Billy Graham, the Cowboy, the Wiretapper, and the Mobster
In Billy Graham’s 1949 Los Angeles Tent Crusade over 350,000 people came to the “Canvas Cathedral” during eight exciting weeks. According to the media about 3,000 people trusted Christ or “hit the sawdust trail.” Thousands of hearers listened intently as Graham preached nightly while thousands more listened outside the tent and in their parked cars.
Stuart Hamblen was a skirt chasing, boozing, fighting, cowboy radio star in Los Angeles. He heard of the Billy Graham stir around L.A. and wanted him on his show. He attended the tent meeting one night and he thought Graham called him a fake during his message. Hamblen stomped out and two nights later he appeared at Graham’s hotel door at 4:00 a.m. drunk as a skunk. He wanted Graham to pray for him. About 5:00 p.m. he trusted Christ. His life was changed immediately. He stopped his wild, hedonist living and soon the Hollywood crowd began to shun him. He was fired from his popular radio show because he refused to accept a beer commercial. Wow, a man of principle.
John, one of his old Hollywood drinking buddies, asked him one day if “getting religion” was worth all the repercussions and Stuart told him it was. John said, “But Stuart you sure liked your booze, don’t you miss it?” He told him that he did not miss it and John said, “I don’t understand how you could give it up so easily.” Stuart replied, “It’s no secret what God can do.” His friend replied, “That’s a catchy phrase. You should write a song about it.” He did. Stu went home sat down at the piano and finished the song in 17 minutes. His new gospel song, “It is no secret what God can do” was the first song to cross over from Gospel to country to pop ballad reaching number one on all three charts.
His drinking buddy was John Wayne with whom he appeared in some of his ten movies where he had minor roles.
Hamblen wrote other Christian songs and “This Old House” written for his friend Rosemary Clooney was a big hit. It went to number two on the country field chart and remained there for 30 weeks. It was also named the “Song of the Year.” Most people totally missed the message.
When publisher William Randolph Hearst heard about some of the Hollywood crowd trusting Christ and getting involved, he sent a telegram to every editor in his newspaper syndicate: “Puff Graham.” Thus, began a wild ride for a lifetime of a preacher and the media, a media that never writes a critical word about him.
Hearst’s sons told Graham that their father attended the tent revival in disguise, in a wheelchair accompanied by his mistress, actress Marion Davies. Because of Hearst’s promotion of the meeting, it was extended five weeks. Hearst had promoted Evangelist Billy Sunday and Mary Baker Patterson Eddy in earlier years.
Other stars impacted by Graham’s meeting included the beautiful, brassy, buxom Jane Russell, Dennis Morgan, Virginia Mayo, Porter Hall, Connie Haines, Michael O’Shea, Roy Rogers, and Dale Evans.
Another “star” walked the sawdust trail: Jim Vaus, Jr., infamous wiretapper for the number one mobster in L.A., Mickey Cohen. Cohen was uneducated but coy, violent, and street smart. Wow, things were getting interesting in the old tent. Jim was an electronic genius and worked surreptitiously (and illegally) for the L.A. Police procuring evidence to convict prostitutes and crooks; later spying on Mickey Cohen. Jim discovered there was more money working for Cohen than the cops so he decided to go full time with crime.
Cohen collected celebrities like others collect baseball cards. Bob Mitchem, Sammy Davis, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and many other stars kissed his ring. Among his girlfriends were Candy Barr, Tempest Storm, and Beverly Hills. I think those were pseudonyms.
Cohen was a street thug with a second grade education from New York. He was in a reform school at age ten and ran from home at 15. At nine he was delivering illegal booze made by his brothers in a Brooklyn drug store. He worked the rackets in Cleveland and Chicago (with Al Capone, his idol) ending up working for Bugsy Siegel in Las Vegas. Siegel had been the crime boss in L.A. but moved to Vegas to build and operate the Flamingo Hotel, anticipating the gambling tsunami that was sweeping the nation. Siegel was skimming money from the New York bosses and mismanaging the Flamingo so the mob assassinated him at his girlfriend’s apartment.
After Siegel’s murder in 1947, Cohen consolidated his hold on crime in L.A. Somehow he discovered that Vaus had bugged his house for the L.A. police but he didn’t kill him; he hired him to spy on the cops.
But Jim had been converted, not simply signing a decision card; and Graham hired him and asked him to set up a meeting with Cohen. They met at Mickey’s Brentwood home for five hours. There is no doubt that each man “played” the other. Graham knew the results if he won the number one L.A. mobster to Christ and Cohen liked being identified with this newly famous preacher. Both men revealed their relationship to the public, Cohen even stated that he and Graham were going to vacation together at a Tucson dude ranch.
It didn’t hurt Cohen’s reputation to be identified with Graham since Cohen was about to go to prison for five years for income tax evasion. Only God knows how serious Cohen was considering becoming a Christian but he was reluctant to reject his Jewish roots to become a Southern Baptist. That’s a massive leap–which he should have made in my opinion.
Graham refused to let go of the relationship even stating, “Mickey Cohen is not as bad as America thinks,” and added “I am praying that after he pays his debt to society he will give his heart and life to Christ. He has the makings of one of the greatest gospel preachers of all time, and I mean that.” (Billy said about the same about Bill Clinton.) Informed people knew that Cohen was a loveable killer, thief, and general mobster who had been the object of eleven assassination attempts by other mobsters. Cohen told Mike Wallace on ABC that he had never killed anyone who didn’t deserve killing.
Some highly visible Christians pressed Cohen to trust Christ and change his hedonistic lifestyle and he told them “You never told me I had to give up my career. You never told me that I had to give up my friends. There are Christian movie stars, Christian athletes, Christian businessmen. So what’s the matter with being a Christian gangster? If I have to give up all that—if that’s Christianity—count me out.”
Mickey Cohen was always out. He went to jail again for income tax evasion, got out in 1972, and died of stomach cancer in 1976. He died leaving an estate of $3,000 and a tax bill of about $500,000. I don’t know what happened to Candy Barr.
However, Stuart Hamblen totally changed after his conversion to Christ as did Jim Vaus. Jim went on to preach until his death in 1997. No one questions Jim’s conversion because he was a changed man. Just before his conversion he had stolen $15,000 of electronic equipment and he sold his home and car to make restitution. “Restitution” a strange word not heard much anymore. Nor practiced.
It is interesting that Graham never had another meeting like the L.A. tent meeting. No doubt many people trusted Christ over his lifetime but Graham changed after the L.A. meeting. He rejected Christian fundamentalism and became a middle of the roader, working with anyone who could produce a crowd. Graham sincerely chose to do wrong that good might result.
Casting his lot with liberal, unbelieving clergy was the biggest mistake Billy Graham ever made.
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