Feature Articles

June 2002

King Cohn and the Horse's Head

By John William Tuohy

     The horse's head in the bed story. It's become the stuff of film lore and American legend. But is it true?

     If it is, the film producer in question may have been Harry "King" Cohn, a nickname he had given himself, who rose out of the slums of New York, to become the head of a major American film studio. But, the streets never left him and Cohn was as rude, crude and vulgar. He regaled in his own ignorance and his ability to offend.

     As a producer, many people in the business considered Cohn to be the meanest, most vindictive and hard-nosed man in Hollywood, with a sadistic power fixation. Once, after visiting Italy in 1933 and befriending Mussolini, he would keep a signed photo of the Dictator on his desk until the war started, when Cohn returned to Hollywood and had his office remodeled after Il Duce's, with the desk risen on a dais from which he could look down at the writers and directors who worked under him; men like the talented Ben Hecht who despised Cohn and his famous temper tantrums, and gave him his nickname "White Fang."

     Starlets who worked for Cohn had to endure at least one "hell week" of sleeping with Cohn if they intended to make it at Columbia, and, in 1948, it was Marilyn Monroe's turn. Cohn had always said that he considered Monroe "a second string no talent with tits" and that the only reason he hired her was that Tony Accardo, then boss of the Chicago mob, owned Monroe's career and had told Johnny Roselli to force Cohn into signing Monroe on with Columbia Studios.

     Cohn had his way with Monroe of course, giving her bit parts in exchange for the favors, but one day when she was summoned to his office for sex, the fickle and moody actress simply refused to go. She told Cohn that she was madly in love with Frank Sinatra, a man Cohn never liked anyway.

     Word about Monroe's defiance got around the studios, and Cohn fired her. As for Sinatra, who was at the bottom of his career and probably had no idea what the erratic Monroe had told Cohn, he was blacklisted off the lot.

     At about this same time, Cohn was producing the film "From Here to Eternity" and Sinatra, who had read the novel, desperately wanted to play the part of a character named Maggio, a slightly built but tough Italian-American. He was perfect for the part, and, if he got it, it would put him on top again . . . and Sinatra badly needed to get back on top again. He was out of work, owed $109,000 in back taxes, his voice was gone, and his fans had left after he divorced his long-suffering wife and married the actress Ava Gardner.

     Sinatra, again without any knowledge of the rift that Monroe had caused between him and Cohn, met with Cohn on Columbia's lot and asked for the part of Maggio but Cohn refused. "Cohn looked at me," Sinatra said, "funny like, and said 'Look Frank, that's an actor's part, a stage actor's part. You're nothing but a hoofer.'" Nobody really knows what happened next.

     According to Sinatra, who was already dogged in his career by the Dorsey story, Cohn changed his mind about giving Sinatra the part, after Frank agreed to take the role for $1,000 a week, a substantial drop from his usual price of $150,000 a film, even though nobody in Hollywood was willing to pay him a fraction of that price. The other version of what happened was depicted in the film "The Godfather" when a decapitated $600,000 horse head ends up in the bed of a Hollywood producer named Jack Woltz, who refuses to hire singer Johnny Fontiane, a Mafia don's godson, for a film "that will put me back on top again" and it does too, just as the role of Maggio landed Sinatra back on top.

     What is certain, is that after Cohn turned Sinatra down for the part, that Sinatra called Frank Entratta, who fronted at the Sands Casino for the powerful New York Mafia Don, Frank Costello and his partners, labor goon Joe Adonis and Chicago's Paul Ricca and Tony Accardo.

     Entratta was a close, personnel friend of Harry Cohn, they were regular fishing partners on weekends, but even the phone calls from Entratta didn't budge Cohn to hand the part to Sinatra.

     Then, according to Johnny Roselli, Entratta went directly to Frank Costello on Sinatra's behalf, and, working with Chicago's permission, Costello contacted Johnny Roselli out in Las Vegas and asked him to look into "this Cohn problem."

     Johnny Roselli knew Cohn, they had first met back in the early 1930s right after both arrived in Hollywood and Roselli was still running numbers, and selling the occasional shipment of heroin around the studio lots. Cohn took an immediate liking to Roselli, which was easy to do, Roselli was chosen for the job by the bosses because he was likable.

     Soon, Roselli was a regular visitor to Cohn's house, where he could be found lounging around the pool or playing tennis on most weekends in the late 1930s and when Cohn separated from his first wife in 1936, Roselli found him a penthouse to live in at Sunset Plaza, a luxury bungalow complex at the opposite side of Columbia Studios, and Roselli rented the ground floor from Cohn. Once, when Roselli remarked that he wanted to get out of the rackets and go into show business, Cohn offered him a position at Columbia as a producer at $500 a week, about four times the average national income.

     However, Roselli turned it down, saying "I get more then that from the waitresses who take bets from me." The two men were so close that the FBI, who were tailing Roselli off and on over the years, figured he was Cohn's bodyguard.

     The core of the friendship was gambling. Cohn was a gambler and Roselli was his bookie, in fact Cohn was so obsessed with horse racing, he even had Roselli arrange to have a transmitter for the horse racing results brought directly into his office at the studio. He and Roselli shared a betting pool of over $15,000, an enormous amount of money in the Thirties, and Roselli, under orders from Chicago, made sure that Cohn got all the right information on which races were winners and which were losers.

     Roselli also helped Cohn on the business front, like the time in 1932 when Cohn decided that he wanted to take control of Columbia Studios from his brother, Jack, who controlled the company finances from the corporate office in New York.

     The problem was that each brother owned a third of the company with the difference being held by a businessman named Joe Brandt, one of Jack Cohn's early partners. The Cohn brothers would meet occasionally in New York, but relations between them were strained, and toward the end neither would speak to the other without a wittiness present. The stress became too much for Joe Brandt, who said he would sell out to the first brother to give him $500,000 for his share of the business.

     Both brothers tried to raise the cash. However, it was in the midst of the Depression and the banks weren't lending, so Harry Cohn turned to Johnny Roselli for help. Roselli put Cohn in touch with New Jersey rackets boss Longy Zwillman, who was worth millions in cold, hard cash. Zwillman, who had deep interests in Hollywood, loaned Cohn the money to buy Brandt, no doubt taking his pound of flesh in return.

     Cohn returned the favor to Roselli in 1937 when the hood had an opportunity to buy into the Santa Anita race track with Bugsy Siegel for $20,000. Cohn gave Roselli the money to make the deal and, several months later, when Roselli gave Cohn a check for the $20,000 he borrowed, plus interest, Cohn refused to take the interest money, and insisted that Roselli rewrite the check just for the balance owed. Roselli took the difference, and, reverting to an old Italian custom, purchased two matching rings, star rubies in gold which would symbolize their friendship for life. Roselli wore one and gave the other to Cohn who wore it with pride.

     Then Roselli got locked away for his role in the Bioff scandal, his name was poison in Hollywood and after his release from prison, Cohn, like so many other people in the business, didn't want anything to do with Johnny Roselli, in fact, when Roselli needed Cohn to put him on the payroll so he could get parole, Cohn refused, claiming that the studio's investors would balk.

     Roselli was stunned and hurt, and swore his revenge.

     Now, using the Sinatra business as his excuse, Roselli would have his revenge. In a tense meeting in Cohn's office, Roselli reportedly ordered Cohn to give Sinatra the part of Angelo Maggio in the film. Cohn not only refused, he told Roselli, "John, if we have a problem here, I'm going to have to make some phone calls," referring to Cohn's own considerable contact in the underworld.

     But Roselli had the backing of the entire national syndicate behind him and knew that Cohn was defenseless. "Harry," he said, "If we have a problem here, you're a fucking dead man."

     In the end Sinatra got the part and the Academy Award to boot.

Mr. Tuohy can be reached by writing to

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