Thursday, February 4, 2010

My Crime Beat Column: L.A. Noir: A Story of a Hood, a Police Chief, Showgirls, Newspaper Tycoons, and Bent Politicians in Mid-Century Los Angeles

Back in the early 1970s I was stationed in Southern California while serving in the Navy. Although I’m a die-hard South Philly guy, I loved my time on the West Coast.

I particularly loved my weekends in Los Angeles, a city I read about as a teenager in the novels of Raymond Chandler and was at that time reading about the city in the novels of Joseph Wambaugh.
I had also seen LA as a backdrop in a good number of movies and TV shows growing up. From crime stories to tales of Hollywood, LA was almost a mythical place to me.

I was not disappointed. As a young guy, I liked the wild night life and the "happening" - to use an expression from the time - atmosphere of the city. The 1960s had technically ended, but one still sensed that the era of free love, rock music and cool movies was still alive in LA. It was a great city to visit when you’re young, free and have a few bucks in your pocket.

So with my fond memories of Los Angeles I looked forward to reading L.A. Noir: The Struggle For the Soul of America's Most Seductive City by John Buntin (Harmony).

Buntin hit upon a clever way to tell the story of Los Angeles. Bunton offers a history of the city through the classic rivalry of LA’s police chief, William H. Parker, and mobster Meyer “Mickey” Cohen.

Taking us back to the early and mid-20th Century, Buntin recounts Los Angeles’ sordid history of hoods, crooked cops, crooked politicians, newspaper tycoons, and assorted movie stars and entertainers, along with parallel biographies of Cohen and Parker.

Buntin casts his book like a Hollywood movie, with Cohen and Parker as the stars and the era’s other colorful and larger-than-life people as supporting actors. Of course, the city was not molded by Cohen and Parker alone, so Buntin throws nearly all of the historical characters in, stretching their connections to the little mobster and the inflexible police chief.

Cohen, a street urchin-turned-featherweight boxer-turned racketeer, was physically a small man, but he was a tough guy. He was a ruthless killer and served for a time as Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel’s top enforcer in Los Angeles. He was, as Buntin notes in his book, Hollywood’s favorite gangster and Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Robert Mitchum were his drinking buddies in Los Angeles’ nightclubs.

Cohen was a gambler, extortionist and murderer. He was a fanatic about his clothes and his personal hygiene, often taking several long showers each day.

Cohen also has the distinction of being the only organized crime boss who admitted on national TV that he murdered people. He answered ABC’s Mike Wallace’s direct question about murder with the statement, “I have killed no men that in the first place didn’t deserve killing.”

Cohen also became friends with evangelist Billy Graham and he came close to becoming a Born Again Christian. Before he died he penned an autobiography, which Buntin used as one of his sources.

William H. Parker hailed from a pioneering law enforcement family from the frontier town of Deadwood, South Dakota. He began his police career as a patrolman in Los Angeles in the 1920s, a decade dubbed as the “Roaring Twenties.”

Parker saw first-hand the corruption and how the “Combination,” a triumvirate of greedy tycoons, crooked politicians and murdering mobsters, ran the city. His mission in life was to mold the police department into a force free of corruption and political influence. Despite his personal failings, he made the Los Angeles Police Department a first class organization.

He hired many military veterans of World War II like himself, and those veterans set the course for a new era of policing. He made the police department independent but his critics attacked him for his lack of attention to the city’s minorities and for police brutality.

The city, like many cities, had a reputation for rough cops. Buntin notes that many cops were rough because they knew the system was corrupt.
He quotes from Leslie White’s 1936 classic Me, Detective: “Good men would not serve on juries, nor would they take time from their private interests to act as witnesses in court trials - if they could get out of it,” White wrote. “Business men and good citizens did not want their homes robbed and their daughters raped, but they did want liquor for themselves, and prostitutes and gambling were good for business.”

As a result, Buntin writes, some officers took it upon themselves to dispense justice. As Detective White put it, “a smart lawyer can keep a crook out of jail … buy or bamboozle a jury, but he cannot prevent the cops from beating the hell out of a crook.”

The LA police had an intelligence squad run by Captain James Hamilton. The squad staked out the airport, train station and bus stations, looking for known hoodlums who may try to enter the city. When the squad spotted one of the hoodlums, the squad roughed up the mobster and put him back on the plane, train or bus. This practice kept the outsider hoodlums from setting up shop in LA, but Cohen was already there. After Siegel was killed, Cohen took over much of the city’s rackets.

Parker died in 1966. He served on the LA police force for 39 years and there was an outpouring of grief and public statements. Mayor Sam Yorty said, “Los Angeles and America will sadly miss our courageous and beloved Police Chief Parker. He was a monument of strength against the criminal elements.’

Despite Buntin’s set-up with Parker and Cohen as arch-rivals, the federal government, not the LA police, put Cohen away. Like Al Capone, Cohen was convicted of not paying his taxes. In jail, the tough guy killer was struck in the head with a blunt instrument by a crazed prisoner. He was crippled and his general health failed after the bashing.

Cohen died in 1975. Told he had months to live, he managed to tell his life story to writer John Peer Nugent and the book was called In My Own Words.

Buntin noted that Cohen died owing the U.S. government $496,535.23.

L.A. Noir is an interesting book and if you’re interested in history and cops and crooks, then I suggest you read John Buntin’s book.

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