'The Laws of an Alien Civilization'

A gangster reminisces.


Friday fun link: Ben Hecht—best known for writing a ton of movies, many of them great—began but never finished a biography of the infamous gangster Mickey Cohen. In 1972, Los Angeles magazine posthumously published a part of Hecht's text. I'm sure it's filled with exaggerations and lies—the main source here is Cohen himself, so caveat lector—but it's an amazing read.

While I've got you on the line, Mr. Hecht, I've got a great idea for a picture with Harpo Marx.

Some excerpts:

At the age of 7 he became a bootlegger, making gin in the rear of a drugstore and peddling it to a grateful clientele. A hundred street corner fights marked the next three years, during which Mickey became a fixture in the First Grade of the Cornwall Elementary School. His education collapsed in the Second Grade. He was to remain unable to read, write or count beyond five until in his twenties.


Lawlessness is the debatable word in Mickey's early rise. He broke laws, but they were the laws of an alien civilization. What made him successful, actually, was keeping and enforcing the laws of the only society he knew, the underworld.

I can't wait to see what they think of my tie.


After a dozen or more killings there were some experimental arrests by the police but no trials or convictions.

And then there's this:

Mickey is reminiscing with me now about his days in Cleveland. There was a girl there, a redhead named Georgia. A hundred and eighteen pounds, with a beautiful face and fine disposition. Mickey, the wild heister, had never held a girl in his arms, even for dancing. "How about whores?"

"I never entered a whore house, except to heist it," says Mickey righteously.

Hat tip: Steve Kaye.

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  1. Hecht’s autobiography, A Child of the Century, is a real treat.

  2. I don’t care much for the glamourazation and romantization of punks, murders, thieves, rapist, and bullies.

  3. Replace all references to Mickey with Police and it’s probably more true.

  4. He was to remain unable to read, write or count beyond five until in his twenties.

    I recall reading somewhere that someone had estimated that Al Capone’s IQ was around 85.

    I also recall reading somewhere that contrary to the lavish romantic life of a crime boss depicted in The Godfather the vast majority of mafioso lived lives of what used to be described in novels as “shabby gentility” and in other places as “just getting by”.

    It’s sort of no wonder that just as in the families of other “working stiffs” most children of “mob” families went to college (albeit sometimes paid for with ill-gotten gains) and went into respectable occupations where there wasn’t someone waiting around the corner with a gat to do them in.

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