Publicity makes for strange bedfellows. So does crime. So does religion, for that matter. Add publicity, crime, and religion together, and you get the fascinating story of how the Reverend Billy Graham set out to save the soul of the most notorious gangster in the history of Los Angeles: crime lord Mickey Cohen.
Billy Graham wasn’t the first dynamic man of god to gain a widespread following in the 20th century—he was preceded by the immensely popular outfielder-turned-preacher Billy Sunday and the notorious J. Frank Norris, among others—but with his huge public rallies in the late forties, Graham became the first superstar preacher to break into the national consciousness in a sustained way. Originally from North Carolina, he began as a Southern Baptist evangelist in the Youth For Christ organization, and though he lacked much in the way of formal training, he possessed a powerful stage presence and an instinct for showmanship. In 1949, he arranged several outdoor revival meetings in Los Angeles. These weren’t the first rallies Graham had ever held, but they were hyped by the newspaper machine of William Randolph Hearst. (Hearst had a soft spot for flamboyant religious types and had previously promoted both Billy Sunday and the Christian Scientist Mary Baker Eddy.) Thousands of people flocked to the intersection of Washington Boulevard and Hill Street to hear Graham’s sermons at an enormous pavilion made up of two interlocking circus tents called “The Canvas Cathedral.”