Thursday, 4 August 2016

The story of Morris "Two Gun" Cohen is the most bizarre you'll hear all year - it deserves a Hollywood film

We were recently at dinner with friends when, for some reason or other, the subject of British Jewish gangsters came up. One of the guests (an old school chum who happens to be half-Jewish - the other half's Cuban) was trying to remember the name of a spectacularly unpleasant razor-toting London thug of the '40s/'50s, and I supplied the name Jack Spot (actually Jack "Spot" Comer). Our host suggested adding Morris "Two Gun" Cohen to the list. For some reason, I could't stop laughing. Perhaps it's because there's something so cosily unthreatening about the name Morris Cohen - a doctor, accountant, academic, politician, black cabbie, okay, but it's just not the kind of name that lends itself to that type of swaggering, testosterone-charged sobriquet: it doesn't have the same ring as Israel "Ice pick Willie" Alderman, Jake "Greasy Thumb" Guzik, Abe "Kid Twist" Reles or Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel. Mickey Cohen works fine as a gangster's name, so I suspect it's Morris that's the problem here.

Our host elaborated: Morris Cohen was born in a Polish shtetl, was
brought to London by his parents, became a bit of an east End tearaway (among other things, he was a member of a pickpocketing gang), and was incarcerated. He was then sent abroad to Canada, where he worked as a farm labourer, after which he drifted into card-sharping, carnival-barking and general grifting, and ended up as a real estate broker (a natural career progression, some might say). Despite serving time for some of his activities, he ended up as a Commissioner for Oaths for Alberta. Along the way, he became accepted by the Chinese community after foiling a stick-up on a Chinese restaurant: he got along well with the downtrodden Chinese, and ended up becoming a supporter of their political hero, Sun Yat-sen. The First World War intervened: Cohen joined up and fought on the Western Front. He returned to Canada after the war, only to find the economy tanking, and, in 1922 travelled to China to bid for a contract to build a railway line. He and Sun Yat-sen took to each other, and he accepted an offer to become the leader's bodyguard/aide de camp.

Spot the odd man out (clue: he's in the front row, next to Chiang Kai-shek)
Cut a long story short - Cohen helped train Sun Yat-sen's soldiers...was shot in the hand during fighting and began carrying two guns...when Sun Yat-sen died of cancer in 1925, went on to work for a variety of Southern Chinese Kuomintang leaders, acting as an intermediary with Westerners... given the honorary rank of brigadier-general... ran guns for the Chinese when they were invaded by the Japanese in 1937....was arrested by the Japanese in 1941 and imprisoned...released in a prisoner exchange in 1943...back to Canada, married...biography published, became a mini-celebrity, but never really found a purpose in life...divorced...ended up living with relatives in Salford, where he died in 1970 at the age of 83.

The whole story is told in more detail in this fascinating 45 minute Canadian documentary:

The surprising thing about Morris Cohen's story is not that he constantly exaggerated his exploits (which he certainly did) - rather, it's that so much of his extraordinary story appears to be true.

Plans were announced in 2011 for a Hollywood film of Cohen's life - The Hollywood Reporter ran a story with the headline "Doug Liman to Direct Story of Sun Yat-sen's Bodyguard". Unfortunately, nothing seems to have come of it. What a pity: I'd pay to see a film about Morris "Two Gun" Cohen - and I'm no longer laughing at his nickname. Perhaps the most surprising thing of all is that he never managed to master the Chinese language, relying instead on pidgin.

Our dinner party host recommended Daniel Levy's well-regarded 1997 biography, Two Gun Cohen (available at a mere £1.99 on Kindle). Mind you, the cover's not a patch on the one for Hank Janson's 1959 "biography" of Jack Spot:

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