Steve Oney on John Buntin’s ‘L.A. Noir’
Posted on Sep 4, 2009
By Steve Oney
The 1947 assassination of Bugsy Siegel in Beverly Hills put Cohen in charge of the Los Angeles syndicate. In 1950, Parker, who’d gone back to school to get his law degree and won a Purple Heart and achieved the rank of captain in the Army during World War II, became chief of the LAPD. The free-for-all between the two men played out in a rapidly urbanizing city. “The bucolic Los Angeles of blue skies, sunshine and orange groves,” Buntin writes, “had disappeared (or at least withdrawn to the wealthy West Side enclaves like Beverly Hills, Bel Air and Brentwood). In its place was a new Manchester.” The mobster and the chief fought with firearms, publicity and confidential files. This was war. While it may seem campy today, “Dragnet,” the long-running NBC series produced with the chief’s blessing, was intended to be viewed as a realistic depiction of the combat.
L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City
By John Buntin
Harmony, 432 pages
Although Cohen and Parker were unwavering in their detestation of each other, they were anything but predictable in other facets of their lives. One of the strengths of “L.A. Noir” is that Buntin is plainly enthralled with his protagonists, and he’s done the sort of careful research that enables him to bring them to life as full-bodied and contradictory characters.
Cohen, it turns out, was an ardent Zionist who helped screenwriter and former Chicago newsman Ben Hecht shake down the Los Angeles mob for donations to the newly formed state of Israel. (Cohen and Hecht collaborated on an unpublished book, the notes for which provided Buntin with a gold mine of material.) At the same time, Cohen was a potential convert to Christ. In the estimation of his friend Billy Graham, the mobster had “the making of one of the greatest gospel preachers of all time.” As for Parker, the police chief was undoubtedly a right-winger, but he was an ardent foe of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and a close associate of Robert F. Kennedy, who was possibly more obsessed with organized crime than he was.
By the late 1960s, Cohen and Parker were in decline. The chief didn’t understand Los Angeles’ shifting racial realities. He woefully, indeed willfully, ignored the tensions that would produce the Watts riots, and once the burning and looting began he presided over his department’s failed response. The mobster, meanwhile, met his match not in the LAPD but in the IRS, serving hard time for tax fraud. Los Angeles had passed both men by. Yet each remained formidable and, in his way, representative. As late as 1966, Los Angeles Times Publisher Otis Chandler called Parker “the most powerful man in Los Angeles,” and in 1974 San Francisco newspaper magnate Randolph Hearst recruited Cohen to help find his daughter, Patricia, following her abduction by the Symbionese Liberation Army. At first, the mobster was delighted to be of assistance, but when he learned that the Hearst girl had joined up with the SLA and, if located, might go to prison, he ceased to cooperate. Even at the end, Mickey Cohen wasn’t going to rat anybody out.
Steve Oney is author of “And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank.”
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