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.”
One of the spectators who made it to Graham’s tent that fall was an infamous character by the name of Jimmy Vaus. A former Army sound engineer, Vaus had started wiretapping for the LAPD, helping the cops illegally spy on prostitutes and crooks and eventually working his way to the detail that was peeping on the new king of L.A. crime, Mickey Cohen.
Cohen was a thug from back east who’d slugged his way up through the organizations of Al Capone in Chicago and Lou Rothkopf in Cleveland, finally winding up as muscle for Bugsy Siegel in Vegas and L.A. After Siegel’s murder in 1947, Cohen consolidated his hold on crime in L.A. Although he was violent and inarticulate, Cohen wasn’t stupid. When he discovered that Vaus had bugged his house for the LAPD, he didn’t kill the wiretapper. Instead, he hired him to spy on the cops.
Ah, Los Angeles.
When Vaus was found out, his treachery was splashed across every newspaper in town. It was this Jimmy Vaus—Judas with an earpiece—who found his way into Graham’s big tent in 1949. When Vaus walked down the aisle and made his decision for Christ, the newspapers swooned. (One magazine said he’d “tapped a direct line to God.”) Graham, never one to fail to capitalize on publicity, gave Vaus a job as a celebrity convert. He also asked Vaus to set up a meeting with Mickey Cohen.
The preacher called on the gangster for the first time at his house in Brentwood. As Cohen would later recall the meeting for a reporter at Time, “Billy came up, and before we had food he said—What do you call it? That thing they say before food? Grace? Yeah, grace. Then we talked a lot about Christianity and stuff. He stayed four or five hours." Whatever the religious motivations of everyone involved, Graham was certainly interested in publically redeeming the nation’s most famous mobster, while Cohen was equally interested in having his name connected to a nationally recognized moral leader. Both made their courtship pubic, with Cohen telling the press at one point that he and Graham planned to vacation together at a dude ranch in Tucson.
Cohen was reticent to make the conversion, though. For one thing, though he wasn’t religious, he was Jewish, and he wasn’t in a hurry to trade in that part of his identity to become a Southern Baptist. Besides, from his point of view, he had more pressing problems than religion. The law was closing in on him. Not long after he and Graham became friendly, Cohen was convicted of income tax evasion and sentenced to five years in jail.
Graham stood by him publically, telling reporters that “Mickey Cohen is not as bad as America thinks,” and adding:
I am praying that after he pays his debt to society he will give his heart and life to Christ. He has the makings of one of the greatest gospel preachers of all time, and I mean that.
Cohen went to jail and Graham continued to preach. As his fame rose throughout the fifties, Graham courted ever larger political influence. While President Harry Truman dismissed him as someone who was only interested in “getting his name in the paper,” Graham was embraced by President Dwight Eisenhower and helped to establish the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington.
In 1957, Graham held one of his biggest rallies yet in Madison Square Garden and invited Cohen—now out of prison—to be a special guest. The Graham organization strongly urged Cohen to renounce his ties to organized crime and come on board publicly as a Christian. Mickey refused, but he did attend the rally at the Garden. Afterwards he met with Jimmy Vaus, who was still working for Graham, and Graham’s assistant WC Jones. Pressed once again to convert, Cohen flatly refused, saying that he wouldn’t give up his friends to become a Christian.
The Cohen-Graham connection resurfaced a few years later when Cohen was again put on trial for income tax evasion. During testimony, the comedian Red Skelton (who’d had some business dealings with Cohen in LA..) revealed that Cohen had been paid $15,000 by the Graham people to attend the rally at Madison Square Garden, with a promised “$25,000 if he had converted to Christianity.” A Graham aide denied the story, saying, “Mr. Graham has never paid a penny to anyone to attend a revival meeting.”
Thus ended the relationship between Graham and Cohen. The preacher went on to become an American religious institution and the spiritual advisor to Presidents. (Though his association with one President in particular, Nixon, has hurt his reputation in recent years as tapes of their anti-Semitic conversations have been released to the public.) Stricken with Alzheimer’s, he has retired from public life. Cohen, on the other hand, went to jail again for income tax evasion. He got out in 1972, and died in 1976 of stomach cancer. He never converted. He left a tax bill of about $500, 000.
Read all posts by Jake Hinkson for Criminal Element.