L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City
If you are an American of a certain age, you remember the TV show that started with the dramatic music DUM-DA-DUM-DUM. Then the serious voice-over: “This is the city. Los Angeles, California. I work here. I’m a cop.” “Dragnet,” which originally appeared on NBC in 1951, was a documentary-style program based on real cases from the Los Angeles Police Department. It was the first time a government agency used an entertainment TV show to spread propaganda to the American public.
Los Angeles is the home of the Dream Factory: Hollywood. It is also the great American city that blossomed right out of the desert. L.A. NOIR by John Buntin sounds like the title of a work of fiction. But as “Dragnet” told us each week, “the story you are about to see is real.” Only in Buntin’s book, the names have not been “changed to protect the innocent” or, in this case, the guilty.
L.A. is also one of the birthplaces of one of America’s greatest creations: the literary and film genre known as noir. In Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity and the novels of Raymond Chandler, the noir, or dark side, of the City of Angels became a metaphor for the corruption at the heart of America that lives on right up to this day. Buntin captures this reality in his first paragraph:
“Other cities have histories. Los Angeles has legends. Advertised to the world as the Eden at the end of the western frontier, the settlement that the Spaniards called El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles turned out to be something quite different --- not the beatific Our Lady the Queen of the Angels advertised by its name but rather a dark, dangerous blonde.”
Because of its proximity to the Dream Factory, the LAPD has been portrayed in hundreds of books, movies and TV shows besides “Dragnet.” So parts of L.A. NOIR will be very familiar if you have seen films such as LA Confidential, Bugsy and Mulholland Falls or read the work of writers like James Ellroy and Michael Connelly.
Buntin tells the history of 20th century L.A. through two of its most influential and powerful figures. One, William H. Parker, was a bastion of incorruptible law and order and served as police chief for 16 years. The other, Mickey Cohen, was a gangster, a racketeer and one of the last of the great high-profile celebrity outlaws in the mold of Al Capone and “Bugsy” Siegel. These men created organized crime in America.
They say that what starts as a trend in California eventually spreads east. In this powerful dual biography, we see that the influence of these two men still shape America decades after their deaths. Parker’s often brutal and fascistic methods of policing preceded by decades of widespread wiretapping and torture were routinely used by the Federal government in the so-called War on Terror. And Cohen’s organized crime lives on, still highly profitable, having branched out from what was once an Italian/Jewish-dominated concern to one that now includes Mexican drug cartels, Eastern European mafias and Chinese tongs.
From the start, Los Angeles was a wide open city for crime and vice. By 1937 it contained 600 brothels, 300 gambling houses, 1,800 bookie joints and 23,000 slot machines. The city’s police force had a long history of corruption. During prohibition, one chief of police, Louis Oaks, was arrested in San Bernardino in the backseat of a car with a “half-dressed woman and a half-empty bottle of whiskey.” Ooops!
No less an expert than Mickey Cohen, a 5’3” former boxer born in Brooklyn who did his apprentice wiseguy work for Capone in Chicago, noted that gambling was run by the “syndicate” in Chicago and New York. “But here,” he said, meaning L.A., “gambling and everything like that they did in Jersey, Chicago and New York was completely run by cops and stool pigeons.”
Into this police force in 1927 comes William Parker, a transplant from another once lawless frontier town, Deadwood, South Dakota. Parker was horrified by the corruption he saw in the LAPD. The portrait that Buntin paints here is of a man of Shakespearean tragic dimensions: ambitious to the point of ruthlessness in his quest to reach the top of the LAPD; incorruptible by day but a drunk by night who possibly beat his first wife; intelligent but stubborn and highly emotional; and dedicated to public service but prone to paranoia in his latter years.
Parker was a man of great accomplishment but also great faults. The L.A. he moved to in 1922 was openly racist. It was advertised by powerful businessmen and real estate developers, such as Los Angeles Times owner Harry Chandler, as the “white spot” of America. Parker, if not overtly racist, fully supported the city’s racist power structure, denying as late as 1960 that there was segregation in L.A. Unforgivably, Parker compared rioters to “monkeys” just as the greatest urban insurrection in American history up to that time in the Watts section of the city was beginning in 1965.
Parker invented the term “the thin blue line.” And he believed it. In his successful struggle to rid the LAPD of mob influence and corruption, he created a professional, autonomous, almost paramilitary force. He viewed his police as the last line of defense for civilization, and while he did not say it, he might have meant white civilization. Gambling and organized crime weakened the U.S. and would allow the Soviet Union to defeat us. Buntin summarizes Parker’s viewpoint: we needed “the virtues of Sparta, not the indulgences of the Sunset Strip.”
In Parker’s opinion, the Civil Rights Movement was little more than a cat’s paw of international communism. Parker was not just an influential civil servant, he was one of the most powerful politicians in L.A., often giving two speeches a day. He viewed Dr. King’s “Dream” speech not as a plea for justice but a call for blacks to revolt against the United States of America.
The real thin line is between freedom and fascism, and Parker easily crossed that line, successfully fighting to keep his cops free from civilian control and oversight. The LAPD previewed the America of the Patriot Act, illegal wiretapping and Gitmo. Their Intelligence Division accumulated over two million dossiers on citizens. The department’s repression of minorities, from the “Bloody Christmas” assault of five Latinos by up to 50 cops in a police station in 1951 to Rodney King in 1991, led to riots that bordered on urban guerrilla warfare. And the white backlash sparked by those uprisings helped right-wing, law and order politicians like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan rise to power in the United States.
L.A. NOIR is a work of nonfiction that reads like a novel. Through its pages march figures like “Bugsy” Siegel, Robert F. Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover and Malcolm X. There is Betty Grable being robbed of her diamond necklace by Mickey Cohen one night in an illegal gambling joint. There is the head of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohen, wanting Mickey to “whack” Sammy Davis Jr. to end the singer’s relationship with Kim Novak. And then there are lesser known figures like Brenda Allen, whose gift to history was the invention of the “call girl” service, and Jimmy Vaus, the wiretap expert who was not above working both sides of the street.
I do not say this often, but L.A. NOIR is a book that I found almost impossible to put down. Buntin has written an important and entertaining book about one of America’s greatest cities in the 20th century that echoes down to the world we live in today.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on December 30, 2010