In his 1975 memoir Mickey Cohen: In My Own Words: The Underworld Biography of Michael Mickey Cohen as Told to Peter Nugent (1), Mickey Cohen brags of holding up a gambling club operated by Edward G. “Eddie” Nealis as a “favor” to Bugsy Siegel.
Cohen says he was holding a shotgun; the other men, including henchman “Hooky” Rothman, had pistols. One of the women patrons they robbed was a “beautiful blonde”
After the stickup, Cohen says, Rothman told him that the blonde was film star Betty Grable, adding that the man with her was the bandleader Harry James.
Cohen goes on to describe another incident two years later, when journalist Florabel Muir pointed out Grable at a party. “You met her before- you took her jewelry!” Muir said, Cohen recounts. Betty “took it very nice” according to Cohen, bending over to whisper in his ear “We were insured anyway.”
Cohen is vague about other details, such as when and where exactly.
Betty Grable and Harry James were present at a gambling club on the Sunset Strip, reputedly operated by Eddie Nealis, which was held one night up by six (or so) masked gunmen.
This wasn’t the Clover Club, the nightspot Nealis and others operated at 8477 Sunset, famous for its illicit gambling rooms. It was an unnamed club located at 9216 Sunset and it happened on the wee hours of New Year’s Eve: December 31, 1945.
Two of the thieves, armed with a sawed-off shotgun and a machine gun, held Betty and a dozen or so other celebrities against the wall with their hands up while the four others made off with the club’s reputed $75,000 bankroll. Betty, the only witness to go on record, insisted the patrons themselves had not been robbed.
As Hollywood nursed hangovers and welcomed the New Year of 1946, Sunset Strip was abuzz with talk of the heist. The only people who hadn’t heard about it, it seemed, were the county sheriffs. The authorities finally raided 9216 on January 4, 1946 but to the surprise of no one, didn’t find any gambling equipment present.
Because of Grable’s involvement, the story garnered national headlines. Local newspapers revealed that there had been another (likewise unreported) robbery of a half dozen prominent sporting figures at this same address “some months” previously, possibly the incident gossip columnist Hedda Hopper refers to in her column of October 3, 1945:
“That little hold-up on the Sunset Strip took $60,000 smackers away from six of our local bookies. They think they know the five masked bandits who did the trick. If they do, it’s going to be a very serious matter.”
Reporters for the Times nosed around and uncovered the fact that Eddie Nealis received mail at 9216 Sunset. Chief Clem Peoples of the Sheriff’s criminal division noted that an “interview” with the “sporting figure” had been arranged through Nealis’ lawyer, Jerry Geisler; the outcome, if it took place at all, went unreported. The Times did note that the unnamed gambling club was sited roughly 300 yards from a Nealis-run nightclub, The Colony House (9236 Sunset), soon thereafter renamed Henri’s.
If the local authorities were “shocked” to learn that Eddie Nealis was once again involved in local gambling,, the federal government was not. The FBI’s General Crime Survey prepared by the Los Angeles Field Division on April 15, 1945 (FBI File #62-75147-26) reports that Nealis was “building a night club and gambling spot in the Sunset Strip area of Los Angeles.” The FBI, which classed Nealis under the heading “Major Hoodlums,” notes that he formerly owned the Clover Club (“a notorious gambling spot in Los Angeles”) and had recently been manager of the race track in Tijuana before it was taken over by the Mexican government.
The authorities, and the local press too, apparently lost interest in Nealis when a man claiming responsibility as the club’s operator turned himself in. He was named as John “Jack” Alexander Waer. The Times identified him as a “writer.”
Waer hadn’t come forward or reported the hold-up earlier because he’d been sick in bed with the flu, he said. He remembered the robbery somewhat differently than Betty; where Betty saw six men and a machine gun, Waer insisted there was one man with a pistol. Refusing to reveal his backer, he paid a fine for operating an illegal gambling club and was released (2).
Waer, who is also used the name Alexander John Warchiwker according to his naturalization forms, was born in Warsaw Poland in February 1896. He came to Los Angeles sometime after 1930, having previously lived in Detroit. In 1942 he listed Eddie Nealis as his employer on his WWII draft registration card; his job description was not specified. However, he was arrested on gambling charges in July 1943, when D.A. investigators raided an office in the Lissner Building at 524 S. Spring St. and found Waer running a dice game.
The Times had called Waer a writer after the NYE 1945 hold-up. He may well have been one; In any case, he became a writer for sure by 1954 with publication of his novel 17 and Black (later issued in paperback as Sweet and Lowdown).
17 and Black is not a good book- in fact, it’s pretty awful. But it is of historical interest in light of Waer’s association with illegal gambling in Hollywood and this 1945 hold-up.
The story is told from the perspective of Jim Foster, a gambler who got his start in Detroit and now manages the illicit Cosmopolitan Gambling Club (which seems to be modeled after the Colony Club, a contemporary of the Clover Club and operated by the same management), located just off the Sunset Strip in a former mansion. The “swankiest casino ever to operate in the movie capital,” it is backed by a powerful local gambling syndicate and caters to Hollywood A-listers and rich society folk.
The front man for the Cosmo is Duke Nolan, “polished, handsome, devil-with-the ladies, millionaire rich in unearned wealth…Not very bright, but smart enough to beat the other heirs to his uncle’s fortune- the one the old man built up running a small book into million-dollar deals in syndicate operations…In a way Duke earned his place on the West Coast gambling organization. He was always good for a chunk of bankroll as long as he was allowed to play the big shot. As a front man for an operation, his personal charm, his dapper good looks, and his way with the dames had a certain value.”
The Cosmo is held up on Christmas Eve by a gang of 4 or 5 gunmen who make off with 60 Gs (the same out mentioned by Hedda Hopper in reference to another Strip gambling club holdup). Foster warns the celebrity guests to say nothing of the robbery, but knows it will be “all over town by morning” so stays up all night clearing out all the Cosmo’s gambling equipment. “If the Vice Squad paid us a visit they’d find us holy as a church.” As predicted, word of the robbery gets out and the Times writes an “insinuating” editorial hinting at bribery and inefficiency on the part of the Vice Squad. Foster meets with the four syndicate heads at Nolan’s Bel Air mansion to discuss what to do.
“We may be forced to report the holdup and plead guilty to the charge of operating.” one of the syndicate says. Foster is chosen as the fall guy. The aren’t worried about the authorities getting too nosy: “the fuzz are as anxious as we are to get the reporters out of their hair.”
“It’s all fixed,” another of syndicate reports. “Somebody calls the Vice Squad and tells them he’ll be in to report a robbery. Then he goes down and files about a stick-up. They book him and he pleads guilty of operating. The judge’ll give him 30 days suspended and slap 300 fine on him before he bangs his gavel. The clerk’ll relieve him of the 300 bucks, and he’ll walk out of the place.” (3)
As for the real life robbery at 9216 Sunset Strip on NYE 1945, Deputy Sheriff Arthur C. Jewel stated a few days into the “investigation” that the gunmen responsible were “believed to be from the East.” The following day he reported that five Kansas City and St. Louis hoodlums had been identified as the possible gunmen. Three months later, Deputy Sheriff Al Guasti officially attributed the robbery to a Kansas City gang who had just pulled off a holdup in Denver with an M.O. strikingly similar to the job at 9216 Sunset, as well as a third robbery that had occurred in Ocean Park on June 27, 1945 (the one referenced by Hedda Hopper). From witnesses’ descriptions of the gunman, he said, he had identified four as belonging to the Kansas gang. The incident was closed (4).
(1) Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975.
(2) In September 1948 Waer testified in a county grand jury investigation into Mickey Cohen’s alleged gambling club operations at the Dincara Stock Farm in Burbank. Waer, who had by then moved to Las Vegas and was working as a dealer at the Hotel El Rancho Vegas (the casino was at the time managed by Guy McAfee, Tutor Scherer and Farmer Page, former partners in the Clover Club), told the grand jury that he had been in charge of setting up the illicit casino at Dincara in 1946. Cohen would later brag about “his” operation at Dincara but it seems likely Zeke Caress et al had some hand in it initially, given the Caress family connection. Waer was also a witness in Cohen’s 1951 tax evasion trial, as one of the parties who had “loaned” money to Cohen. He died in Las Vegas in 1966.
(3) In the novel, “Foster” is made a patsy by the gang and ends up doing jail time. He later goes to Mexico City with “Nolan” ostensibly to set up a swank casino for the syndicate there. Waer wrote at least one other novel, entitled Murder in Las Vegas.
(4) Jewell retired in 1950. Guasti was later implicated in the Guarantee Finance scandal, which also involved- there’s that man again- Mickey Cohen, and was sentenced to prison for perjury in 1951.