Betty Grable and Harry James
Betty Grable and Harry James

On New Year’s Eve 1945, a Hollywood society crowd celebrated at an opulently appointed gambling club on the Sunset Strip that was so exclusive it needed no name. Before the countdown to 1946 could begin, however, a disturbance disrupted the festivities – a squad of six armed robbers, their faces masked with kerchiefs, invaded the club.
Their leader, a short chunky man in a fedora, stood watch as his men took control with brusque efficiency. Some collected the guests’ wallets and jewelry while others cleaned out the cashier’s cage. The job completed, the men exited to a black sedan waiting at the curb. Trailing behind, the leader paused and gave a wave to his victims, brazenly wishing them a hearty “Happy New Year!”

before climbing into the car and speeding away. Among his stunned prey were Betty Grable, a nubile blonde movie star who had been the war’s most popular pinup, her husband, musician Harry James, A-list directors Edmund Goulding and Sam Wood and Irene Selznick, a true Movieland royal, who was both the wife of “Gone with the Wind” producer David O. Selznick and the daughter of powerful MGM mogul, Louis B. Mayer.

The heist was spectacular, a $75,000 take, nearly a million dollars today. Flawlessly planned and executed, the raid’s leader was Mickey Cohen. Once an enforcer for the East Coast syndicate’s operations in Los Angeles headed by Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, he was now a rising underworld star. But stealing the cash and jewels was not Cohen’s primary objective. The real point was to send a message to the club’s owner, a man who for years had stubbornly resisted Siegel’s absolute control. The message was unambiguous: gambling operations on the Sunset Strip that were not sanctioned by Bugsy Siegel would not be tolerated.

As a slice of history, the New Year’s Eve raid presents in microcosm the key elements at play on the Sunset Strip in its early days: Hollywood royals out on the town; a plush nightspot; covert, high-stakes gambling; and warring gangsters running amok. The amount of cash stolen is also illustrative. There were a half-dozen or more gaming rooms operating nightly on the Strip at any given time. If each of them took in just half the amount stolen that New Year’s Eve, the revenue from gambling on the Strip, in today’s dollars, would total in the hundreds of millions of dollars a year – all of it illegal.