Battling for the soul of L.A.


More than any other modern American city, Los Angeles’ history is inextricably intertwined with that of its police force. John Buntin’s “L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City” makes an important and wonderfully enjoyable contribution to our understanding of that interplay.

This is a highly original and altogether splendid history that can be read for sheer pleasure and belongs on the shelf of indispensable books about America’s most debated and least understood cities.

A Mississippi-born writer for Governing magazine, Buntin came to Los Angeles to write a profile of Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton and became mesmerized by the LAPD’s history. He’s chosen to pick up its story in the early 1920s with the arrival of two essential outsiders -- the future police chief William Parker, who grew up in Deadwood, S.D., and Mickey Cohen, the second-grade dropout, Hebrew School reject and onetime-boxer-turned-mobster, whose mother ran a grocery in Boyle Heights around the corner from the Breed Street Shul.


By recounting their biographies in parallel, Buntin creates a social history of Los Angeles in the 20th century, and it makes for compelling reading. Parker and Cohen both were outsiders (one a Catholic and the other a Jew) in a city where commerce and politics weren’t the only white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant possessions -- so were the rackets. The author sets up the two men as polar opposites -- and, ultimately, antagonists -- in a city rife with vice of every kind.

It makes for utterly compelling reading, and Buntin’s research is copious and fresh enough to inform even those steeped in local history.

When a work of historical synthesis involves as many original sources and ranges across as much territory as “L.A. Noir” does, numerous small errors are likely to creep into the text. Parker’s hometown of Deadwood, for example, is south (not north) of Little Big Horn. The McNamara brothers, who blew up the Los Angeles Times building in 1910, were not “steelworkers.” John J. McNamara was treasurer of the International Assn. of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers; James B. McNamara was a printer and dynamiter. Los Angeles’ first neon sign was not at Wilshire and La Brea, but at 7th and Flower, where it topped Earle C. Anthony’s Packard dealership. Perino’s Restaurant was on Wilshire in Hancock Park, not Beverly Hills.

Measured against the information and entertainment on offer in this thoroughly engrossing book, these are almost churlish reservations. More significant is the balance Buntin strikes in his narrative -- one of this book’s many virtues is that it is a genuine social historical narrative. The conceit of setting up Parker and Cohen as opposing poles, however, is an interesting one, but it’s hard not to feel that Cohen is so colorful and larger-than-life -- somebody straight from a noir genre novel, actually -- that the author somehow lets his story, with all its legendary Hollywood and gangland names, overpower large sections of this book. Parker’s antipathy to Cohen doesn’t seem to have been personal, as Buntin’s narrative structure would suggest, but based on the fact that the honest cop loathed criminals -- and organized criminals most of all, because they were institutional corrupters -- and, perhaps, on the mobster’s ethnicity, as Parker believed the Jewish community sheltered an inordinate number of his critics.

On the other hand, Buntin makes far too little of the fascinating portrait of Parker that emerges from his accumulated evidence.

In this telling of the great reformer’s biography, Parker’s storied integrity comes through wholly intact, but the law enforcement professional who emerges is far less the visionary chief than a doggedly patient man of the institution and a steely-eyed master of Los Angeles’ viciously Byzantine local politics.


How much of his incorruptibility, for example, derived from the experience of being from the beginning an “outsider” in the LAPD -- Catholic and Holy Name Society member -- in a department utterly dominated by Protestants and Masons? How did this clearly resentful son of fallen high plains aristocracy internalize the experience of servile labor as a young man in Los Angeles? How did it influence what would later become a surprisingly distant relationship with the civic oligarchy? Most of all, how did he summon the acts of will that allowed him to overcome the history of domestic violence and, later, as chief, the severe alcoholism that threatened his career?

“L.A. Noir” also undercuts -- though Buntin makes too little of it -- the myth of Parker the reformer. Two of the great changes with which he’s usually credited -- the transformation of the LAPD into a force modeled along paramilitary lines and the ferreting out of institutional corruption -- actually were accomplished under his predecessor, the retired U.S. Marine Corps. Gen. William Worton. Parker made his way up through the department essentially as a union politician, an activist in the Police and Fire Protective League whose promotion of ballot measures (to amend the city charter) created the disciplinary system and civil service protections that continue to frustrate attempts to impose more effective civilian oversight of the department.

At the time, they were anti-corruption measures, but when Parker ascended to the chief’s office they also helped insulate him against civilian political control. Along the way, he learned the value of public relations -- hence his careful cultivation of Hollywood and the “Dragnet” mythology -- and hardball politics. One of the benefits of Parker’s disdain for civil liberties was that it allowed him to use the department’s intelligence squad to spy on and intimidate everyone, including Mayor Norris Poulson and Times publisher Norman Chandler and his fellow oligarchs.

Finally, Buntin doesn’t engage the unspoken agreement that Parker reached with the powers-that-were because he so well understood what mattered to them: So long as they gave him a free hand with the department, he would police L.A. at a bargain price by utilizing the automobile and deploying his “thin blue line” like an occupying army.

Parker’s real political genius -- as Buntin amply demonstrates -- was to join the traditional civic elite’s vision of its “white” metropolis to his own updated notion of a virtuously pristine (and economically policed) Eden: As he described the future of his administration in one of his first speeches, “This plan goes deeper than a means of saving Los Angeles from the stigma of vice. We are protecting the American philosophy of life.”