By the mid-1930s, organised crime in Los Angeles was controlled by Johnny Rosselli, the secret agent for Al Capone and the Chicago Outfit, and by Jack Dragna, the boss of the city’s Mafia family.
They had run things with great success and with little competition for some time. But things would soon change with the arrival of a powerful and ruthless rival from the faraway East Coast: lethal, unpredictable Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel.
Since childhood a partner in crime with Meyer Lansky and Charlie “Lucky” Luciano, Siegel was a founding father of the National Crime Syndicate and of Murder Incorporated.
He was a very effective gangster, smart, merciless, charming, psychotic. Hands on.
He was one of the few top Mob leaders who still killed his opponents personally, for the sheer joy of it.
By 1937 Siegel had abandoned New York for Los Angeles. His hometown had become afflicted by a crusading special prosecutor named Thomas E. Dewey, who had vowed to take down the crime lords of Manhattan — an admiring press called him “the Gangbuster” — and had been doing a pretty good job of it.
He’d achieved national hero status with his successful prosecution of Lucky Luciano on sixty-two counts of white slavery (compulsory prostitution), and a court sentence of thirty to fifty years behind bars.
Since July 2, 1936, Luciano had been cooling his heels upstate in frigid Dannemora prison, near the Canadian border.
The Dewey offensive was a good excuse for Siegel’s move to California.
No one could blame a man for fleeing an unscrupulous, headline-chasing prosecutor (it was believed — in gangland anyway — that Dewey had coerced witnesses to lie in the Luciano prosecution).
But Bugsy’s motive for the move ran deeper than a getaway: He was point man for a potential big incursion from the East.
With Dewey breathing down Syndicate necks in Manhattan, threatening to close the whole city to them, it was smart to consider an escape route and maybe a new home base, and Rosselli and Dragna had done a good job revealing the possibilities on the West Coast.
Lansky and Luciano (from Dannemora) agreed, the time had come to establish a beachhead in California.
Siegel arrived with a safe-conduct pass from Lucky to Jack Dragna.
The Mafia boss was instructed to play ball with Benny.
Dragna was understandably annoyed: “Why they send this Jew to my town?” Johnny counseled him to ride it out.
New York was in a bad mood. It was a humiliating moment for them, the chairman of the Commission put away for life on a pimping rap.
Siegel skipped around Hollywood like a brat let loose in a toy store, grabbing anything that caught his eye.
He cut himself in on bookmaking, prostitution, drugs run from Mexico.
Through his old pal, the movie actor George Raft — one-time hoofer at Manhattan’s Mobbed – up El Fey Club — he befriended other stars and producers, hitting up many of them for “friendly” loans of five and ten grand or more, none ever to be paid back.
He bought a piece of the Tijuana racetrack where Johnny was a partner, and for a time he got control of the screen extras’ union (a scaled-down version of the of the IA, the stage workers union, which Johnny was helping to run).
It was almost as if he was following in the footsteps of Johnny Rosselli and Jack Dragna (and their Chicago partners), emulating their path to success in Los Angeles.
It wasn’t just business practice Siegel seemed to copy.
To some Bugsy appeared to be stepping into Johnny’s shoes. Any way one saw it, they seemed to have much in common.
They were two clever men, alluring, attractive characters with a dangerous edge, sharp-looking lotharios with movie-star style (to that notion Siegel added a folie de grandeur — he gave thought to actually becoming a movie star, arranging for his own screen test).
Johnny saw any such comparison as far from complimentary.
Bugsy was a smiling cobra. When dealing with Johnny and Jack, he played nice and respectful, but it rang false, had a hidden bite, and neither man trusted him.
Anyway, he was a pain in the ass.
Worse was his imported muscle, a onetime boxer and Mob enforcer named Mickey Cohen.
Sent to Los Angeles to do Bugsy’s bidding, the loutish, impetuous Cohen preferred to do a few things for himself first.
He went on a spree, knocking over numerous bookie joints, including one run by Johnny’s and Dragna’s associate Dago Louie Merli.
At the Dago’s place he got away with thirty grand and an old stickpin Merli declared was a family heirloom.
Jack Dragna was outraged. Ordinarily he would have sent somebody to teach Cohen a painful lesson, but Cohen was Ben Siegel’s man, and Siegel was the Syndicate’s man.
Rosselli and Dragna did not want a war with the East Coast powers, or a messy outbreak of violence in their hometown.
Johnny went to talk with Bugsy. Siegel had a bemused talk with Mickey Cohen.
Cohen refused to give back the money. He’d stolen it fair and square, he said.
He did agree to return Dago Louie’s heirloom. He had “too much class to keep it,” he said.
Following Johnny’s advice, Jack Dragna suffered Siegel’s and Cohen’s presence for now, but he looked forward to the time he could offer an appropriate response.
Johnny Rosselli’s reign in Los Angeles had been interrupted for several years when he went to prison for his part in a multi-million dollar plot to extort the Hollywood movie studios (the biggest extortion plot in U.S. history).
In the summer of 1947 he was paroled, and returned to L.A., and resumed his partnership with Jack Dragna. And not a moment too soon as far as Jack was concerned.
The tranquil Los Angeles underworld had lately caught fire.
In the years Johnny had been away, Dragna and Bugsy Siegel had continued their wary affiliation, more or less splitting the LA rackets between them.
But Bugsy had been distracted by Las Vegas, the rising gambling mecca in the Nevada desert, muscling in on a project of Johnny’s entrepreneur friend Billy Wilkerson, the resplendent gaming resort they named the Flamingo.
Siegel’s squandering of millions of Syndicate dollars combined with his wayward chutzpah earned him a death sentence at the Commission conclave in Havana, Cuba.
Permission for the hit to occur in Los Angeles was courteously requested of Jack Dragna as ranking regional boss.
Jack not only gave his permission, he agreed to take care of the whole matter for them.
He had actually come to have a lot of respect for Bugsy, allowed that he had a lot of brains, some good ideas.
But Jack’s resentment of Siegel’s move on Los Angeles had never gone away. It was like they said in the old cowboy pictures: “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us — you Jew motherf***er.”
On the night of June 20, 1947, Bugsy was sitting in the living room of his girlfriend Virginia Hill’s rented house on Linden Drive in Beverly Hills.
Someone outside in the darkness with a .30-caliber M1 fired nine shots through a window. Siegel was hit twice in the head, the impact of the bullet at the bridge of the nose blowing his left eye out of the socket and across the room.
With the interloper from the East finally gone after all these years, Johnny and Jack felt a great relief.
Now they could go back to running Los Angeles without interference, or so they assumed. But it was only a couple of months after Bugsy’s eye-popping demise, and already there was a new problem at hand.
Siegel’s uncouth bulldog Mickey Cohen had quickly decided he was taking his leader’s place in the Hollywood hierarchy, and maybe taking more than that.
Cohen claimed his ascendence was sanctioned by the Syndicate back East, but the way events played out did not tend to confirm this.
Whatever the reality, Cohen’s colourful, cocksure, attention-whore personality, contrasted with the glowering, publicity-shy Dragna, made it seem like Mick was already running everything in LA.
When you were the only gangster getting your picture in the paper — in loud ties and colossal Borsalinos, yet — people were quick to accept you as the man, king of the rackets.
Johnny and Jack analyzed the situation.
It wasn’t going to be easy getting rid of Mickey. If they weren’t very careful a lot of gangsters on both sides were going to end up dead.
And so began the so-called “Battle of the Sunset Strip,” the bloodiest gang war in the history of Los Angeles.
Adapted from HANDSOME JOHNNY The Mob’s Man in Hollywood by Lee Server (Virgin Books) copyright 2018 by Lee Server.
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