The great work begins
“A man who loves people, loves animals. He once jumped into a river to save a dog … He does the work of any five lawyers.”
—Tom Bolan, Roy Cohn’s
law partner, testifying at Cohn’s disbarment hearings “I don’t kid myself about Roy. He was no Boy Scout. He once told me that he’d spent more than two-thirds of his adult life under indictment on one charge or another.” —Donald Trump, The Art of the Deal
Roy Cohn was a Democrat, though he’s mostly known for his associations with Republicans like Joseph McCarthy and Ronald Reagan and the current American president (though when Donald Trump was Cohn’s acolyte he was sometimes a Democrat too). It doesn’t matter what they call you, Cohn might have said, only that they call you, only that you colonize their thoughts.
Cohn fascinated me. When he died on Aug. 2, 1986, I felt cheated, in the same way as when Andy Warhol died. I didn’t think of them as mortal.
He was a plague victim, though he denied it to the end. Liver cancer, he said. He went on 60 Minutes in March of 1986 and, when Mike Wallace asked, lied: “I’ll tell you categorically, I do not have AIDS.”
Sure, he acknowledged the rumors. The rumors went way back. “It’s a cinch, Mike,” Cohn said. “Take this set of facts: bachelor, unmarried, middle-aged—well, young middle-aged. The stories go back to the [McCarthy] days.”
Not many people are like Roy Cohn. It’s surprising that some aspire to be like him. He was one of the most reviled Americans of the 20th century. But he was one of the most powerful too, and maybe he was right, maybe the universe is unregulated by moral intelligence, just the vacuum in which we fleetingly frolic. Maybe there is no glory greater than inspiring the envy of our lessers.
It’s tempting to think of Cohn as a literary character, for that’s what Tony Kushner made of him in his remarkable play Angels in America.
“You come to room 1013 over at the hospital, I’ll show you America,” one character tells another. “Terminal, crazy and mean.”
Cohn is the man in Room 1013. Or rather, he’s “the polestar of human evil, he’s like the worst human being who ever lived, he isn’t human even, he’s …” The actor’s voice trails off. There are no words.
In the scene before, we’d heard from Kushner’s Cohn, advising a young Mormon husband he’d like to seduce: “Love; that’s a trap. Responsibility; that’s a trap too. Like a father to a son I tell you this: Life is full of horror; nobody escapes, nobody; save yourself. Whatever pulls on you, whatever needs from you, threatens you. Don’t be afraid; people are so afraid; don’t be afraid to live in the raw wind, naked, alone…. Learn at least this: What you are capable of. Let nothing stand in your way.”
It’s a great and terrible speech, based on Cohn’s own words. The devil always gets the best lines.
Cohn framed the guilty Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1951; he bragged in his autobiography that he convinced Judge Irving Kaufman to impose the death penalty (if true, he acted unethically). He beat out Robert Kennedy to become Tailgunner Joe’s chief counsel and collaborated in cooking up campaigns against “egg-sucking phony liberals” and “communists and queers.” The Army-McCarthy hearing made the young lawyer a household name.
Cohn’s childhood was bizarre. His father—a New York State Supreme Court justice—was gentle but distant. His mother Dora was possessive and mad. In 1953 at the Passover Seder the Cohns traditionally held for family and friends, Cohn returned home from the McCarthy hearings. As the youngest person at the table, if fell to him to read the traditional question from the Haggadah: “Why is this night different from all others?”
“Because the maid died in the pantry,” Dora irritably answered. Before her guests arrived she’d ordered the body removed from the kitchen to the servants’ quarters to await the coroner.
Cohn lived with his mother until she died in 1967, and up until that time he remained closeted. After her death he moved to Manhattan and lived flamboyantly. His second act was as a power broker and king maker, a fixer who ingratiated himself with the Democratic power structure in New York City.
Political operative Roger Stone claims that during the presidential campaign of 1980, Cohn bribed an influential lawyer in order to secure John Anderson the liberal party of New York’s nomination. Anderson subsequently took votes away from Jimmy Carter and allowed Ronald Reagan to win the state with 46 percent of the vote.
He worked for Queens developer Fred Trump and helped Fred’s son Donald navigate the far more complex Manhattan real estate world. Sometimes when the future president found himself having trouble in a negotiation, he’d pull a picture of Cohn out of his drawer and ask his adversary, “Would you rather deal with this guy?”
Cohn fell out with Trump in his last days, in part because Trump gave him a pair of what appeared to be diamond cufflinks. They turned out to be zirconium. Cohn got back at him by stiffing Trump on a hotel tab.
But, contrary to some reports, Trump did go to Cohn’s funeral. He didn’t speak, he wasn’t a pallbearer. He stood quietly at the back. (Ronald and Nancy Reagan couldn’t make it, though Cohn was buried in a tie bearing the president’s name.)
By Cohn’s lights he won—he died broke, owing the IRS millions of dollars. Some people would call that smart.