When Reds Was Struck Down, the Family Stepped Up

"Reds" Cohan, a bookmaker of a bygone era.
I am proud and pleased to present this excerpt from Hillary Cohan's published memoir, titled "Growing Up Jewish in the Mob." [This is a revised version of a story originally posted prior to the book's publication.]

Hillary's father was Nathan "Reds" Cohan, a top mob bookie who operated in the Washington, D.C., area for much of Hillary's early life. Reds passed away on December 2, 1988, in Savannah, Georgia.

Hillary does not "name names" in her book, admitting her father was connected to one of New York's five families as a top bookie.

He was of the Jewish faith; many don't understand the extent of the contribution made by the "Jewish mafia" to the establishment of Cosa Nostra; before the Italians, Jews and other ethnic groups had together formed an outfit called "The Combination," which developed and implemented many of the racketeers that the Mafia would later dominate--and take credit for.

Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, for example, is widely known for his participation in operating Murder Inc. (bodies of victims killed by that group of professional hit men are still being found). But he was also a pioneer of labor racketeering in New York City during that era.

From Meyer Lansky operating at Luciano's side as they wisely formed and broke alliances, killing anyone in their way, to Bugsy Siegel sent out West, Jewish gangsters played pivotal roles in the history of organized crime. Jewish gunmen are believed to have killed both Joe Massaria and Salvatore Maranzano, ending The Castellammarese War, as it was called, and ushering in a new era in organized crime in which Lucky Luciano played a key role in establishing the Mafia Commission and allowing non-Italians to work freely with Mafia members (something Maranzano was deadset against).

"Reds" connections to New York once saved the lives of his entire family. [Yes, there once was a degree of honor among some thieves.]

Cohan had been struck down by a nervous breakdown and was inside a hospital where doctors administered the barbaric treatments of the day. The former husband of a member of the Cohan household threatened to kill the family. A call was placed to New York; an address given. The former husband wasn't murdered but probably spent years, if not the rest of his life, recuperating from his injuries.

In the chapter, we are offered an engaging account of a 12-year-old girl's response to the FBI needlessly breaking down her door.

Apparently, even 12 year olds can be a threat; Hillary found herself staring down the barrels of not one but two guns. Question: do the Feds ever try knocking?


Hillary Cohan, today.
            It was January 1971 and I was twelve going on thirteen.  Mom was the Girl Scouts cookie chairman. One winter day, Reds left our house in Washington, D.C., and went with his good friend Bo Bregman for a day at the races with the boys.
            I was in my bedroom reading when I heard a knock at the front door. Now my room was closest to the front door, so as usual, I went to see who it was. I shouldn't have bothered because as I approached the door, it shattered and flew open. Two FBI agents  filed in quickly. What held my focus was the firepower I was facing down: namely, the two large guns the agents were holding stiff-armed before them. This remains one of the scariest moments in my life.
            Mom came running out and said, "What's going on?"
            The FBI agents, seemingly convinced that the young girl and her mommy were no threat, and that Reds wasn't going to leap out of a closet with a grenade launcher in one hand and a flame thrower in the other, re-holstered their guns and  introduced themselves, one of them flashing a warrant. They proceeded to search the house. In the meantime, Uncle Duck had shown up and they suddenly fell on top of him trying to squeeze  his wrists behind him and into a metal bracelet. They thought they had gotten lucky -- Reds had walked into the house at the perfect moment. Then they realized Uncle Duck was about thirty years younger than the man they wanted. The FBI was efficient that day, neutralizing a child and her mother and a young unarmed friend of the family who had happened to stop by. And if things weren't bad enough, they told Mom that they had bugged the phones and had Dad dead to rights.
            I got so pissed off that I struck with my hand the glass-topped dining room table.  When I went to get a bandage, an agent grabbed my hand and asked what I was doing.  I told him to get off of me. Mom came running over and handed me a bandage and told me to take my brother to the playground. The FBI didn't want us to go, but Mom insisted that we leave.
            As I noted, Mom was the Girl Scout cookie chairman that year and some of the agents said that they were hungry.  Mom asked why that was her problem.  After they had finished searching the house, Mom made all the agents buy Girl Scout cookies.

Hillary and parents; she was the apple of Red's eye.
Reds returned home later, after the agents had gone. Someone had dropped word to him at the racetrack that a couple of uninvited agents were dropping by. He learned about this too late to warn us, however. He also was unable to call because he had been informed about the tapped phones.
            At the time, Reds was doing business with some members of the New York-based Italian Mafia. He was considered a friend and confidant by many high level Mafiosi, and went to Miami every winter and not for vacation.
            The FBI had broken in because they had thought that Reds was one of the big shots in the Jewish Mafia. Apparently, the FBI had not gotten their information correct, we children were told, because my father was only a bettor and not even a bookie. (I found out later that we were only told that, that the FBI was indeed correct. But my father’s thinking went: The less we knew the better.)

I was in sixth grade and my brother was in fourth grade at Ben W. Murch Elementary School in D.C.  Every morning and every afternoon a black Ford LTD drove us to and from school. After the raid, our lives were screwed because the whole thing was in the Washington Post and half of our friends were no longer allowed to play with us because of who our family was.
            Life was really different with Reds after this.  The FBI, Metropolitan Police Department, and other law enforcement agencies kept calling the house in the middle of the night to harass him.  They were literally driving my father to the brink of mental destruction.  A man that loved his family and had tried to keep us out of the business -- he was being harassed by law enforcement and there seemed to be no way out.
Reds took off for a couple of months to see if things would cool off in D.C. for him.  This would also give his attorney, Cliff, a chance to work out the situation.

Happier days: Reds enjoys a cigar at the beach.
            Reds stayed down there and sent me cards and gifts.  Mom was pissed because she didn't get anything.  I was the apple of Reds' eye after all -- his favorite kid.
            When he returned, it eventually became too much for my mother. She couldn't take anymore after a while.  She started drinking.  She mostly was drinking screw drivers, vodka and orange juice.  When she stopped getting satisfaction from her drinking, I became her focus.
            On a typical night Mom called me and my brother into the living room and she would sit in the big chair and I would sit on the couch.  It all started innocently and without violence.  Mom would talk to me about things that were going on and she wanted to hear about what was going on with me.  I was only in sixth grade so there wasn't much to tell.  After all, I still played with Barbies and really didn't go out anywhere.
            Then one night Mom went off on me.  She started accusing me of having sex and doing things that I never had done -- or had even heard of.  My brother realized that this wasn't going to be good for me, so he left the room and went to his bedroom and closed the door.
            It took a while but eventually she started smacking me across my face for not agreeing with her or accepting guilt.  Reds appeared and told her to stop what she was doing to me because it wasn't right.  He also told Mom that he knew that she was taking this whole break-in and all the pressure they were under out on me.  I was Mom's target.

            Then one night my brother dashed into his room and locked his door. Mom kept yelling at me and I finally exploded: "I don't know what the hell you are talking about! I don't do things like that!"  I was just a kid and she was totally fixated on sex – believing for some reason I had an active sex life. And at my age! I got a lot off my chest on that night, but I knew I was always waking up a dragon.
            I stood up to walk away and she pushed me down onto the floor.  Then she sat down on top of me, she weighed 140 lbs and I weighed 100 lbs.  She put her knees on my upper arms and proceeded to beat me in the face.  Reds came running to the living room when he heard me screaming. Reds grabbed Mom by her hair and yanked her off me.
             Reds told her not to ever touch "my daughter again."
            Reds pulling Mom off of me woke her up.  She finally realized that her whole world was falling apart quickly and her drinking wasn't helping it any.  With everything Reds was going through, he didn't need Mom adding to the problem.

To top all that off, right after this happened my brother-in-law James, Paula's husband, kidnapped all four children, and Paula didn't know where they were.  She called Reds and Mom to tell them what was happening.  As if Reds and Mom needed anything else going on at this point!
            That was it, Reds couldn't take anymore anguish or bad news. This was the worst time in my childhood. Reds was seeing a number of doctors at this point for his depression over the break-in and the harassment -- but the kidnapping took its toll.
            Reds ended up in the Washington Sanitarium with a nervous breakdown.  Mom didn't work because Reds had never let her, so we were really in dire straits now.  I was only twelve and my whole life changed drastically.  I went from being a little Jewish American Princess of Reds Cohan to being Reds Cohan's emotional wreck of a daughter who couldn't handle any more stress.
            Even the family wasn't coming around.  The fear that the FBI and police were watching, kept them away.  They couldn't even help with money.  It really sucked.
            We went from eating steaks, seafood, and whatever we wanted to barely having hamburger and chicken twice a week.  We had to let go of the two maids.  One of them, Rosie, was very close to us. She even flew down to Florida with us to babysit me and my brother while Reds and Mom hit the town at night.
            Mom would take us with her every day after school to see Reds.  It was horrible to see him deteriorating so badly. The doctors were giving Reds electric shock treatments.  After a while, Reds would just sit there and one night he didn't recognize me.  I ran outside and just kept crying.  My brother came out and said, "Don't worry, we'll have Dad back soon."
            We went to see him early one day and that was a huge mistake.  When we got there they were bringing him back from a shock treatment and he still was strapped down on the bed and had an ugly strange looking mark on his forehead.  It was disgusting.
Time sped by. I was growing up faster than my friends.  I finally had my first real confrontation with a man since becoming a woman.  It was absolutely horrible.
            My brother and I were doing our usual exploring of the Sanitarium. When I was alone one day, a hospital patient, who was about six feet or more, grabbed me in the hall way and dragged me to a secluded spot and started trying to molest me.  I kicked him between the legs to get him off of me.  I told my brother what had happened and he and I had vowed never to be alone in the hospital again.
            While Reds was in the Sanitarium, we had no money and no hope.  He was in there for one year and, in that one year, I think on the inside I had grown twenty years.
            As a matter of fact, Paula had heard from James' sister in Prince George's County, Maryland, that the kids were with her and could she come and get them.  James had kidnapped the kids because Paula wanted a divorce from him.
            James was emotionally unstable and had even shot himself in the stomach one time because of jealousy over Paula.
Before Paula went to get the kids, I rode with her to visit Reds.  We followed Mom and my brother over to the hospital in a rental car that Paula got from the airport after her flight from Florida.
            When we got to the Sanitarium, our sister Bobby was pulling up also.  Bobby and Paula had never gotten along at all.  They were opposites and I was in between the two of them as far as personality traits went.  When they saw each other, neither one said a word.  I just stood there and waited for the sparks to fly but they never did.  At least both of them realized that this was not the place nor the time for it.
            Our visit with Reds was as usual.  He didn't know who any of us were and I just couldn't accept the fact that he didn't know his little girl.  Having my sisters staring at each other with hateful looks didn't help much either, I suppose.
            Paula brought the kids back to Mom and Dad's and they were a mess.  My ex-brother-in-law didn't bathe these kids or feed them much.  They smelled really bad.  They were scared to death of us because of all the physical and mental abuse James had put them through.
            Debi was a baby and in the worst condition.  She wore a diaper that had been on her for at least two days.  After getting them bathed and fed, Uncle Sam, my Dad's oldest brother, called.  He said that James had called him and threatened to kill him if he didn't get his kids back as soon as possible.
            About an hour later, after Paula and Mom had put the kids to bed, the phone rang.  It was James.  He told Mom that he knew that Paula was there with the kids and that if she didn't go back to him and be a family again he was not only going to kill her and the kids but kill Mom, my brother and me.
            This was not turning into a very good night for us.  Mom told James that they were not there. Thank goodness the kids had all gone to bed and were sound asleep.
            Mom made a phone call to a member of my father’s other “family” [one of New York’s five families] and explained what was going on.  He said he'd call back in a little bit.  Since some of the heat was off because Dad was in the Sanitarium, the family could help us.
            The phone call came about half an hour later and Mom was asked where James was at the time.  She got the address from Paula and he said he’d call back.
            Just when we were about to go to sleep, the phone rang.  We were told that it so happened that someone had beaten James to a bloody pulp, with bones broken, but still breathing. He was also told to stay away from Reds and his family, or he’d be killed, no questions asked.
Months after the FBI broke into Mom and Reds' house, we learned that the FBI had called my Mom’s entire family, asking them about Reds Cohan, and in the process, telling them what they thought they knew about him.
            Some of the family knew who Red was, but a lot of them thought he was an accountant; that was what we were told to tell everyone.
            Some family members were so shocked that they hung up on the Feds without saying anything. Others said, "Reds who?"
            That's what family is all about.  No rats in this one.  Not even baby rats.


  1. I can't wait to read the new version -- Reds seems like a fascinating man ... why the plural nickname : "Reds" and not "Red?"

    1. Hi, I really don't know. He had the nickname since 1927 when he started in the biz. I never thought to ask my Dad that question. But, it is a good one. Hillary Cohan, Author and daughter of Nathan "Reds" Cohan of Washington, DC

  2. I only have a few memories from my childhood of Reds. The man always had a warm smile, a hearty laugh, and an overabundance of big hugs whenever you wanted one. I wish I had gotten to spend more time with him and your mom, but I look back on those times that we did fondly.

  3. Jews and other ethnic groups formed an outfit called "the combination"....? What other ethnic groups were those? So many falsehoods abound about a so called "combination" that never actually existed.

    1. What about guys like Waxey Gordon? Do you know every single one was Jewish; I used Combination like a formal name, I probably shouldn't have, I'll concede that much.

    2. The Jews were powerful in the Mob, but I think it was only a one generation thing. They made sure their kids did not choose that lifestyle. Correct me if I am wrong.


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