his armed "helpers."
Mickey also made a big hit with his appearance before the Senate Crime Investigating Committee. In what was described as "the fanciest sparring exhibition of his career," the wisecracking Mickey denied being a racketeer, said his principal business was a tailor shop and insisted that he was living on his ability to pick the right horses in all kinds of sporting events plus he had borrowed $300,000 from friends. Mickey later was nipped in his shoulder in a gangland shooting that seriously wounded both a bodyguard and one of Mickey's movie starlet girl friends. He also escaped death in other gangland shootings and his home was bombed twice. Himself a suspect in a number of murders, Mickey, like Cheryl Crane, won a justifiable homicide verdict from a coroner's jury after once killing a man in an argument about a gambling debt.
In 1951, Mickey had to do a three-and-a-half-year stretch in the federal clink and then in 1961 came the trial at which Saturday Evening Post writer Dean Jennings was called to the witness chair.
After I testified against him, he came up to me and said, "No hard feelings. How about goin' out to dinner with me tonight?"
Jennings wrote that he declined the invitation because he remembered another guy Mickey invited to dinner who wound up on the restaurant floor, dead from bullet holes. Author Ben Hecht also testified at Mickey's trial, telling about his agreement with Mickey to write Mickey's life story. Other witnesses at the trial included comedians Jerry Lewis and Red Skelton, former welterweight champ Don Jordan and stripteaser Candy Barr. Mickey liked strippers and Candy was another one of his ex-girl friends. He spent $60,000 helping her fight a 15-year sentence in Texas for possession of what I was told was a single marijuana joint. I remember Candy as one of the most delicious chunks of womanhood I've ever wished I could cuddle with. I once owned a fuck film in which Candy demonstrated how the ideal woman does it. Photographed in a motel room, this movie could have been a training film for hookers around the world. The reel had been one of my prized possessions. How much would it be worth today? The last I saw of the Candy Barr film was when I lent it to Marshall Blonsky, who was then my apprentice but who now is an eminent semiologist. Apparently in an attempt to score a few points for himself, Marshall lent this precious fuck film to famous TV writer-comedian Buck Henry, or so Marshall says. When I asked for the return of this precious fuck film, Marshall claimed that Buck Henry never gave it back to him. That's another important lesson I've learned in life. Never trust junkies, hookers, lawyers, cops, bureaucrats, the government or semiologists.
Mickey was certainly one of the most colorful characters of my life and my life has been a collection of some of the most colorful characters of this century. Yes, I was star-struck and I still am. Isn't everybody? Aren't we all the equivalent of moths orbiting an electric light bulb, like planetoids attracted to a star which will ultimately consume them. Don't we all keep trying to elbow our way into the picture? Stand as close as you can to the star! It doesn't matter that there aren't even any paparazzi around. As if the star's fame can rub off on us, as if knowing famous people makes us famous, too, we trap ourselves into that adoring circle which orbits our idol, who feeds off our fawning certainly as much as we imagine we gain from hanging out with him. Some of this, I had yet to learn.
As a star-struck former Newark police reporter who now had been given a rented car and an expense account and assigned to go hang out with Hollywood celebrities, I was like a sugar junkie in a chocolate factory. Yes, Mickey had no trouble seducing me. I became absolutely one of his fans. Even after he got sent away, the first letter I ever wrote to a President of the United States was in Mickey's behalf. I was still a respectable citizen in those days and Mickey's lawyer asked me to write a letter to President Lyndon Johnson after Mickey was crippled in the Atlanta Penitentiary. It seems Mickey's storied force field refused to go to the Joint with him. A year after Mickey was transferred to Atlanta, another inmate beat him over the head with a length of pipe in the exercise yard, inflicting a skull fracture, brain damage, paralysis of the left side and incapacitating Mickey for life. Mickey eventually sued the government for negligence and won 110 grand, only to have the government give the money with one hand and grab it right back with another, applying it to the back taxes and the court fines Mickey never paid. Mickey's lawyer didn't even get his cut. Mickey spent much of the rest of his prison time in a wheel chair.
Dressed in a windbreaker, a white T-shirt, a pair of shrunken trousers and leaning on a cane, Mickey finally hobbled out of a prison hospital in January of 1972 after serving 10 years of his 15-year term. By then, the one-time boss of L.A.'s gangsters, who had surrounded himself with bodyguards and beautiful strippers, was a broken man. He quickly faded out of the picture, spending his last years in near-poverty in a rented West L.A. apartment.
"I can't even own a car," he lamented at the time. "I live on loans."
In 1974, Mickey got another headline when he claimed to have talked to Pattie Hearst, the kidnapped newspaper heiress, whom he said was holed up in a town on the Canadian border. He later realized that somebody must have fed him a big line and he went for it. Was it somebody trying to get revenge for one of Mickey's practical jokes? Then, in 1975, his stomach was removed because of cancer and nine months later, in July of 1976, he died, only weeks before his parole was scheduled to end. He left an estate of a measly $3,000.
I could never judge Mickey with the coldness with which the Saturday Evening Post's Dean Jennings vilified him. Mickey was one of my heroes. For me, he was another one of those character who, in Jack Kerouac's words, "never yawned or said a commonplace thing, but burned, burned, burned like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes 'awww!'
For me, Mickey certainly fit that description. As a Forrest Gump who was for a time corrupted into something
Greed and lust
must have driven
all of us
of a small-time crook myself, I am not one to sermonize. But I believe that no matter how noble, altruistic and selfless we might pretend to be, greed and lust have their hands on the wheel steering all of us.
To me, Mickey was fascinating to write about and enjoyable to hang out with. Probably his most revealing moments with me were when, early in our acquaintanceship, he insisted I interview him while he showered. Was he testing me? It never occurred to me until just now that maybe he thought the suite might be bugged. Years later, when President Nixon was trying to get John Lennon kicked out of the country, John insisted on holding audiences in the bathroom with all the taps running full blast.
Mickey was staying in a suite at Manhattan's Warwick and he said he was in a hurry to get somewhere, but I don't remember him moving much faster than a worm crawling across a hot concrete sidewalk. The suite was laid out something like a railroad flat. You walked into a room from the elevator corridor and the suite ran all the way to a bedroom at the front with its windows overlooking West Fifty-Fourth Street. In this front bedroom, the bathroom was to the right. I forget whether the outside or inside of the bathroom door was mirrored.
Mickey's shower turned out to be more like a ritualistic cleansing. Before turning on the tap, he lined the tub with towels, along the sides and on the bottom in the same way that some men line a toilet seat with toilet paper. He didn't want his skin to touch the surface of the tub. Once Mickey got started showering, he kept scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing. Somehow, he reminded me of Macbeth, "Out! Out! Damned spot!" I remember thinking I couldn't believe this! Here was Mickey Cohen fulfilling moviedom's vision of a gangster obsessed with trying to wash away his symbolic guilt. Except, to me, Mickey Cohen seemed more a clown than a killer.
When he finally finished showering, Mickey stood before the wash basin, lining it with more towels just as he had lined the tub, so his skin wouldn't come in contact with the porcelain. He then began to wash his face over and over and over again. After about a half-hour of washing his face, he shaved. Mickey's cleansing ritual ended only after he had drenched himself with cologne.
I can tell you that Mickey had a body like a keg. A keg of nails. Which is what I'd imagine he'd hit you with if you ever crossed him. Yeah, he was tough. The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight? Tell me another story, Mickey. Obviously, he had all the guile and ruthlessness it takes to be an underworld boss. The whole time I knew Mickey, I could feel the subtle way in which he manipulated me. It was as if I could feel his hands on my shoulders, gently but firmly steering me exactly where he wanted me to go. I'm sure Mickey's interest in me was based in his desire to use me, but I liked him anyway. I hope he got his money's worth. I think I got mine.
Sure, I wanted to stick it into Liz Renay, but I really was highly unpracticed in knowing how to get around to it. I was too sexually unsophisticated. In fact, I still am. On the one hand, I actually was afraid of Liz. She looked too overpowering for me. But, on the other hand, I was more afraid of Mickey. Liz was Mickey's girl friend and I was brought up in a family that taught me not to fool around with someone else's girl friend. Mickey was a clown but Mickey's clowning merely sheathed that mean, hard, dangerous, razor-sharp edge he had. His sense of humor protected him by enabling him to appear unthreatening when he wanted to, because the truth is that Mickey could be as cold, tough and heartless as any monster. Mickey was as hip as a street pimp and, in those days, I had no idea how things worked in the hip world of street pimps.
Sure, Liz turned me on. I wanted to accommodate her. Even now, I wish she could give me another chance. But I didn't know what to do about it at the time, except run. As I told you, I didn't know how things worked in the hip world. I've also already told you I was born so slow that it took me 50 years to figure out how slow I was born. It is only right now, at this very writing, some 35 years after the fact, that I realize street pimp Mickey sent Liz Renay to me as a gift. ##
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