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20 Dec 2013 00:00
Czech fugitive Radovan Krejcir. (Lisa Skinner, M&G)
The picture's worth about a million words, but the words also do some heavy lifting. Mickey "Meyer" Cohen, all five-foot nothing of him, modelling a suit cut for a prince.
Big hat, big shoulders, small man.
Los Angeles’s toughest tough stands in front of a wall of tabloid headlines, all celebrating his numberless exploits.
Extra: Cohen Shot, Mickey Tells Full Story of Trap "Backfire"
Extra: Mob Slugs Rip Cohen, 3 Pals
Extra: Mob Guns Mickey
Mickey was made by the tabloids. The tabloids made Mickey. He plied an underworld that was also an overworld, a dark media Disneyland where Mickey Cohen played Mickey Mouse, and his mob adversaries were a bunch of Goofies with Tommy guns.
Mickey sold papers; in order to sell papers he sold booze and girls and blackjack.
Lots and lots of people wanted Mickey dead, so he bought a bulletproof Caddy and made sure his enemies understood that, if they did nail him, they would injure an ingénue or two in the fusillade. Lana Turner, Tempest Storm, Arlene Stevens – babes born to fill the pages of fish wrapping.
Mickey knew the score: what was good for the gossip rags was good for business. All the hoopla made him tougher, more pantsula, bigger than his infinitesimal frame allowed.
Mickey was Gangster Inc.
Mickey worked a dirty town. Actually, he worked three: he ran tables in Chicago for Al Capone's brother; he worked muscle for Ben "Bugsy" Siegel in Cleveland; he owned LA.
He was not the only celebrity scumbag jailed for tax evasion, but his actuarially devised demise made for lousy copy. Mickey went out with a whimper, and the tabloids never forgave him for it.
Old Mickey would have loved Johannesburg, Gangster's Paradise. Behold the essential aphorism: once a mining town, always a mining town. And mining town means machine-gun diplomacy, with the losers traced in chalk on the pavement.
Who was the Johannesburg tabloid gangsters' patron saint? That would be Bill Foster, head of the Foster Gang, the members of which blew their own brains out rather than surrender to the cops. Take that, Mickey.
The year was 1914. William Foster, John Maxim and Carl Mezar had been on the run for months, wanted for the gangster’s double – multiple murder and robbery – and now they were cornered like rats in a cave they used as a hideout.
Shots rang out in Kensington, then the cops filled in the tunnel with rocks so big that the ghosts couldn't run free.
In the City of Gold, gangsters' shenanigans adorned tree trunks, lampposts and electricity poles.
Everywhere the citizen looked: Blood! Bullets! Bliksem!
Ink-stained editors birthed gangster stories in the morning, and those same stories were dead by midnight. The entire city was a rogue's gallery. What's changed since those gore-soaked days of yore?
Enter Radovan Krejcir. More Cyrillic squiggles over his name than a Bolshoi prima ballerina – and too many for this newspaper's typeface to do justice to.
Never mind the spelling, Krejcir is as Jo'burg as mine-dump dust, with a face like a hock of Christmas ham and an accent like an angle grinder butchering a kudu.
He made money the old-fashioned way: exploiting the transition from commie backwater to glorious democracy after the Czech Republic's Velvet Revolution.
Here is some sample rhetoric from that glorious moment, courtesy of poet-president Václav Havel: "Modern man must descend the spiral of his own absurdity to the lowest point; only then can he look beyond it."
Krejcír ascended the spiral of absurdity by fleeing the Czech Republic as a fugitive and arriving in another backwater leopard-crawling its way through the sewerage of early democracy.
The Czech Republic was reborn in a burst of optimism. Now, it's run by gangsters (among them Krejcir's ever-loving mama) who complete their Versace ensembles by keeping a politician in the breast pocket.
Krejcír knew the ropes: from zero to hero in a matter of seconds, he became Jo'burg's gangster Dalai Lama, drawing a murderous coterie to his bosom in a lasting embrace. They don't last long, Krejcír's heavily armed acolytes, but they buy a lot of Ferraris.
Let's run the numbers: Lolly Jackson, impresario behind the Teazers strip club chain? Dead.
Uwe Gemballa, Krejcir's "associate"? Dead.
Cyril Beeka, longtime megathug and "security consultant"? Dead.
Ian Jordaan, Lolly Jackson's lawyer? Dead.
Bassam Issa, another Krejcír "associate"? Dead.
Krejcir has lost more people than the protagonist in a mopey Irish memoir. To paraphrase Bill the Butcher in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York, he’s painted Johannesburg red with blood. Two coats.
Like Mickey before him, lots of people have tried to off Krejcir. None have succeeded. Like Mickey, he'll probably go down on some arcane tax code violation. Blech!
And like Mickey, he makes for a great headline. There's a reason for that: in the Recently Liberated State, everyone is free to chase the almighty dollar.
And organised crime is the logical, the honest outcome of that national impulse. The gangster and the press and democracy and capitalism – slithering over each other like snakes at an orgy.
The money-seeking thug and the rent-seeking politician are a mirror image. Gangster Glenn Agliotti and Police Chief Jackie Selebi: a bromance for the ages.
Gangster Brett Kebble gets popped in an "assisted suicide" by gangster Mickey Schultz, and Kebble has half the ruling party on speed dial in his blood-splattered BlackBerry.
Grock the painful truth: gangsters are capitalist democracy's front-line shock troops. They are our id; they are our ego.
When they empty the contents of a Tommy gun into the belly of a rival, they are merely displaying the acquisitive competitive edge that differentiates Winners from Losers. They are, in other words, our best possible selves.
We slap their exploits on trees to advertise newspapers full of advertising. They are the nitro to our glycerine – they make our world go boom.
When Mickey Cohen stands in front of a wall of headlines celebrating his death-defying derring-do, he reminds us of the rules.
Do the crime, and screw the time.
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