Mickey Cohen, the diminutive ex-fighter who ended up leaving an out-sized impression on the Los Angeles underworld of the 1940s - 1960s, is probably almost as well known for his love of clothes as his role in the rackets of that era. While Cohen didn't receive much attention in the pages of The Best Dressed Man In The Room, primarily because his rise to prominence occurred after the Second World War, he is a prime example of the Horatio Alger-like racketeer with significant sartorial aspirations. Of course, Cohen went farther than most of his contemporaries by actually owning a men's haberdashery on Sunset Boulevard. I elaborate on Cohen's other passion in life in the article "Mickey's Haberdashery," written for Will Boehlke's great website on all things relating to classic men's style, A Suitable Wardrobe:
The rise and fall of the Jewish gangster in America has been duly noted, beginning with Albert Fried’s work of the same name and continuing to the present via more stylized fare such as HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and, even more recently, the small-screen LA noir-ish Mob City.
With Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel’s frolic through golden-age Hollywood and his Las Vegas sojourn becoming the stuff of legend, he is principally remembered as the good-looking, well-dressed street tough from Brooklyn who invaded Tinseltown and occasionally suffered from a hair-trigger temper and a recurring case of homicidal tendencies. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Bugsy was eventually accorded the full Hollywood treatment (who can forget one of the opening sequences from the eponymous film, wherein an elegantly-attired Warren Beatty casually guns a man down as the victim sits behind a desk littered with beautiful Sulka shirts?).
In stark contrast, Siegel henchman Mickey Cohen’s outsized temper and physical features - forged by an early career as a lightweight boxer - have been the primary characteristics on display in recent portrayals by actors such as Harvey Keitel and, more recently, Sean Penn in Gangster Squad. Yet Cohen was perhaps even more of a clothes-horse than the notorious sartorialist Siegel and, in his lifetime, was known almost as much for his love of clothing as his fondness for bombings and bribery.
While my book, The Best Dressed Man In The Room, explores the stylish tendencies of an entire generation of racketeers, gamblers, and gangsters, Cohen deserves special mention in that his sartorial inclinations led him to add the title of haberdasher to his list of accomplishments (it was, after all, an occupation worthy of the then-President of the United States). Not content to simply control a sizable portion of the West Coast rackets upon Siegel’s demise in 1947, Cohen set up a clothing shop (called Michael’s Exclusive Haberdashery) on Sunset Boulevard as a legitimate front for his numerous illicit activities.
Cohen credited Siegel as an early influence and a fine dresser, but if the latter indeed embraced his role as style mentor, he utterly failed in his attempts to impart to Cohen his love of all things cashmere. As Mickey put it, “Benny wore nothing but cashmere suits. He used to try to get me to wear them. He bought me cashmere material in fact, but I couldn’t stand the tickling, and cashmere things don’t hold a press as far as I’m concerned.”
To hear Cohen tell it - and he liked to tell anyone who would listen - he could be counted on to literally put his life in mortal danger if it meant keeping a new suit or overcoat out of harm’s way. Recalling one of the myriad attempts on his life, Mickey recounted, “I had on a camel hairs coat that, boy, I was really in love with. It had a big check in it, see – not a loud check – and I think this was the second time I ever wore it after buying it at Hill Brothers. So when they come by shooting, I didn’t even fall because I didn’t want to get my coat dirty.”
In another instance, Cohen described the thoughts racing through his mind when he found himself in yet another tight spot: “My tailor, Al Pignola, had just made me this beautiful suit and I had worn it for the first time that evening. So when I got hit with a 30.06 slug which went right through me, the first thing that come to my mind was that I didn’t want to fall and get my pants dirty. I didn’t have sense enough to know that the goddamn coat was shot anyway.”
Setting his seemingly limitless braggadocio aside momentarily, Cohen spoke for a generation of like-minded street toughs when he tried to define what clothes meant to him personally:
“I think becoming a fine dresser is something you decide when you’re a kid. See, I think that’s what’s lacking with kids today – they seem to lack the drive for the better things in life. I know that the greatest thing in my life was when I was able to possess one suit of clothes. Then when I was able to add the second suit to it, or even a pair of fine slacks. Maybe they cost five, six dollars at the time, and a beautiful sweater to go with it that maybe cost five dollars. And from there on it was on to something better and better.
That was my way of coming up in life. Even to this day, I always strive for the best and, with my limited education and my limited knowledge and with my limited ability, seek to do things in a professional way, like a dentist or a doctor or a lawyer. I just found other ways and means of doing it.”