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Steve Oney on John Buntin’s ‘L.A. Noir’
Posted on Sep 4, 2009
By Steve Oney
For twenty years beginning in the late 1940s, they battled for the soul of Los Angeles. Representing the underworld was Mickey Cohen. Elegantly turned out and obsessively hygienic (he washed his hands almost hourly), the mob boss was both a thug and a wag, famously boasting to Mike Wallace: “I have killed no men that in the first place didn’t deserve killing.” Standing up for law and order was William Parker. A ruthless straight arrow, the city’s longtime police chief ran a take-no-prisoners department that, in his memorable turn of phrase, formed “the thin blue line” between civilization and chaos.
The clashes between Cohen and Parker were legion and, as long as you weren’t caught in the crossfire, vastly entertaining. The gangster called the chief “a sadistic degenerate” on national television. The chief spoke of the gangster as an unwitting agent of Soviet despotism and tried to nail him for murder. “L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City,” John Buntin’s splendid account of the two-decade-long conflict between these titans of darkness and light, relishes every back and forth. Cohen and Parker are still great copy. More than that, however, they are emblems of the split personality that makes Southern California at once a sun-kissed paradise and a vast crime scene.
L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City
By John Buntin
Harmony, 432 pages
During the early 1900s developers promoting the population and building boom that transformed Los Angeles from a dusty pueblo into a teeming metropolis sold the city to Midwestern immigrants as “the white spot of America.” The phrase, its racial overtones notwithstanding, had less to do with the pigmentation of the local populace than with the supposed purity of life in a place scented by orange blossoms and cooled by sea breezes. Yet even as boosters were luring newcomers with this halcyon vision, they were countenancing and at times sponsoring a vast array of illicit activities. Gambling parlors, bawdy houses and men’s clubs where, for a price, straight and gay alike could treat themselves to a “twentieth century” (aka oral sex) sprang up all over town. Nearly from the start, Los Angeles evinced a moral ambiguity that far from being hidden beneath the surface, as was the case in the rigidly stratified East, was out in the open. It took a French film critic writing about Hollywood gangster pictures to give a name both to the aesthetic inspired by the city’s high-contrast blend of good and evil and, by implication, the conditions on the ground: noir.
In Cohen and Parker, Buntin, a staff writer at Governing magazine, could not have found two better characters around whom to build a book that is simultaneously a first-rate work of true crime and a fine social history of Los Angeles that takes as its deeper subject one of the city’s defining conflicts.
The Brooklyn-born Cohen moved to Los Angeles in 1916 at age 3 and grew up in the then heavily Jewish Boyle Heights section just east of downtown. His older brothers tried to enroll the pint-size but pugnacious boy in Hebrew school, but he was more interested in action, whether it involved taking over prime street corners for newspaper sales or running a still. He attempted his first heist, a daytime robbery of a movie theater box office, at 9 years old. In his teens, Cohen, a talented boxer, decamped for Lou Stillman’s Gym in New York. Wearing trunks adorned by the star of Israel, he fought as both a flyweight and a bantamweight, forming relationships with everyone from Damon Runyon to gangster Owney Madden. Soon enough, Cohen gave up the gloves for a gun, doing hits for the Cleveland mob and, eventually, Al Capone in Chicago. In 1937 Bugsy Siegel brought Cohen back home to Los Angeles as his enforcer.
The Roman Catholic Parker was also an immigrant to Los Angeles, but from a different America—the mining town of Deadwood, S.D. He arrived in the city in 1922 at age 17 with three younger siblings and his recently divorced mother. Although Parker’s paternal grandfather and namesake had been a United States congressman, the family had fallen on hard times. The oldest son supported the brood by working as an usher at movie palaces along Broadway and as a cabbie. Driven and smart, he enrolled at Southwestern School of Law. But a disastrous, short-lived early marriage and a weakness for drink prompted him to drop out of classes and seek the rigid certainties that only a career in law enforcement can provide. In 1927 Parker joined the LAPD.
Initially, vice in Los Angeles, like much else in the city, was controlled by WASPs. The so-called Combination, with roots in the Pacific Northwest, dominated everything from prostitution and bootlegging to, thanks to well-placed bribes, the police. But the group lost its grip in 1930 when boss Charlie Crawford, known as the Gray Wolf, was gunned down by former deputy district attorney Dave Clark. (The story of Crawford and Clark, which influenced the novels of Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, is told in Richard Rayner’s recently published “A Bright and Guilty Place.”) In the wake of the Combination’s collapse, Italian and Jewish mob interests from the East moved into what they saw as a promising market. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Police Department, liberated from Crawford’s influence, adopted a reformist stance.
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