Just the Facts: Chief William Parker’s War on Mickey Cohen and the Los Angeles Underworld

In April, John Buntin, author of the best-selling social history L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City (Random House), returns to Los Angeles to host a repeat engagement of the popular Esotouric bus adventure based on the book. As a special preview of his bus tour, LAVA exclusively presents John Buntin in a night of reading, discussion and curated vintage film and TV clips in the historic Los Angeles Athletic Club. Reservations are required for this free event – click “Signups” to reserve your spot.

ABOUT L.A. NOIR: In downtown Los Angeles in 1922, two very different men began their very different careers. William H. Parker III was a 17-year-old from Deadwood, SD, working as a movie usher at Loews’s State. Mickey Cohen was a 9-year-old hoodlum who was about to commit his first violent crime — a hold-up of the California Theater. The bitter rivalry between these two very different men would shape the culture of the LAPD and the history of 20th century Los Angeles.

In 1927, Parker became a police officer. Coldly cerebral (Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, a one-time L.A.P.D. officer and Parker speechwriter, reportedly based the character Mr. Spock on his old boss), intolerant of fools, and famously incorruptible (in a department that was famously corrupt), Parker gradually rose. In 1950, a scandal involving 114 Hollywood “pleasure girls” made Parker Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, a position he would hold for sixteen controversial years. In time, he became, in the words of Los Angeles Times publisher Norman Chandler, “the most powerful man in Los Angeles.”

Born Meyer Harris Cohen in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn in 1913, Mickey arrived in Los Angeles with his mother and sister at the age of three. By the age of six, he was hustling newspapers on the streets of Boyle Heights. One year later he was arrested for bootlegging. Mickey’s talent with his fists took the diminutive brawler to New York City to train as a featherweight boxer. His skill with a .38 took him into the rackets, first in Cleveland, then in Al Capone’s Chicago. In 1937, Mickey returned to Los Angeles to serve as gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel’s right hand man. It was a job that put him on a collision course with Bill Parker.

For three decades, from the Great Depression to the Watts riots, Parker and Cohen — the policeman and the gangster — engaged in a struggle for power, first as lieutenants to older more powerful men, then directly with each other. Their rivalry attracted the attention of a young Senate investigator named Robert Kennedy — and the antagonism of F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover — and involved some of the most powerful — and colorful — figures of the twentieth century: press magnates Harry Chandler and his nemesis, William Randolph Hearst; studio head Harry Cohn of Columbia; entertainers Jack Webb, Frank Sinatra, Lana Turner, and Sammy Davis Jr.; civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

“[I]mportant and wonderfully enjoyable,” says the Los Angeles Times’ Tim Rutten of L.A. Noir. “A tour de force of non-fiction narrative,” agrees USC historian Kevin Starr. “Dragnet, One Adam Twelve, Police Story, LA Confidential all rolled into one captivating book… a great read,” says former LAPD chief Bill Bratton.

Join us for what is sure to be a lively reading and discussion. Reservations are required for this free event, and the Signup tab is at the top of this page.