Strippers, rackets and salons — the Jews of Sunset
The legendary Sunset Strip, traversing nearly 100 years of Los Angeles history, winds it way past three famous, even infamous, enterprises along its 1.7-mile length: the gangland offices of Mickey Cohen; the hotel of Alla Nazimova, a bisexual Jewish silent film star; and the nightclub of Alice Schiller, a Jewish woman whom The New York Times called in her obituary the “The Impresaria of Striptease.”
The Sunset Strip hugs the Hollywood Hills and was an unincorporated area of Los Angeles County until 1984, when it became part of the City of West Hollywood. Still a center of nightlife entertainment, it had a reputation for prohibition boozing and gaming long before the sharp-dressing Cohen decided to set up shop there in the 1940s.
In fact, according to Tere Tereba, author of “Mickey Cohen,” a biography that tells his story from the underworld point of view, the present-day Strip, with its and high-end clubs, hotels and restaurants, owes much to the exploits of Cohen and his former boss, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel.
Cohen moved from Brooklyn, where he was born, to Boyle Heights in 1915, at age 3. As a child, he sold newspapers, had little schooling —Tereba writes that he was illiterate until age 30 — and as a teenager started boxing.
As a teen he also contracted gonorrhea, which Tereba says might explain Cohen’s compulsion later in life to wash his hands several times an hour — he was terrified of germs — and change his clothes several times a day.
After a stint in Cleveland, where Cohen was introduced to mobsters, he returned to Los Angeles to lead a series of armed robberies and fell into the criminal organization of Bugsy Siegel.
When Siegel was assassinated in Beverly Hills in 1947, Cohen took over for him and opened a front at 8804 Sunset Blvd. for his racketeering enterprises — gambling, extortion, “anything to make a buck” was his credo.
“There were three storefronts, Michael’s Exclusive Haberdashery, Courtley’s Exclusive Jewelry and Al Pignola’s tailor shop,” Tereba said. “Cohen had a personal bulletproof room, and in another he installed his own wire tapper,” she added.
From his headquarters, he controlled not only the clubs, but the rackets he took over after Siegel’s demise.
Despite the precautions, in 1948, gunmen broke in, and though Cohen narrowly escaped, one of his bodyguards was killed.
“They controlled the sheriff’s department,” Tereba said, in explaining, in part, how Cohen only did time, like Al Capone, for federal tax evasion.
“He could read what your weaknesses were,” Tereba said.
“Cohen was culturally a Jew, and proud to be a Jew,” Tereba said. In her book, she relates that in the late 1940s, after being approached about the “situation in Palestine” by screenwriter Ben Hecht, Cohen organized a benefit for the Irgun — Israel’s national military organization — at Slapsie Maxie’s, a nightclub that figures prominently in “Gangster Squad,” a film about an elite police squad that tried to break up Cohen’s gang.
Sharp-dressing Mickey Cohen collected guns, circa 1958.
Moving the strip into an era of a more classy, yet still provocative form of entertainment, were Orthodox-raised Alice Schiller, and her husband, Harry, who together opened the Pink Pussy-Cat nightclub in 1961.
Located at 7969 Santa Monica Blvd., the burlesque club promised a “purrr-fect evening,” with a “stage full of the most exciting girls in the world.”
An evening’s entertainment in the all-pink club consisted of watching exotic female dancers with stage names — given to them by Alice — like Fran Sinatra, and Peeler Lawford, stripping down to the barest of legalities.
In fact, the club even sold a “Strippers Kit,” consisting of a pink G-string, two pink felt bosom bonnets and a sparkling navel jewel.
During the day, the couple used the club for educational purposes — opening a College of Striptease that, in 1961, even jiggled its way to the attention of Time magazine.
For a $100 enrollment fee, the college, run by Sally Marr, mother of comedian Lenny Bruce, offered a curriculum of “The History and Theory of the Striptease,” “The Psychology of Inhibitions,” “Applied Sensual Communication” and “Dynamic Mammary, Navel and Pelvis Rotation.”
Alla Nazimova in the Garden of Alla. Courtesy of Marc Wanamaker/Bison Archives
According to Alice Schiller’s obituary in The New York Times — she died at 95 in 2009 — the club was a “favorite watering hole of the Rat Pack.” With its respectable environment, and Alice’s classy presentation, “It was one of a few clubs that after World War II [that] redefined what striptease was,” according to Rachel Shteir, author of “Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show,” as quoted in the Times.
But long before Alice Schiller was supplying dancers with exotic names, another Jewish woman, the silent screen star Alla Nazimova, created an exotic lifestyle at her home on Sunset, which she dubbed the Garden of Alla.
Born Miriam Edez Adelaida Leventon in 1879 in Yalta, Crimea, she moved with her family to New York in 1905. In 1918, according to Gavin Lambert’s biography “Nazimova,” the renamed actress already had starred on Broadway in several of Ibsen’s plays and signed a contract with Metro Pictures making her the highest-paid actress in silent films.
That same year, she moved to Hollywood, and from her earnings, Nazimova soon spent $65,000 on a California Spanish house at 8080 Sunset Blvd., near Havenhurst Drive.
“It was rural area with citrus groves,” said Marc Wanamaker, historian for the Hollywood Heritage Museum and a film consultant.
Nazimova built a swimming pool and remodeled the house into a classic movie star’s showplace, where lavish Hollywood parties were frequently held.
Concealing from the public her relationships with women, Lambert alleges, by Gavin, Nazimova, who had been married once in Russia, in Los Angeles maintained a “marriage” of convenience, sharing her house with the actor Charles Bryant.
She surrounded herself with actors — including Rudolph Valentino — and designers. “Her salon created art films that were experimental and progressive,” said Wanamaker, who is the nephew of actor and director Sam Wanamaker. “Nazimova was a pioneer of the cinema,” he said.
In 1927, after suffering several box-office disasters, Nazimova, who was also a producer, used her surrounding property to build a complex of 25 separate Spanish-style villas, which she now named — adding an “h” — the Garden of Allah. (A year earlier, across Sunset, Fred Horowitz, a Jewish developer, and his architect brother-in-law, Arnold A. Weitzman, had begun construction on the legendary Chateau Marmont hotel.) F. Scott Fitzgerald lived in one of Nazimova’s villas for a time, as did humorist Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker and George S. Kaufman. For his film “Sunset Boulevard,” the German-Jewish immigrant director Billy Wilder “found inspiration there,” Wanamaker said.
In 1928, as the result of mismanagement by a couple whom she had entrusted with the complex’s development, Nazimova was forced to sell it to William Hay, a wealthy real estate developer. The deal allowed Nazimova to continue to live there.
Torn down in 1959, the Garden of Allah was replaced by the Lytton Savings and Loan and a strip mall. Wanamaker mourns the loss of this piece of history. Now, a new twin tower mixed-use development is slated to be built on the site.
A model of the Garden of Allah — one that Wanamaker thinks Bart Lytton commissioned to be displayed in his Hollywood museum, which was once located under Lytton Savings — was turned up by David Meyers, a West Hollywood hair stylist and property manager.
“It was in bad shape, all covered with dust,” said Meyers, who found it years ago when he worked in the strip mall built on the Garden of Allah site. “I want to sell it to someone who will display it publicly,” Meyers said.
“The developer should buy the model and incorporate it into the site,” Wanamaker prodded an interviewer.