Wednesday, February 3, 2010

LAPD Babylon

John Buntin. L. A. noir : the struggle for the soul of America's most seductive city. New York : Harmony Books, 2009.

“El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles”

L. A. Noir should appeal to fans of the Dark Cinema, its subject matter being no less than a loving (more or less) tribute to the shadow side of the town that everyone loves to (love)/hate.

But first a bit of background : the recent, and excellent, PBS documentary Inventing LA : The Chandlers and Their Times provides a nice historical overview of early 20th century L. A., and in particular that of the Chandler family’s media and real estate empire. (In one sense Inventing LA might be seen as a visual counterpart to the present book, albeit with a different focus). In any event, in their heyday, once upon a time, the Chandler family wielded considerable power over L.A.’s social, cultural and especially economic life. But history never stands still : today the Chandlers no longer own the one-time jewel in their publishing crown, the L. A. Times, which, like many a big city paper these days, is on the ropes. And the once-vaunted Chandler family has been relegated to the status of historical footnote, much studied, to be sure, but as the special purview of Ph.D. students, media history buffs and scholars of Californiana.

In a supreme bit of perverse irony, it’s not the Chandler family who is forever, symbiotically attached to Southern California, but rather one Raymond Chandler (very much no relation), creator of Knight errant, private eye extraordinaire, and L. A. social critic emeritus Philip Marlowe. Maybe Chandler would have loved it, but then again, maybe not; he always had ambivalent feelings about celebrity and his association with his favorite city. Be that as it may, it’s probably no hyperbole to declare that author Chandler’s fame today is at least a hundred-fold that of the family’s, and of course it’s the proverbial icing-on-the-cake insult that it’s Raymond Chandler’s dark, quasi-hallucinatory ‘city of lies’ that lingers in the popular imagination, permanently frozen in 1940 and overlaid with Spanish-deco architecture and the vaguely sinister scent of orange groves and honeysuckle, populated by corrupt cops, elegantly sinister bad guys, thuggish hoods, sweaty small-time grifters, movie industry phonies, quack doctors and most of all, dames like you wouldn’t believe. By the way, were there any normal people leading dull, quiet lives who went about their business and actually made the city work in the 30s and 40s? Probably, but you don’t see much of them in Chandler’s novels.

And to be fair, it’s an arguable point which vision of L. A. matches the current and historical reality better – the Chandler family’s antiseptic, business-friendly, rather mechanistic ‘white spot of America’ (both literally and figuratively), or writer Chandler’s impressionistic, Gothicized, vaguely Hadean place. But, as the man said, I digress. Back to our story.

The current book in question, L. A. Noir, examines the city’s corrupt, troubled history of police enforcement, and in particular how the LAPD dealt with, and in some cases managed, organized criminal activity in the 20th century [1]. The story focuses selectively on two very different but equally crucial personalities at the extremes of the legal/ethical spectrum : long-time police chief William H. Parker and gangster eminence Mickey Cohen. And it’s in this context that the Chandlerian template and the historical L. A. intersect, serving to underscore that writer Chandler’s fictionalized, phantasmagorical vision of L. A. wasn’t really that far off the mark.

John Buntin does a nice job of synthesizing the material, writing in a dryly chatty style that’s both muckraking and scholarly, supplemented by extensive chapter source notes and a general bibliography. But sometimes his infatuation for the subject matter gets the best of him, and he lapses into a retro-pulpese: “The blonde looked tasty, but the cheesecake was scrumptious.” In any event, the book has a nice balance and even-handedness; there’s little editorializing and the facts are allowed to speak for themselves, and as a result the story is both pro- and anti-LAPD, composed of equal parts Dragnet and L. A. Confidential. Consequently, there’s equal time, both in quality and quantity as it were, for mob stories as well as police politics. For entertainment value the mob stories carry the day – as has often been pointed out, sin is more interesting than virtue. Perhaps this contributes to the illusion of Cohen as a more likeable character than Parker [2].

And indeed sometimes a sympathetic view of Cohen is not without merit, as the LAPD’s overt, sledgehammer-like harassment of him bordered on the proto-fascist. Similarly, the Robert Kennedy-led federal investigations, however well merited, nonetheless had a whiff of the trademark RFK vindictiveness. Sympathetic or not, Cohen emerges as the book’s most fascinating character, the possible exception being his pal and mentor Bugsy Siegel [3], who seemed to upstage just about everybody back then. But for all his colorful past, which included being a one-time professional boxer, Cohen was a bit of a gangster anomaly : pudgy, with a cherubic face, soft hands and a fondness for velvety clothes, he enjoyed the company of showgirls and strippers, but his real passions were rich pastries and ice cream. And despite a reputation for quotability in the press, he was a man of surprisingly few words. To be sure, he was not without some virtues: Cohen raises $200,000 single-handedly for Jewish resistance fighters in Palestine; he’s a huge tipper, and likewise is generous to friends and subordinates; he and his mobster buddies come to the aid of a neighborhood lady who was given a raw deal by a shady businessman; he flirts with converting to Christianity after meeting an up-and-coming evangelist named Billy Graham, but ultimately demurs; and after a few unpleasant years in the slammer he makes a half-hearted attempt to go straight.

In sharp contrast to the affable Cohen, Chief Parker is a rather singularly likeability-challenged figure. Humorless, workaholic, a man of absolute incorruptibility with a military bearing and hauteur, he keeps a punishing speaking schedule and affects a technocratic flip-chart-and-statistics approach to law enforcement. He also had an undercurrent of ‘scientific’ bias against minorities and a McCarthy-esque Red Scare paranoia that was almost pathological. The one skeleton in his closet was that after work hours he was a heavy drinker, which often led to goofy behavior. Eventually he gave up drinking when he was tipped off that the mob was onto his little secret.

And while it might be an exaggeration to say that mobster Cohen and good soldier Parker morally and ethically change places as the book progresses, there are enough shadings of gray in each that, in best noir-like fashion, we’re never quite sure of the book’s emotional center of gravity, and thus where its true sympathies lie.

An ultimate ironic touch is that what brought down both of these formidable characters was not the nemesis other, but outside forces, specifically historical events in one case and a competing law enforcement agency in the other. In both men, health issues and encroaching old age were also factors. The case of Parker is the more equivocal of the two [4]. Even after the Watts riots, he enjoyed broad support from the law-and-order (i.e. White) crowd, and his funeral was the type of event usually reserved for heads of state. But he was pilloried by the Left, especially civil rights supporters, who cited his tin ear for minority and civil liberties issues. As a result his posthumous reputation has suffered. Mickey Cohen wasn’t quite so lucky. After a career of staying one step ahead of local authorities, either by good legal counsel, intimidation, or outright bribery, he finally succumbed, twice, to the feds and tax evasion charges with resultant lengthy prison spells. Upon release in 1972, he took some solace in his status as a minor celebrity, but the world had changed and his glory years were far behind. But maybe Mickey had the last word after all, in the form of his colorful if somewhat unreliable autobiography, Mickey Cohen : In My Own Words, which was published in 1975, less than a year before his death.

But I’ve rambled on far too long. Guilty pleasure or no, this book has been just about the most fun read I’ve had in a long time. Highly recommended.

Further reading : Tere Tereba's Mickey Cohen : The Life and Crimes of L.A.'s Notorious Mobster (ECW Press, 2012) covers much the same territory as L.A. Noir but nonetheless is a lively account of Cohen and the L.A. criminal milieu in the 1940s and 1950s.

[1] The book paints its picture with such a broad brushstroke that some of L. A.’s best-known criminal stories receive short shrift or are ignored entirely : the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943; the Black Dahlia murder case; the LAPD’s and, by extension, the entire city government’s relationship to the movie industry in the 1930s and 1940s, and the latter’s alleged payoffs to the powers in return for looking the other way when the studios ran afoul of the law.

[2] A contributing factor is that we simply learn a lot more about Cohen the person -- his quirks, hobbies, likes and dislikes. In contrast, the book tells us a lot about Parker the police technocrat but very little about Parker the man, aside from his being a heavy drinker. And perhaps there’s just not that much there; Parker’s personality tended to the workaholic and all-business.

[3] Despite his subordinate status in the mob hierarchy and public imagination, Cohen managed to outlive Bugsy by three decades, tempting us to apply the clichéd epithet ‘survivor’ to him. But even Mickey’s considerable survival skills only went so far, and he died in 1976 of stomach cancer at the relatively youthful age of 62.

[4] Parker died in 1966 at the age of 61, of a massive heart attack. He was still chief of police and wielded considerable power. Thus his ‘fall,’ so to speak, is in his historical legacy, which remains controversial.

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