Book Review: 'L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City' By John Buntin

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, September 6, 2009


The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City

By John Buntin

Harmony. 419 pp. $26

The image of Los Angeles that exists in the minds of many here in the effete East only occasionally coincides with the reality. We sneer at it as Lala Land or pine for its beaches and vistas and endless summers, but don't know that it's a city of heavy manufacturing and movie-making -- as well as a city that lies under the constant threat of devastating fires. We delight in the classic L.A. crime novels of Raymond Chandler and the contemporary ones of Michael Connelly, but we have only the vaguest understanding that the crime and corruption they depict are not aberrations but essential to the city's character.

Skeptics are referred to "L.A. Noir." John Buntin tries to cram too much into its pages and writes in clich├ęd journalese, but he persuasively argues that what ultimately shaped Los Angeles was not its sublime location but the hard truth that, as he puts it, "by the early 1920s, Los Angeles had become a Shangri-la of vice." Buntin, who writes for Governing magazine, has unearthed in the history of 20th-century L.A. a pervasive criminality that is far more appalling than anything to be found even in the most brutal novels of James Ellroy. He views it through the lives of two men: William H. Parker, who became chief of the Los Angeles Police Department in 1950, and Meyer Harris "Mickey" Cohen, a celebrated, ruthless and flamboyant crook. Buntin writes:

"For three decades, from the Great Depression to the Watts riots, Parker and Cohen -- the policeman and the gangster -- would engage in a struggle for power, first as lieutenants to older, more powerful men, then directly with each other, and finally with their own instincts and desires. . . . Their contest would involve some of the most powerful -- and colorful -- figures of the twentieth century: press magnates Harry Chandler and his nemesis, William Randolph Hearst; studio head Harry Cohn of Columbia; entertainers Jean Harlow, Jack Webb, Frank Sinatra, Lana Turner, and Sammy Davis Jr.; and civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. The outcome of their struggle would change the history of Los Angeles, set race relations on a dangerous new path, and chart a problematic course for American policing."

That's saying a lot, and in fact it's saying too much. All of these people played roles in shaping Los Angeles, and their stories always make for interesting reading, but their connections to Parker and Cohen ranged from moderately close to marginal. Like many other journalists who have tried to write history -- in particular, oddly enough, journalists who try to write the history of California -- Buntin looks for patterns and parallels where they don't always exist and insists on them even when their validity is questionable. Perhaps the "struggle" between Parker and Cohen can be viewed as a metaphor for the evolution of the city -- between, if you will, its light and dark sides -- but to boil down a very complicated history to the actions of just two men is to oversimplify and distort that history.

So ignore Buntin's efforts at Deep Meaning and concentrate instead on the stories of these two men, played out against the backdrop of a city that, though it feared becoming the Chicago of the West, in fact often outdid Al Capone's home town in sordidness, venality and violence. When Bill Parker joined the LAPD in 1927, he was in for a surprise: "In Los Angeles, the police didn't fight organized crime. They managed it." This was almost literally true. Parker might not have needed all 10 of his fingers to count the number of honest cops in the city, and there were probably fewer honest people elsewhere in the city's government. For all its natural beauty and seductive climate, L.A. can be a very dirty place.

Throughout much of the first half of the 20th century, the city's underworld was controlled by a group of men "who were known simply as 'the Combination' " and who worked hand in glove with city hall and the LAPD. Everyone was on the take. The police force was poorly educated and trained, deeply hostile to the minority groups that were beginning to become a significant presence in the city, frequently drunk on the job and not overly bright. "IQ tests administered in the early twenties found that a significant number of police officers were 'low-grade mental defectives.' " Parker, who was "smart, assertive, and incorruptible," wanted to become chief of police from almost the moment he joined the force, but he had to play guileful office politics in order to move up through the many levels of corruption that stood between him and that job.

Mickey Cohen lived in Los Angeles as a boy and "at the age of nine . . . began his career in armed robbery with an attempt to 'heist' a movie theater in downtown L.A. using a baseball bat." He worked his way east, trained as a boxer and fought a few bouts as a featherweight, but went back to Los Angeles in 1937 "to serve as gangster Benjamin 'Bugsy' Siegel's right-hand man." It's true that this "was a job that put him on a collision course with Bill Parker," but it's scarcely as though each man had eyes only for the other. Cohen was one of thousands of criminals (in and out of the underworld) whom Parker wanted to bring under control, and Parker was just one of many cops who stood in Cohen's way.

One of the most daunting difficulties faced by the few honest men in the LAPD before Parker became chief was that the department was not autonomous but "subordinate to some combination of the mayor, the underworld, or the business community (or sometimes all three)." In 1937 the city's voters approved a charter amendment that gave the LAPD "the legal protection it needed to emerge as a power in its own right," but it wasn't until Parker took command that the department began to achieve true autonomy.

This proved to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, Parker was able to hire 1,400 new officers after World War II, "90 per cent of whom had served in the military" and were eager to work under strong leadership such as they had known in the service; the quality and training of the officer corps rose markedly. On the other hand Parker was no civil libertarian. He eagerly embraced wiretapping and other surveillance techniques, and didn't hesitate to authorize officers to break and enter in order to put these devices in place. He was almost entirely insensitive to the city's rising African American population, doing nothing to discourage the police brutality that climaxed in the Watts riots of 1965, one year before his death. His legacy remains a matter of strong debate in Los Angeles and among students of law enforcement.

As for Mickey Cohen, it wasn't Bill Parker who brought him down but the feds, who sent him to the penitentiary in 1952 on tax evasion charges and again in 1961 for the same offense. He outlived Parker by nearly a decade, dying in his sleep in 1975: "With back taxes, penalties, and interest, he still owed the U.S. government $496,535.23."

In the three and a half decades since then Los Angeles probably has become a better place to live for law-abiding citizens, which probably has very little to do with either Bill Parker or Mickey Cohen. John Buntin has made an entertaining tale out of their adventures, but don't try to read more into it than is there.

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