'Gangster Squad': L.A. Crime Boss Mickey Cohen in the Archives

Left: Sean Penn as Mickey Cohen in 'Gangster Squad.' Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. Right: Mickey Cohen after being convicted of income tax evasion in 1951. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

With this weekend's release of "Gangster Squad," filmgoers' attention turns to the criminal underworld of postwar Los Angeles. The new film tracks the efforts of a secretive LAPD unit to ensnare Mickey Cohen, the pugilistic crime boss portrayed by Sean Penn, and stop the rash of mob-related violence that riddled Los Angeles cafes, houses, and haberdasheries with bullets.

The public knew little about John O'Mara, Jerry Wooters, and other members of the so-called Gangster Squad before journalist Paul Lieberman pieced together the unit's secret history for the Los Angeles Times. Their stories are richly documented through the meticulously researched Times series by Lieberman that inspired the film, "Tales from the Gangster Squad," and Lieberman's recent book, "Gangster Squad."

The squad's target, on the other hand, straddled the line between notoriety and celebrity. The diminutive Mickey Cohen, a 5-foot-5-inch former boxer from Chicago who arrived in Los Angeles in 1939, became the city's leading figure in organized crime after the 1947 murder of his boss, Bugsy Siegel. (Cohen also appears as a character in the video game "L.A. Noire," and John Buntin's 2009 book, "L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City," chronicles the long struggle between Cohen and LAPD Chief William Parker.)

Taking after his flashy predecessor, who hobnobbed with Hollywood celebrities, Cohen became Los Angeles' best-known mobster by embracing the media spotlight. He met publicly with evangelical leader Billy Graham, cooperated with biographers, and in 1957 appeared on ABC's "The Mike Wallace Interview," lambasting LAPD Chief William Parker and telling Wallace, "I have killed no man that in the first place didn't deserve killing."

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Cohen's legal -- and extralegal -- tribulations attracted media attention, too. While he was never convicted of a violent crime, despite multiple court appearances, federal authorities twice sent him to prison on tax-evasion charges. And he survived several assassination attempts, including a 1949 shooting at Sherry's Cafe on the Sunset Strip and the 1950 bombing of his Brentwood house, landing the lucky Cohen on the front pages of L.A. newspapers.

It's little surprise, then, that Cohen's notorious reign as L.A.'s crime boss is well-documented in the photographic archives of L.A. as Subject member institutions. Cohen was a familiar face to readers of the city's newspapers, and newspaper morgues -- which despite the grim name are merely places where editorial staffers once filed away old photographs, notes, and other materials -- are among the most prolific contributors to such archives.

Now, enjoy selections from three photographic archives -- the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive at the UCLA Library, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner Collection at the Los Angeles Public Library, and the Los Angeles Examiner Collection at the USC Libraries -- that show the Mickey Cohen L.A.'s news-reading public knew.

Cohen (third from left) with Jimmy Rist, Sol Davis, and Mike Howard, being booked on suspicion of murder in 1948. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, UCLA Young Research Library.

Cohen was a compulsive hand-washer whose habit was often recorded by newspaper photographers. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

After the 1949 assassination of Bugsy Siegel in his Beverly Hills living room, Cohen became a leading figure in L.A. organized crime, competing with Mafia leader Jack Dragna. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

In 1949, Cohen was shot in the shoulder outside Sherry's Cafe on the Sunset Strip. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Cohen and his wife were in their Brentwood house on Feb. 6, 1950, when a bomb went off, but both survived. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Cohen drove a heavily armored Cadillac with bulletproof windows. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

U.S. Marshals escort Cohen, under trial for federal income tax evasion, to a hearing in 1951. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

A U.S. Marshal introduced Cohen to the jail where he was held immediately after his 1951 conviction on tax-evasion charges. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Cohen with Barbara Darnell, whom the Los Angeles Examiner identified as Cohen's 'secretary and sometimes girl friend,' in 1958. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

Before departing for Mexico in March 1958, Cohen left his girlfriend this autographed photo showing him with his dog. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

Cohen signs autographs for young women from Washington High School during a 1958 trial. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

Cohen with his fiancee, Claretta 'Sandy' Hagen, in their Van Nuys House in 1962. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Mike Wallace sent Cohen this cigarette box after the mobster appeared with Wallace on his ABC news program. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

Cohen was suspected of, but never convicted of, the 1959 murder of Jack

Detectives reconstruct the path of the bullet that killed Whalen. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

In 1958, Cohen traded punches with the Los Angeles head of the federal Bureau of Narcotics, Howard Chappell. The exchange landed Cohen in jail and left him with a black eye. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

An attack inside Alcatraz during Cohen's second stint in federal prison hobbled the former gangster. Here, Cohen is helped to his chair at a meeting of the Ex-Felons Consortium in 1975. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, UCLA Young Research Library.

Cohen addresses a meeting of the Ex-Felons Consortium in 1975, one year before his death. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, UCLA Young Research Library.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

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About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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