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Gangster Mickey Cohen sits amid the front pages of newspapers that helped make him the city's' most infamous citizen, Los Angeles, 1949.
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Caption from LIFE. "Gangster Mickey Cohen sits amid the front pages of newspapers that helped make him the city's' most infamous citizen, Los Angeles, 1949."Ed Clark—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Gangster Mickey Cohen sits amid the front pages of newspapers that helped make him the city's' most infamous citizen, Los Angeles, 1949.
Mickey Cohen, 1949
Mickey Cohen at home, 1949.
Mickey Cohen at home, 1949.
Angry and hungry, Mickey eats sandwich as he leaves home with cop who arrested him for cursing other officers. Mickey called arrest persecution.
Mickey Cohen with his wife, LaVonne, at home, 1949.
Gangster Mickey Cohen at home in Los Angeles, 1949.
Mickey Cohen's wife, LaVonne, at home in Los Angeles, 1949.
Gangster Mickey Cohen smells flowers at home in Los Angeles, 1949.
Gangster Mickey Cohen plays with dogs at home in Los Angeles, 1949.
Gangster Mickey Cohen at home in Los Angeles, 1949.
Mickey Cohen's wife, LaVonne, at home in Los Angeles, 1949.
Mickey Cohen's wife, LaVonne, 1949.
Mickey Cohen's wife, LaVonne, at home in Los Angeles, 1949.
Gangster Mickey Cohen at home with a book given to him by the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation, Los Angeles, 1949.
Mickey Cohen's enforcer, "Johnny Stomp" Stompanato (famously stabbed and killed by Lana Turner's 14-year-old daughter, Cheryl Crane, in 1958), business manager Mike Howard and Cohen pose in Cohen's office in Los Angeles, 1949.
Gangster Mickey Cohen at home in Los Angeles, 1949.
Gangster Mickey Cohen at home in Los Angeles, 1949.
Mickey Cohen, 1949.
Mickey Cohen signs an autograph for a young fan, Los Angeles, 1949.
Mickey Cohen hauled in by the cops, Los Angeles, 1949.
Mickey Cohen, 1949
Caption from LIFE. "Gangster Mickey Cohen sits amid the front pages of newspapers that helped make him the city's' most
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Ed Clark—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
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Mickey Cohen: Gangster in the Sun

Jan 01, 2013

It might seem strange, at first, that a city as closely associated with sun and fun would also be the city that helped spawn, and has been the location for, so many classics in the great American literary and film genre known as noir. But the fact remains that acknowledged heavyweights like Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald and James Ellroy — as well as countless lesser writers — set their sordid, riveting crime stories firmly in Los Angeles, while Hollywood's greatest noir thrillers, from Double Indemnity to L.A. Confidential, have reveled in casting a cold, hard light on the shadowy underbelly of the City of Angels.

A fairly recent star-studded installment in the L.A. noir firmament was the Ruben Fleischer-directed flick, Gangster Squad. Starring Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Emma Stone and, most intriguingly, Sean Penn as a legendary Brooklyn-born Jewish mobster, the movie promises the sort of terse banter and volcanic gunplay that have been the trademarks of crime films since the immortal James Cagney virtually invented the silver-screen tough-guy in the 1930s.

As it so happens, Penn's character — in real life a portly, dangerous and weirdly charismatic thug, Meyer Harris "Mickey" Cohen — was exactly the sort of mid-20th-century figure whose exploits and demeanor were catnip to the editors of LIFE magazine. It's not that the men (and, very occasionally, women) calling the shots at LIFE were enamored of bookies and racketeers. But Mickey Cohen was one of those rare gangsters — Crazy Joe Gallo, another Brooklyn boy with his connections to show biz, also comes to mind — who were more than just mindless mob enforcers. Street-smart, disarmingly blunt and true to their own insular, twisted ethical code, criminals like Cohen and Gallo exuded a kind of rough, lethal charm. And like Gallo, Cohen was a bona fide celebrity in his lifetime — even a kind of anti-establishment pop-culture hero.

In its January 16, 1950, issue, LIFE published a feature titled, simply, "Trouble in Los Angeles," focusing on a wave of organized crime and political corruption so widespread it made supposedly crooked places like Chicago look like models of probity. Front and center in the piece was none other than Cohen himself, the fleshy, self-satisfied face of Southern California sociopathy — an "exhibitionist hoodlum," as LIFE characterized him. In fact, Cohen and his wife LaVonne appeared in several photos in the article, for all the world just another happily married couple who had settled in California for no other reason than the forgiving climate and who remained in L.A. because Mickey's commercial concerns — nightclubs, flower shops, gas stations, Michael's Exclusive Haberdashery on Sunset Boulevard, etc. — needed his constant attention.

Here, LIFE.com offers a series of photographs from 1949 featuring Mickey and LaVonne Cohen in their natural environment, as they hoped the world might see them: quiet, sober, eminently respectable members of the community, without a care in the world, enjoying life beneath the kind and lidless California sun.

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