Mickey Cohen – Running the Hollywood Underworld

Mickey Cohen was the mob king of Los Angeles, the Jewish gangster who once ran the Hollywood underworld. Renowned for his violent temper and tabloid exploits, he was one of the premier gangsters on the West Coast, and worked with such high-profile names as Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and Al Capone.

Meyer Harris Cohen was born in a Jewish neighborhood of Brooklyn on September 4, 1913. His father died when he was a year old and his mother, a Ukrainian Orthodox Jew, raised him. They lived in the Brownsville neighborhood for a few years, then moved to Los Angeles.

It was in the Boyle Heights neighborhood that Cohen got his start in petty crime. His brothers ran a drug store during Prohibition, and they showed him how to make bootleg liquor there. At the age of nine, Cohen robbed the box office of the Columbia Theatre with a cudgel and wound up in reform school. By the time he was 10, he’d been there twice.

 

Cohen was a tough guy, and he spent much of his youth in the boxing ring, dueling in illegal prizefights. At 15 he ran away to Cleveland to train as a boxer. He fought several times as a featherweight between 1930 and 1933, with a mixed record. During one fight, he tried to bite an ear off his opponent.

Cohen made his first Mafia ties in Cleveland, where he hired on with Lou Rothkopf, associate of Cleveland gang leader Moe Dalitz. He then moved to New York and worked with mobsters such as Tommy Dioguardi and Owney Madden.

From there he went to Chicago, where he was hired by Al Capone’s Outfit at the height of Prohibition. It’s possible the two met, but not certain. In either even, Cohen was an enforcer for Capone and ran a gambling ring for him. And he worked with Capone’s brother Mattie.

Cohen had several scrapes while he was in Chicago, spending a short time in prison for the deaths of several mobsters during a card game. And a dispute with another gambler forced him to leave the city in 1937.

 

Back in Cleveland, there wasn’t much for Cohen to do. So he was sent west to work with Bugsy Siegel in Los Angeles. Together they muscled control of the West Coast for their East Coast Mafia bosses.

Siegel and Cohen had a lot in common. They were both flashy Jewish climbers from Brooklyn with violent mean streaks. But Siegel ranked higher than Cohen in the eyes of the Italian Mafia they both depended upon for income.

Bugsy was involved in numerous rackets in Los Angeles and Las Vegas – gambling, prostitution, drug trafficking – and he was looking to expand into legal casinos. With Cohen’s help, he secured a majority stake for the mob in the Flamingo Hotel & Casino, a project underway on the Strip just outside Las Vegas.

Cohen took over bookmaking at the casino and set up a race wire, an operation that delivered instant horse race results to bookies. He was a major player on the West Coast, working with Siegel in Nevada and Los Angeles boss Jack Dragna in California. Siegel was in charge.

 

But things began to sour in Las Vegas. Siegel’s pet project, the Flamingo, lost money before it even opened. The premier was a flop.

Bugsy Siegel

After the 1949 assassination of Bugsy Siegel in his Beverly Hills living room, Cohen became a leading figure in L.A. organized crime, competing with Mafia leader Jack Dragna. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Eventually the place started bringing in a profit for its mob owners, but they already suspected Bugsy was skimming cash from the tables.

Siegel was shot to death through the window of his girlfriend’s Beverly Hills home in 1947. Cohen, a close friend, allegedly stormed into the hotel where he believed the assassins were staying and fired two guns into the ceiling. When they didn’t answer his challenge, he fled before the police could arrive.

Siegel’s bosses in Chicago and New York promptly assumed control of the Flamingo, and Cohen was put in charge of Mafia operations in L.A. Over the years he earned a name for himself in the city and a place as a Hollywood celebrity.

 

Cohen’s criminal operations in L.A. brought him into contact with the city’s major players. Almost the entire Rat Pack kissed his ring, as did Robert Mitchum, Jerry Lewis and other performers. Cohen hired enforcer Johnny Stompanato as his bodyguard while Stompanato was having an affair with actress Lana Turner; the star’s daughter eventually killed Stampanato in an act of justifiable homicide.

The limelight brought attention from unwelcome corners as well. Investigators looking into Dragna’s operations also dug into Cohen’s activities. In the early 1950s, he became a focus of the U.S. Senate’s Kefauver Committee on organized crime.

Dragna refused to accept Cohen’s placement atop the underworld hierarchy in L.A., and open gang warfare erupted in the city. Attempts on Cohen’s life became increasingly common. His enemies bombed his home, so he armed it to the teeth with guns, floodlights and alarms.

 

Dragna’s assassination attempts never worked, and the criminal charges against Cohen never seemed to stick. But he was finally snared when we was sentenced to four years in prison in 1951 for tax evasion, a consequence of the Kevfauver hearings. He was released in 1955 and went right back to his old ways.

Mickey Cohen

Mike Wallace sent Cohen this cigarette box after the mobster appeared with Wallace on his ABC news program. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

From that point on, however, he was a bona fide mob celebrity. He wore flashy custom-tailored suits, ran scores of legitimate businesses and casinos, and appeared on television in 1957 with Mike Wallace. He also extorted some of the stars who helped make him famous, blackmailing them with proof of their affairs and other secrets.

But his luck didn’t last as long this time. In 1961 he was convicted of tax evasion again, this time with the personal weight of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy behind the prosecution. The sentence was serious: 15 years, breaking the record for a tax conviction set by Capone three decades earlier. And Cohen served most of it, 11 years, including time on Alcatraz.

Cohen was released from the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in 1972, suffering from stomach cancer and partial paralysis caused by an assault in prison. He underwent surgery and resumed his public appearances. He died four years later, on July 29, 1976, and is buried at Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, Cal.

Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel – Flamingo Hotel and Casino

Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel was born February 28, 1906, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  The organized crime boss is best known for his bootlegging and gambling operations that included the Flamingo casino in Las Vegas. He is known by many to be the “Father of Las Vegas.” Bugsy’s legacy is that of being one of the most infamous and feared gangsters of the era.

The son of Jewish immigrants, Siegel was raised in the crime-ridden section of Williamsburg.  As a teenager, he is said to have extorted money from pushcart peddlers on New York City’s Lower East Side. Siegel befriended Meyer Lansky and in 1918 the two formed the Bugs-Meyer Gang, a group of contract killers who operated under the name Murder, Inc. Siegel was also a friend of Al Capone and is said to have hid Capone at the home of one of his aunts when there was a warrant out on Capone for murder.

Siegel is said to have made a great deal of money by age 21. His charisma, charm and good looks made him likable to most everyone. A reputed womanizer, Siegel married his childhood sweetheart, Esta Krakower on January 28, 1929. Krakower, the sister of contract killer Whitey Krakower, would divorce Siegel in 1946.

During the late 1920s, Mafia kingpin Charles “Lucky” Luciano and a number of other Italian gangsters organized themselves into a national syndicate, with Siegel becoming a prominent player. With a goal of killing many of New York’s veteran gangsters, Luciano ordered Siegel and three other hit men to execute Sicilian mobster Joe “the Boss” Masseria. Siegel, along with Albert “Mad Hatter” Anastasia, Vito Genovese and Joe Adonis carried out the execution of Masseria on April 15, 1931.

By 1937, Luciano decided that it would be best for Siegel to leave for the West Coast to escape the wrath of his enemies.  Siegel located to California, where he befriended many Hollywood stars, as well as studio owners such as Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer. Historians claim Siegel would go on to extort money from both. Siegel would become friends with such stars as Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Carey Grant and Gary Cooper and was a frequent guest at many Hollywood parties.

While in California, Siegel took over local unions and is said to have staged strikes in order to force movie studios to pay him off for getting the unions working again. Siegel borrowed large sums of money from celebrities and refused to pay them back knowing that they wouldn’t ask him for their money back.  In his first year in Hollywood, Siegel reportedly received more than $400,000 in one-way loans from movie stars.

Siegel trial newspaper clippingOn November 22, 1939, Siegel, Whitey Krakower, and two other gang members killed Harry “Big Greenie” Greenberg because he had threatened to become a police informant. In September, 1941, Siegel was tried for the murder. Whitey Krakower was killed before he could face trial.

The trial gained notoriety because of the preferential treatment Siegel was reportedly receiving in jail.  He refused to eat prison food and was allowed female visitors.  Siegel would eventually be acquitted due to the lack of evidence, but his reputation was tarnished.  During the trial, newspapers reported on Siegel’s past and referred to him as “Bugsy.”  Siegel is said to have disliked the name and preferred to be called “Ben.”

On March 10, 1944, the Draft Board attempted to draft Siegel in the Army by asking for a waiver of an age limit, but the State Director of Selective Service is said to have refused the waiver because of the reputed legal dealings with Siegel’s attorney that prohibited the induction.

It was in Los Angeles that Siegel met actress Virginia Hill, a money runner for the Chicago Mob, and who had a penchant for blackmailing Hollywood stars. In 1945, the two moved to Las Vegas, where Siegel began working toward his dream of building a gambling mecca in the Nevada desert. With a reported $5 million in funding from the eastern crime syndicate, construction of the Flamingo Hotel and Casino began.

Siegel was convinced that he could draw thousands of vacationers. He began spending enormous amounts of money, demanding the finest building money could buy. The reported figures for the cost of the 93-room hotel were exceeding $6 million. Adding to the problems were said to be dishonest contractors and disgruntled unpaid builders. By day, trucks delivered black market goods. By night the same materials were pilfered and resold to Siegel a few days later. As costs soared, Siegel’s checks reportedly began bouncing.

With the unsuccessful opening of the Flamingo, Luciano demanded Siegel return the $5 million he had been given for the construction. Siegel refused the demand and Luciano ordered Siegel’s execution.

On the evening of June 20, 1947, Siegel was at home in his Hollywood bungalow after returning from getting a haircut.  He is said to have been sitting on a sofa in front of an open window reading a newspaper at approximately 10:30 p.m. At age 42, Siegel was dead from shots to the head and lungs.

It was reported that only five people, all relatives, attended Siegel’s funeral.  Hill, who shared the Hollywood home with Siegel, was out of the country and could not make it back in time. None of Siegel’s celebrity friends were in attendance.

The movie “Bugsy”, a biography of the life of Benjamin Siegel, was released in 1991, starring Warren Beatty.

Aniello “Neil” Dellacroce – Traditional Cosa Nostra and John Gotti Mentor

Aniello “Neil” Dellacroce was born in New York on March 15, 1914 to Italian American immigrants named Francesco and Antoinette Dellacroce. He had had one brother, Carmine and grew up in Little Italy, a section of Manhattan. As an adult he would sometimes wear a priest uniform to throw off law enforcement as he climbed the ladder to become the underboss of the Gambino crime family and mentor to the infamous John Gotti.

Dellacroce worked as a butcher assistant as a teenager but when work became scarce he resorted to a life of crime. As an adult he stood 5ft 10 inches tall with brood shoulders. In the 1930’s Dellacroce joined the Mangano crime family under Vincent Mangano and by the 1950’s became a capo under Albert Anastasia after he had Mangano killed. He bought the Ravenite Social Club in Little Italy, which became a popular Gambino social club. As a fierce Anastasia follower, Dellacroce is thought to have participated in several murders at his request. However, as a traditional Cosa Nostra mobster, Dellacroce followed mafia tradition and remained quiet when Anastasia was murdered on October 25, 1957. Then underboss Carlo Gambino took over as boss of the family. The commission renamed the family to Gambino.
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Carime Tramunti – Financier of The French Connection

            Carmine “Mr. Gribbs” Tramunti was born on October 1, 1910 in Manhattan, New York. He lived most of his early years in a tenement building in Harlem. In 1930 at 20 years old, Tramunti accosted a rent collector in his neighborhood robbing him for his collections. He was arrested but later released due to “lack of evidence”, a norm for that time when someone was reluctant to take the witness stand against someone with ties to the mob.

            In July 1931, Tramunti was tried and convicted of assault, a felony. He was sentenced to 6-15 years in prison at the notorious Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York. After a brief release and subsequent incarceration for a parole violation, Tramunti was eventually released in 1938.

            After being released from prison, Tramunti went back to his old ways eventually taking over one of the most lucrative craps games in New York called the “Harlem Game”. He headquartered out of The Stage Delicatessen in Manhattan, married and had two children. This is thought to be the time period that he became imbedded with the Lucchese crime family in Brooklyn.

Gambino crime family namesake, Carlo Gambino

Tramunti was tight with future boss of the Gambino crime family, Carlo Gambino and used his friendship and Gambino’s power to climb the ladder within the Lucchese’s. In 1967 with the death of crime family namesake Thomas Lucchese, Gambino pushed the commission to have Tramunti succeed him due to his business leadership and general intelligence. The commission agreed and put Tramunti on the top of the Lucchese family. Although it’s thought the commission only agreed because they were biding their time until the true successor Anthony Corallo was released from prison, they were secure enough in their decision knowing Gambino was there to keep things together for the Lucchese’s.            November 19, 1970 Tramunti was indicted on 14 counts of stock fraud for allegedly taking over an investment firm in Florida. He went to trial and was convicted, however almost a year later he was indicted again for lying to a grand jury about his contact with Lucchese capo Paul Vario. He was sentenced to three years in prison on August 6, 1972.

            Later that year and while serving time for lying to the grand jury, Tramunti and 42 others were indicted on drug charges after law enforcement cracked a major heroin route coming in from France through Canada. The trial was dubbed “The French Connection” and received national headlines. Ultimately Tramunti was convicted of financing the operation after a barista overheard him speaking with a drug dealer. Tramunti nodded his head in agreement during the conversation and that’s virtually all the prosecution needed to put him away.

            The verdict reached across the globe with several prominent journalists voicing their disapproval

Modern day Sing Sing prison cell

based on the evidence to convict. On May 7, 1973 Tramunti was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison. On hearing of his sentence he said, “I may be a mobster and may have done bad things but I am not a drug dealer”.

With his incarceration, Anthony “Tony Ducks” Corallo who was then out of prison was place in the top spot. On October 15, 1978 Carmine Tramunti died of natural causes while still serving his sentence.

Joseph “Crazy Joe” Gallo – Profaci Family Enforcer and Hitman

Joseph “Crazy Joe” Gallo was born in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, New York on April 7, 1929 and is one of three sons to Prohibition bootlegger Umberto Gallo. His brother’s Larry and Albert “Kid Blast” Gallo were never deterred from entering a life of crime from their parents. Subsequently each of the brother’s became involved in organized crime.

By 1949 Gallo had earned the nickname Joe the Blond for having a chest full of blond hair that he promoted by wearing unbuttoned shirts. In 1950 Gallo was arrested and sent to Kings County Hospital Center where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. By that time, Gallo was already working with Joe Profaci, boss of the Profaci crime family and future Colombo crime family as an enforcer and hitman.

As an associate of the Profaci family, Gallo was also put in charge of several high stake card games, extorsion rackets, and numbers games. Having a feared enforcer controlling the rackets lessened the odds someone would attempt a takeover or robbery. During this time, the rackets flourished and Gallo , a smart businessman compared to others, put himself in position to own several Manhattan nightclubs and sweat shops and increase his wealth.

In 1957 its alleged Joe Profaci asked Gallo and his crew to murder the boss of the modern day Gambino crime family Albert Anastasia. Carlo Gambino, Anastasia’s underboss wanted to take over as boss of the family after Anastasia’s murderous group became a liability for the family. However, as the leader of Murder Inc., a mafia hit crew attributed to over 200 murders; Anastasia would not be easy to kill.

On October 25, 1957, Anastasia entered the Park Sheraton Hotel barber shop. While he was seated awaiting a shave, two gunmen entered the shop and began firing at Anastasia. Reports say Anastasia lunged at the hitmen’s

Albert Anastasia, founder of Murder Inc.

shadows before falling to the floor dead. The gunmen left the building and were never caught. To this day, there are reports the gunmen were from several other families, but no conclusive evidence has ever surfaced.

In the early 1960’s Gallo was making a run against his old mentor Joe Profaci. Profaci was increasing tributes from the family and Gallo disagreed so he devised a plan to kidnap the entire leadership and use their lives to barter against the increase with the commission. During the kidnap attempt, Profaci escaped, but four of his capo’s and his brother-in-law and underboss Joe Magliocco were captured. According to records, Gallo wanted to kill one of the hostages and demand money before the negotiations began but his brother Larry convinced him otherwise. Within weeks, a deal was met and Profaci reduced the amount of tribute money for the Gallo crew and all the men were released unharmed.

Although peace was negotiated, Profaci wasn’t happy with Gallo forcing his hand and began planning his revenge. In May 1961 Profaci teamed up with Carmine Persico to eradicate the entire Gallo crew. Within days gunmen had murdered Gallo’s top enforcer Joseph “Joe Kelly” Gioelli. His clothes were left at the front door of a restaurant frequented by Gallo and the rest of his crew; a clear message they had a fight on their hands.

In August of the same year, Larry Gallo was next on the list to be killed. He was lured to a Brooklyn supper club where Profaci hitmen including Persico lay in wait. Once he entered the building he was attacked and nearly strangled to death. If it wasn’t for a passing police officer who stopped the attack, Larry would have been killed. This attack officially started a war between followers of the Profaci/Persico team and the Gallo crew who retreated to a safe house on President’s Street.

The remainder of the year was tough on the Gallo crew. They were holed up in their apartment and rarely left without heavy guard. As the year continued, money became a focus for the men as they were not able to collect from their usual rackets. Gallo resorted to extorting money from nearby establishments. Gallo was arrested after trying to extort a local cafe owner. He was subsequently tried and convicted of extortion, and on December 21, 1961 he was sentenced to 7 – 14 years in prison for the crime.

Gallo was released from prison in 1971 after serving 10 years. At his parole hearing an officer at the prison testified for Gallo and described a scene to the court. During a riot the guard was attacked by several inmates. He was certain they would kill him, but before they could, Gallo fought off the attackers and saved the officer’s life. His clean history while serving time and the guard’s story aided in his release.

Upon leaving the prison his then wife remarked how he had become frail and pale while in prison, but not discouraged. He was determined as ever to gain the top spot on the Profaci family now called the Colombo family after the death of Joe Profaci in 1962, and the commission’s appointment of Joseph Colombo Sr. as the new boss.

After Gallo’s release from prison Colombo and Joseph Yacovelli met with him and delivered a gift of $1000. Gallo responded to Colombo that he was no part of the peace treaty the commission had established while he was in prison. He asked for $100,000 to keep the peace. When the commission heard of Gallo’s answer, they immediately issued an order to kill him.

On June 28, 1971 at the second meeting of the Italian-American Civil Rights League, a foundation created by Joe Colombo, a gunman emerged from the crowd and shot Colombo in the head. Colombo bodyguards returned fire killing the assassin later identified as Jerome Johnson an African American. Colombo survived the shooting but maintained a vegetative state until his death years later.

The official police investigation concluded Johnson acted alone and had no ties to organized crime. Despite the police investigation, the mafia commission received word that while in prison Gallo had recruited several African American men to his crew. Johnson was thought to be part one of them. After discussions, the mafia commission increased their intensity to have Gallo killed.

On April 7, 1972 Joe Gallo celebrated his 43rd birthday with his family. The night began at Manhattan restaurant until the early hours of the morning and moved to Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy. In attendance were Gallo’s sister, wife, daughter, bodyguard, and the bodyguard’s female companion. He was spotted by Colombo associate Joseph Luparelli who promptly left the restaurant for a Colombo hangout a few blocks away where he recruited Colombo associates Philip Gambino, Carmine DiBiase, and two other men to kill Gallo.

Umberto’s Clam House the morning of the shooting.

At 4:30 a.m. four gunmen entered Umberto’s Clam House and open fired at Gallo. According to witnesses Gallo pulled a revolver of his own, flipped over a table and returned fire. Over 20 rounds were fired at Gallo. He was hit in the buttocks, elbow, and back. After the gunmen fled Gallo staggered through the front door and collapsed on the street. Some say he was trying to divert the gunmen from his family and friends. Others say he was trying to flee. When police arrived, the badly wounded Gallo was placed in a squad car and rushed to the nearest hospital were he died.


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