clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Then and Now: 1940s Gangster Mickey Cohen's (Occasionally Exploding) Los Angeles Real Estate

New, 5 comments

In a special Whale Week event, Curbed LA is teaming up with Eater LA and Racked LA for an in-depth look at mid-century gangster Mickey Cohen: his (sometimes exploding) properties, the fabulous restaurants and nightclubs he frequented, and his seriously sharp suits. Here we go:

Mickey Cohen was born in Brooklyn in 1913, but his widowed mother brought him to Boyle Heights when he was still a baby. According to a 1972 article in Los Angeles, he first started hustling at age three while working at a newstand: "His duties were to sit on the stacks of newspapers, protecting them from the winds and grabbing hands of Boyle Heights. Becoming aware of the valuables he was pinning down, Mickey started swapping them, furtively, for candy and hot dogs." He started making gin at age seven "in the rear of a drugstore" and meanwhile became a bit of a thug at Cornwall Elementary School ("He was to remain unable to read, write or count beyond five until in his twenties.") At nine, "He went on his first heist and held up the box office of the Columbia Theatre, using a cudgel as a persuader." The Columbia was originally known as the California, according to Downtown LA Theatres, which puts it on Spring Street (the site is currently a parking lot); the LAPL has photos of a California Theatre at Main and Eighth.

After doing some time at reform school, Cohen started training as a prizefighter: "He was fighting four rounders in his 12th year, and training for these events in wild and bloody street corner combats with the vulpine youth of Boyle Heights." He went on the road, to Cleveland and Chicago, where he began to go full-gangster. In the late-'30s he returned to Los Angeles as something of an enforcer for kingpin Bugsy Siegel; after Siegel was killed (in a hail of bullets in his girlfriend's house in Beverly Hills) in 1947, Cohen became LA's top mobster (the LAPD's crusade against him is loosely chronicled in the recent Gangster Squad movie and more accurately in the book Gangster Squad by LA Times reporter Paul Lieberman).

[Slide to see before and after; before via LA Times]

While Siegel lived in Holmby Hills, the book Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of L.A.'s Notorious Mobster says that fancy 'hood "was not a place for Mickey Cohen." He built himself a house on Moreno Drive in Brentwood ("hardly a mansion"); according to Gangster Squad, "he assumed [the neighborhood] was outside Los Angeles' borders." Oops.

His "postwar ranch consisted of seven moderately scaled rooms plus a maid's quarters ... It had been built, with no expense spared, to suit all the needs, whims, and rapidly growing obsessions of Mickey Cohen." Cohen worked "closely with a topflight decorator ... The interior design was tasteful and traditional. A monochromatic color scheme was used in each room. The living room featured soothing tones from celadon to spruce. The dining room palette was muted blues. In the den, the decorator acquired a library of classics for the barely literate mobster." It even had its own soda fountain (Cohen didn't drink, smoke, or do drugs).

[The house as pictured in a 2010 listing]

He and his wife LaVonne had separate bedroom suites; Cohen's "was modern in design, done in masculine neutrals and complemented by natural leather and honey-colored wood. The bedspread was monogrammed with a giant MC." Cohen was a frequent washer (he appears to have had OCD) and had a "water-heating system large enough for a hotel" installed.

The house also had an LAPD bug in the living room, placed during construction by Vice detectives who slipped in posing as construction workers.

On February 6, 1950, the house blew up. At 4:15 that morning, a bomb blasted "a ten-foot hole in the front bedroom where Mickey normally slept"; he happened to have been on his wife's side at the time and no one was hurt (a concrete floor safe also helped mitigate the damage). Cohen had actually found sticks of dynamite under his house months before, after which he tried to put up a fence; amusingly, he was thwarted by the zoning code, which (still!) only allows fences up to three and a half feet. The bombing was probably the work of rival gangster Jack Dragna.

In 1951, Cohen was put on trial for tax evasion. His house went up for sale for $47,500 and his stuff went up for auction. Cohen ended up in prison for a few years.

Sometime in the late '50s Cohen rented this little house in Van Nuys. Meanwhile, the Brentwood house survives to this day; it last sold in 2011 for $3.0295 million.
· LA Whale Mickey Cohen Brought Crime to Dinner [Eater LA]
· '50s Mobster Mickey Cohen Liked Sharp Suits, Nice Hats, Killing [Racked LA]
· Whale Week 2013 [Curbed LA]