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."
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.