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Notes from the (Bibliographic) Underground

For more than 60 years, Los Angeles's origins, its underbelly, and (yes) its blondes have fueled the imagination of writers and directors from Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder to Roman Polanski and James Ellroy, producing fiction and films like The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, Chinatown, and L. A. Confidential. Yet amidst these indelible works of fiction something important has been lost — the true history of noir Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles underworld was real.The Los Angeles underworld was real. For more than 40 years, from Prohibition through the Watts riots, it was dominated by two men, Chief William H. Parker, who created the Dragnet-era LAPD, and his long-time nemesis, the mobster Mickey Cohen. My new book, L.A. Noir, tells the story of their struggles.

But how does a writer go about recapturing something as apocryphal and elusive as a city's underworld? The answer is by spending a lot of time in the archives &mdash and a lot of time with other writers. Books are like people; some you just get friendly with. These are the ones I found myself taking out night after night, as I cruised down Central Avenue or headed over to Sherry's on the Sunset Strip. They're hard to find, but for anyone who loves L.A. or hard-boiled noir, these works of nonfiction (well, ostensibly nonfiction) are well worth the effort.

Florabel Muir, Headline Happy. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1950.
Florabel Muir got a job covering crime for the New York Daily News in the late 1920s, when female crime reporters were rare indeed. There she met the criminal wunderkinds produced by Prohibition, men like Benjamin "Bugs" (or "Bugsy") Siegel. Check out this wonderful description of the youthful Bugsy:

He was a hard-faced lad who hadn't reached voting age but was even then arrayed in the habiliments of an easy-money guy. His cold blue eyes were shadowed by a hard-shelled derby hat and his chin nestled against the fur-lined collar of his too-rakishly tailored overcoat. As he walked into a speakeasy on Forsythe Street on the lower East Side of Manhattan, Frank Hause, then managing editor of the New York Daily News, pointed him out to me.

"That's a young fellow who's coming up in the mobs," Hause said. "He's the enforcing member of the Bugs-Meyer mob. The little fellow with him is his partner, Meyer Lansky, who's a peaceable little fellow."

Muir moved to Los Angeles in the '30s to cover Hollywood, and there she "was slightly flabbergasted to find him floating around the upper strata of cinema society." In her memoirs, Muir offers readers a Bugsy Siegel who's very different from the cinematic Warren Beatty version. (According to Muir, Siegel went back into the rackets in L.A. after losing a million dollars in the stock market.) She also offers delightful vignettes into the mind of Mickey Cohen, with whom she socialized regularly. In fact, Muir even took a bullet for Mickey late one night on the Sunset Strip...

James H. Richardson, For the Life of Me. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1954.
James Richardson was the legendary city editor of the Los Angeles Examiner, William Randolph Hearst's morning L.A. newspaper. During the 1930s, he made it his mission to nail Bugsy Siegel — with no great success. He had more luck exposing corruption in the LAPD — with a big assistance from one of L.A.'s more entertaining villains, Tony "The Commodore" Cornero:

Tony hated the syndicate for a valid reason. The syndicate had always barred him from operation in Los Angeles. If he opened a gambling spot it would be knocked over by police raiders immediately, while the syndicate's places were flourishing all around, untouched. That is why Tony had been forced to take to the sea to operate his gambling ship...

Cornero gained his sobriquet from a famous sea battle — with future Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. At his funeral (he died at a craps table in Las Vegas), the band played the "Wabash Cannonball" as The Commodore was lowered into the ground. Criminal opéera bouffe just doesn't get any better.

Jim Vaus, Why I Quit Syndicated Crime. Los Angeles: Scripture Outlet, Inc., 1951.
Oklahoma preacher's boy-turned-electronics whiz Jimmy Vaus may well be L.A. Noir's most lovable rogue. Vaus was hopelessly torn between his admiration for the police and personal avarice: In the years leading up to World War II, he was arrested for impersonating a police officer and convicted of robbing a man in Beverly Hills — of $14. During the late 1940s, he worked for the police as a volunteer wiretapper for Hollywood vice and as a bug detector for mobster Mickey Cohen after a visit to Cohen's Brentwood manse convinced him of the essential rightness of the gangster lifestyle.

No cop had a home this luxurious. It had obviously been decorated by a professional — only they would be this bold in their color combinations. Lemon-yellow, shades of mauve and bold tones of blue harmonized with the gleaming woodwork and indirect lighting.

Confronted with such opulence, Vaus's moral faculties, which were clearly weak to begin with, failed him entirely: "It would have been very hard to persuade a man that it was wrong to have the money sufficient to buy these creature comforts." Vaus was later "saved" by the Rev. Billy Graham during Graham's first Los Angeles tent revival. The one-time wiretapper then introduced Graham to Cohen and planted the seed for an idea that would lead to one of the most bizarre incidents in my book — Graham's attempt to make converting Mickey Cohen the centerpiece of his 1957 Manhattan crusade for Christ. Vaus's story is one that no one could make up, and Mickey Cohen wrote the forward!

Charles Stoker, Thicker'n Thieves. Santa Monica, CA: Sidereal Company, 1951.
As a sergeant working out of Hollywood vice in the 1940s, Charles Stoker exposed the relationship between Hollywood madam Brenda Allen (who ran a harem of 114 "pleasure girls") and top members of the LAPD's administrative vice squad. It was a scandal that toppled then-LAPD chief C. B. Horrall, paving the way for Bill Parker to become chief in 1950. But Charles Stoker was also an intensely controversial figure, who was himself arrested for burglary. Stoker claimed it was a frame-up, but LAPD historian Gerald Woods says the evidence against Stoker was strong. Read his memoirs, and decide for yourself.

Mickey Cohen (with John Peer Nugent), In My Own Words. Engelwood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975.
Mickey's ghost-written autobiography, penned one year before his death, is maddeningly elliptical, endlessly allusive, difficult to follow... and delightful. Cohen may have been an obsessive-compulsive killer, but he had a great sense of humor and an endless supply of bon mots. His exchange with crime crusader Robert Kennedy captures Cohen's spirit perfectly:

Kennedy switched gears. "Now off the record — you say you're a gentleman and all that. Let me ask you a question, and it has nothing to do with what we're here for concerning coin operated machines, but what's the meaning in the underworld or the racket world when somebody's 'lights are to be put out?'"

"Lookit," Mickey replied innocently, "I don't know what you're talking about. I'm not an electrician."

After reading this book, you'll never think of the word "Lookit" the same way again.

÷ ÷ ÷

John Buntin, a crime reporter at Governing magazine, is the author of L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City. Visit him online at

Books mentioned in this post

  1. L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul... Used Hardcover $16.50

  2. Double Indemnity (Vintage... Used Trade Paper $7.50
  3. The Big Sleep (Vintage Crime)
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  4. L. A. Confidential Used Trade Paper $2.50
  5. Bugsy New DVD $13.98
  6. Public Men and Events from the... New Hardcover $46.75
  7. Mickey Cohen in My Own Words Used Hardcover $23.00

John Buntin is the author of L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City

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