Sean Penn's portrayal of real-life mobster Mickey Cohen in Gangster Squad is screamingly over-the-top. But so, too, was the man himself. Here are nine strange facts about Cohen that didn't make it into the movie—and their absence makes Penn's acting job look downright understated.
HE WAS MIKE TYSON'S ROLE MODEL
Back when Mickey Cohen was still a 20-year-old featherweight boxer, he went down to Tijuana to fight a guy named Carpenter in front of a bunch of mob bosses Cohen was determined to impress. He was the better fighter, but Carpenter was a workhorse who wouldn't stay down even when Cohen socked him good. After the sixth time Carpenter picked himself up off the mat, Mickey attacked. As he described it later, “I finally got so upset by his not staying down that I jump in and start biting his ear off. So help me, I got it nearly bitten off before the referee can pry us apart. My opponent runs around hollerin' with a glove over his bloody ear. The referee hangs on to me, 'You got him dead! What do you want to do—eat him?'”
HE WAS DUMB AND UGLY
Sean Penn could make a sweat sock look brilliant and charismatic, but the real-life Cohen wasn't nearly as compelling on first glance. Unlike handsome Bugsy Siegel or Arnold “The Brain” Rothstein, the fixer behind the 1919 White Sox scandal who reportedly had an IQ of 150, Mickey Cohen wasn't much to look at or talk to. Barely 5'4” and overweight, Cohen had five missing teeth, a scar under each eye, and an addiction to platform shoes. Most people described him as “simian.” LAPD Police Chief Parker went further: “He is essentially stupid. He is heavyset and heavy-browed and quite ignorant.”
Though Cohen was a hustler from an early age—he started on the streets when he was three—he didn't have a firm grasp on reading or math until his 30s. In fact, he was so bad at numbers, when he had to divide a score between his fellow crooks, he'd arrange the cash by dollar amount and pass out the bills one at a time in a circle. Years later, Cohen hired a tutor to improve his vocabulary and boasted to the media that he was reading War and Peace. When his friend's wife asked to borrow his copy, he told her he never intended to open the book but wasn't going to let her have it for long. “I got a war and peace of my own to worry about. Why should I worry about Tolstoy's troubles?” he said. “I want it back 'cause it leaves a hole on the shelf when it's gone. It matches the color of them other books.”
BUT HE WAS REALLY VAIN
Even as a teenager, Cohen immediately reinvested his little swindles in improving his image. If he stole $100 in the morning, that afternoon he'd buy two $50 hats. Eventually, he bought himself a $20,000 wardrobe complete with 1,500 pairs of socks and 50 pairs of $50 silk pajamas. He had his underwear embroidered with his initials and stitched “Mickey” in blue thread on his shirt pockets. He needed variety—he'd change clothes up to five times a day.
Cohen's grooming ritual was elaborate. First, a hot shower of no less than one hour, during which he'd use a whole bar of Cashmere Pink Bouquet soap. He didn't want to scratch his skin with fabric, so he'd blanket the bathroom floor in a fresh carpet of towels and airdry his body by running back and forth and dusting himself with baby powder. Slicking back his hair took another hour, and by the time he finally got his shoes on, he'd have to rewash his hands several times to make up for touching something unclean. Naturally, he was late for everything. Not only was Cohen four hours late for his first date with future wife LaVonne, a high-class redhead who inspired Emma Stone's character in Gangster Squad, he was even late for his own wedding. As a sidenote, his best man was William “Stumpy” Zevon, father of quirky '70s musician Warren Zevon.
WAIT, MAKE THAT GERMOPHOBIC
Cohen's mania for washing his hands was actually full on obsessive-compulsive, though that lingo wasn't around at the time. He traced his fixation on feeling clean back to his days of being a paperboy when his hands were constantly stained with ink. Every morning, he'd make his assistants trade out the used money in his cash wad for fresh bills, and while in prison, he had the guards smuggle him in six rolls of toilet paper a day. Worse, as a teenager, he contracted gonorrhea before there was an antibiotic cure, so his physical repulsion to germs extended even to women. Though he dated burlesque tarts like Candy Barr and Beverly Hills, they'd rarely kiss, and at brothels, he'd never sit down in a chair.
For most people, such extreme OCD would have wrecked their lives. But for Cohen, it saved his. During his bloody gang wars with rival Jack Dragna, his acquaintance Jimmy Frattiano set him up for a hit at the clothing store Cohen used for a front. Frattiano and his family strolled in, said their hellos to Cohen, then walked out and gave the signal to assassins who shot up the joint through the window. Cohen's top lieutenant Hinky Rothman was killed, but Mickey was fine—after Frattiano shook his hand good-bye and left, Cohen had immediately run to the bathroom to wash away the germs.
HIS MAJOR VICE WAS SUGAR
Sure, Cohen trafficked in booze, but he didn't partake. As an eight-year-old aspiring bootlegger who hung around poolhalls, he tried cigarettes and alcohol early and hated them both. Even as an adult, he shunned smoking or drinking because he didn't enjoy the taste.
But what he did love was sweets. His second arrest at age nine was for stealing a whole crate of Abba Zabbas. As an adult, when ice cream stores were closed, he'd pound on the door and offer to buy a whole tub of chocolate or rum raisin. He lived on French pastries, and when he got rich enough to build his dream home in Brentwood, he installed a soda fountain and a special freezer just for ice cream. While in prison, he bribed the officers to let him import cakes and cookies from his personal chef, which caused a minor scandal that forced the warden to insist that Cohen wasn't the only prisoner with access to ice cream. And when he was released, he concocted the perfect front for his illegal operations: He launched the Carousel Ice Cream Parlor in Brentwood.
HE DIDN'T JUST CONTROL THE COPS—HE CONTROLLED THE MEDIA
Mickey was a publicity hound who got in good with newspaper men early. By eight, he'd convinced the city editor of the Los Angeles Examiner to let him sleep in the bathroom so he could be the first on the block with copies of the early edition. He was well connected at the studios, especially with Columbia boss Harry Cohn, who put up with him and Bugsy controlling all the extras in Hollywood and setting up “insurance businesses” as shakedowns to keep sets under control. And the execs would ask favors in return, like when they had Cohen smooth over a union fight between the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and Conference of Studio Unions, who were throwing bricks at each other outside MGM and Warner Bros.
Later, Cohn sent Mickey out to Vegas to convince Sammy Davis Jr. to dump Kim Novak before he ruined her career. Cohen rankled at the racism, but did the favor to save Sammy's life before he got whacked, which was a legitimate threat. It wasn't the first or last time he waded into the love lives of the stars. Cohen had a string of male studs he used to seduce starlets for his own blackmail use and for stag videos he'd sell coast to coast. Rumor is his goons Sam LoCigno and Georgie Piscitelle filmed themselves with Marilyn Monroe, which Cohen then threatened her with unless she reported back on JFK's opinions on supporting the Israeli state. He's also alleged to have set Lana Turner up with abusive meathead Johnny Stompanato, and sold copies of their sex tape for $50 a pop. Though he even gave Stompanato $900 to buy her daughter Cheryl a pony, when Cheryl later stabbed Stompanato to death, Cohen lamented her acquittal in the newspapers—though he tastefully referred to the dead man as merely his “bodyguard.”
HE WAS FRIENDS WITH RICHARD NIXON AND BILLY GRAHAM.
Johnny Stompanato wasn't Mickey's weirdest buddy. In 1950, then-House Representative Richard Nixon ran a nasty, anti-Semitic campaign against standing Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas, funded in part by Mickey Cohen and his pals. Cohen lent Nixon an office on 8th and Olive in downtown L.A., covered all his printing materials, and even threw him a lavish fundraiser at the Knickerbocker Hotel. When his dinner recouped only $55,000—$20,000 short of his goal—Mickey locked all the doors and said, “Nobody's going home until this quota's met.” It soon was. Why would a Jewish mobster with no interest in politics align himself with a largely unknown candidate? In the two years after Nixon's successful bid, his campaign manager was the legal defender for 221 mob cases, most of which ended in light fines or suspended sentences. After Nixon ascended to the presidency, a then-incarcerated Cohen felt abandoned, grumbling, “I never had no idea this Nixon guy could go anywhere.”
Even weirder was Cohen's mutually beneficial relationship with preacher Billy Graham. After Cohen's first stint in jail, he befriended the then-young evangelist to rehabilitate his image. For Graham, it was great publicity. “I explained to Mickey, as simply and forthrightly as I could, the gospel from A to Z,” he told the press, going on to offer Cohen $15,000 just for showing up at one of his religious rallies at Madison Square Garden. Cohen went, but Graham stiffed him $5,000. Later, Cohen loudly assured everyone who would listen that the Jewish former boxer who'd fought with a Star of David on his shorts had never seriously considered becoming a Christian, even going so far as to speak out about it during a live interview with Mike Wallace in 1957.
HE TRIED TO RESCUE PATTY HEARST
Naturally, Mickey Cohen was also friends with William Randolph Hearst. The newspaper magnate had known of L.A.'s most famous hustler for years, but Cohen finally got on his good side in 1949 after he waged a protracted battle to save a widow from foreclosure. Touched, Hearst asked his papers to watch language when talking about Cohen, saying, “A man who does a thing like this isn't a hoodlum. You can call him a gambler, but I wish you'd see that he gets a fair break.”
Twenty-five years later son Randolph Hearst reached out to Cohen to see if he could use his underworld connections to try to find his kidnapped daughter Patty, who had by this point been brainwashed by the Symbionese Liberation Army. Cohen tracked her down to Cleveland—or at least, he said he did—but upon hearing that Patty would likely be arrested and sentenced to decades in jail, he backed out of the deal, telling Hearst, “I don't bring nobody in to go to prison.”
HE NEVER LEFT L.A.
In reality, Mickey Cohen lived a long and mostly happy life. He survived 12 assassination attempts and two stints in prison (he and Al Capone are the only two tax invaders ever sent to Alcatraz), and still managed to die peacefully in his sleep in a posh Los Angeles apartment in 1976 at the age of 62. He's interred in a mausoleum at the Hillside Cemetery in Culver City between Moe Howard and Jack Benny.
Works Cited Above:
Hollywood's Celebrity Gangster: The Incredible Life and Times of Mickey Cohen, by Brad Lewis (2007)
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