Roy Cohn

Roy Marcus Cohn (/kn/; February 20, 1927 – August 2, 1986) was an American lawyer who came to prominence for his role as Senator Joseph McCarthy's chief counsel during the Army–McCarthy hearings in 1954, when he assisted McCarthy's investigations of suspected communists. Modern historians view his approach during those hearings as dependent on demagogic, reckless and unsubstantiated accusations against political opponents. In the late 1970s and during the 1980s, he became a prominent political fixer in New York City.[2][3][4][5] He represented and mentored the real estate developer and later President Donald Trump during his early business career.

Roy Cohn
Cohn in 1964
Born
Roy Marcus Cohn

(1927-02-20)February 20, 1927
DiedAugust 2, 1986(1986-08-02) (aged 59)
EducationColumbia University (BA, LLB)
OccupationLawyer
Known for
Parent(s)
  • Dora Marcus
  • Albert C. Cohn
FamilyJoshua Lionel Cowen (great-uncle)[1]

Born in The Bronx in New York City and educated at Columbia University, Cohn rose to prominence as a U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor at the espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, where he successfully prosecuted the Rosenbergs leading to their execution in 1953. As a prosecuting chief counsel during the trials, his reputation collapsed during the late 1950s to late 1970s after McCarthy’s downfall.

In 1986, he was disbarred by the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court for unethical conduct after attempting to defraud a dying client by forcing the client to sign a will amendment leaving him his fortune.[6] He died five weeks later from AIDS-related complications,[7] having vehemently denied that he was suffering from HIV.

Early life and education

Born to a Jewish family in the Bronx, New York City, Cohn was the only child of Dora (née Marcus; 1892–1967) and Judge Albert C. Cohn (1885–1959); his father was influential in Democratic Party politics.[8][9][10] His great-uncle was Joshua Lionel Cowen, the founder and longtime owner of the Lionel Corporation, a manufacturer of toy trains.[1] Cohn lived in his parents' home until his mother's death, after which he lived in New York, the District of Columbia, and Greenwich, Connecticut.

The Cohn family atmosphere was loveless and unhappy; Cohn's mother would taunt him for, in her view, lacking physical attractiveness and having a milquetoast comportment.[11] At the same time, Cohn and his mother were very close, and Cohn lived with her until he turned 40.[11] When Cohn's father insisted that his son be sent to a summer camp, his mother rented a house near the camp and her presence cast a pall over his experience. In personal interactions, Cohn showed tenderness which was absent from his public persona, but exhibited deeply ingrained vanity and insecurity.[11]

After attending Horace Mann School[12] and the Fieldston School,[13][7] and completing studies at Columbia College in 1946, Cohn graduated from Columbia Law School at the age of 20.[14]

Early career

Cohn had to wait until May 27, 1948, after his 21st birthday, to be admitted to the bar, and he used his family connections to obtain a position in the office of United States Attorney Irving Saypol in Manhattan the day he was admitted.[14] One of his first cases was the Smith Act trials of Communist Party leaders.[8][15]

In 1948, Cohn also became a board member of the American Jewish League Against Communism.[16]

As an Assistant US Attorney in Saypol's Manhattan office, Cohn helped to secure convictions in a number of well-publicized trials of accused Soviet operatives. One of the first began in December 1950 with the prosecution of William Remington, a former Commerce Department employee who had been accused of espionage by KGB defector Elizabeth Bentley.[8] Although an indictment for espionage could not be secured, Remington had denied his longtime membership in the Communist Party USA on two separate occasions and was convicted of perjury in two separate trials.[17]

While working in Saypol's office, Cohn aided in the prosecution of 11 members of the American Communist Party for preaching the violent overthrow of the US government, under the Smith Act.[18][19]

Rosenberg trial

Cohn played a prominent role in the 1951 espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Cohn's direct examination of Ethel's brother, David Greenglass, produced testimony that was central to the Rosenbergs' conviction and subsequent execution. Greenglass testified that he had given the Rosenbergs classified documents from the Manhattan Project that had been stolen by Klaus Fuchs. Greenglass would later claim that he lied at the trial in order "to protect himself and his wife, Ruth, and that he was encouraged by the prosecution to do so."[20] Cohn always took great pride in the Rosenberg verdict and claimed to have played an even greater part than his public role. He said in his autobiography that his own influence had led to both Chief Prosecutor Saypol and Judge Irving Kaufman being appointed to the case. Cohn further said that Kaufman imposed the death penalty based on his personal recommendation. He denied participation in any ex parte (on behalf of) discussions.[21]

In 2008, a co-conspirator in the case, Morton Sobell, who had served 18 years in prison, said that Julius spied for the Soviets but that Ethel did not.[22] However, in 2014, five historians who had published on the Rosenberg case wrote that Soviet documents show that "Ethel Rosenberg hid money and espionage paraphernalia for Julius, served as an intermediary for communications with his Soviet intelligence contacts, provided her personal evaluation of individuals Julius considered recruiting, and was present at meetings with his sources. They also demonstrate that Julius reported to the KGB that Ethel persuaded Ruth Greenglass to travel to New Mexico to recruit David as a spy."[23]

There is a consensus among historians that Julius was guilty, but his and Ethel's trial was marred by clear judicial and legal improprieties – many on the part of Cohn – and that they should not have been executed.[24][25] Distilling this consensus, Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz wrote that the Rosenbergs were "guilty – and framed".[26]

Work with Joseph McCarthy

The Rosenberg trial brought the 24-year-old Cohn to the attention of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director J. Edgar Hoover, who recommended him to Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy hired Cohn as his chief counsel, choosing him over Robert F. Kennedy. Cohn assisted McCarthy's work for the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, becoming known for his aggressive questioning of suspected Communists. Cohn preferred not to hold hearings in open forums, which went well with McCarthy's preference for holding "executive sessions" and "off-the-record" sessions away from the Capitol to minimize public scrutiny and to question witnesses with relative impunity.[27] Cohn was given free rein in pursuit of many investigations, with McCarthy joining in only for the more publicized sessions.[28]

Cohn played a major role in McCarthy's anti-Communist hearings.[29] During the Lavender Scare, Cohn and McCarthy attempted to enhance anti-Communist fervor in the country by claiming that Communists overseas had convinced several closeted homosexuals employed by the US federal government to pass on important government secrets in exchange for keeping their sexuality secret.[29] Convinced that the employment of homosexuals was a threat to national security, President Dwight Eisenhower signed an executive order on April 29, 1953, to ban homosexuals from working in the federal government. According to David L. Marcus, Cohn's cousin, people in Washington who were outed as gay by Cohn and McCarthy committed suicide. As time went on, it became well known that Cohn was himself homosexual, though he denied being gay.[29]

Senator Joseph McCarthy (left) chats with Cohn at the Army–McCarthy hearings

Cohn invited his associate G. David Schine, an anti-Communist propagandist, to join McCarthy's staff as a consultant. When Schine was drafted into the US Army in 1953, Cohn made extensive efforts to procure special treatment for him. He contacted military officials from the Secretary of the Army down to Schine's company commander and demanded that Schine be given light duties, extra leave, and exemption from an overseas assignment. At one point, Cohn is reported to have threatened to "wreck the Army" if his demands were not met.[30][31] That conflict, along with McCarthy's claims that there were Communists in the Defense Department, led to the Army–McCarthy hearings of 1954, during which the Army charged Cohn and McCarthy with using improper pressure on Schine's behalf, and McCarthy and Cohn countercharged that the Army was holding Schine "hostage" in an attempt to squelch McCarthy's investigations into Communists in the Army. During the hearings, a photograph of Schine was introduced, and Joseph N. Welch, the Army's attorney in the hearings, accused Cohn of doctoring the image to show Schine alone with Army Secretary Robert T. Stevens.[30]

Although the findings of the Army–McCarthy hearings blamed Cohn rather than McCarthy, they are widely considered an important element of McCarthy's disgrace. After, Cohn resigned from McCarthy's staff and entered private practice.[8][32]

After leaving McCarthy, Cohn had a 30-year career as an attorney in New York City. His clients included Donald Trump;[33] New York Yankees baseball club owner George Steinbrenner;[34] Aristotle Onassis;[35] Mafia figures Tony Salerno, Carmine Galante, and John Gotti, Studio 54 owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager (who hosted his birthday there one year - the invitation appearing like a subpoena); the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York; Texas financier and philanthropist Shearn Moody, Jr.;[36] and business owner Richard Dupont. Dupont, then 48, was convicted of aggravated harassment and attempted grand larceny for his extreme attempts at coercing further representation by Cohn for a bogus claim to property ownership in a case against the actual owner of 644 Greenwich Street, Manhattan, where Dupont had operated Big Gym, and from where he had been evicted in January 1979.[37] Throughout Cohn's career there were accusations of theft, obstruction, extortion, tax evasion, bribery, blackmail, fraud, perjury, and witness tampering.

Cohn was known for his active social life, charitable giving, and combative and loyal personality. His combative personality would often come out in the threatening letters he would send to those who dared to sue his clients. In the early 1960s he became a board member of the Western Goals Foundation.[38] Although he was registered as a Democrat, Cohn supported most of the Republican presidents of his time and Republicans in major offices across New York.[8] He maintained close ties in conservative political circles, serving as an informal advisor to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Cohn was also linked to and worked with Democrats such as Ed Koch, Meade Esposito, and John Moran Bailey. According to the documentary "Where's my Roy Cohn?", his father Albert Cohn introduced him to Franklin D. Roosevelt. While on the Reagan campaign he would befriend Roger Stone.[8] Cohn's other clients included retired Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, who has referenced Cohn as "the quintessential fixer".[39]

Representation of Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch

In 1971 Donald Trump first undertook large construction projects in Manhattan.[40] In 1973, the Justice Department accused Trump of violating the Fair Housing Act in 39 of his properties.[41][42] The government alleged that Trump's corporation quoted different rental terms and conditions and made false "no vacancy" statements to African Americans for apartments it managed in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island.[43]

Representing Trump, Cohn filed a countersuit against the government for $100 million, asserting that the charges were "irresponsible and baseless."[41][44][42] The countersuit was unsuccessful.[45] Trump settled the charges out of court in 1975, saying he was satisfied that the agreement did not "compel the Trump organization to accept persons on welfare as tenants unless as qualified as any other tenant."[41] The corporation was required to send a bi-weekly list of vacancies to the New York Urban League, a civil rights group, and give the league priority for certain locations.[46] In 1978, the Trump Organization was again in court for violating terms of the 1975 settlement; Cohn called the new charges "nothing more than a rehash of complaints by a couple of planted malcontents." Trump denied the charges.[42][45][47]

Cohn was allegedly involved in the construction of Trump Tower. Donald Trump wished to build Trump Tower out of concrete, however, at the time there was a city-wide Teamster strike and at the time most unions in Manhattan were controlled or at the very least had ties to organized crime. Roy Cohn had represented mobsters in the past like Carmine Galante and Anthony Salerno. Salerno and Paul Castellano at the time controlled the concrete unions in Manhattan and when Donald Trump needed concrete he received it from union leader John Cody who was a convicted felon and was linked to mob boss Paul Castellano.

Rupert Murdoch was a client, and Cohn repeatedly pressured President Ronald Reagan to further Murdoch's interests. He is credited with introducing Trump and Murdoch, in the mid-1970s, marking the beginning of what was to be a long, pivotal association between the two.[48]

Lionel trains

Cohn was the grandnephew of Joshua Lionel Cowen, founder of the Lionel model train company. By 1959, Cowen and his son Lawrence had become involved in a family dispute over control of the company. In October 1959, Cohn and a group of investors stepped in and gained control of the company, having bought 200,000 of the firm's 700,000 shares, which were purchased by his syndicate from the Cowens and on the open market over a three-month period prior to the takeover.[49]

Under Cohn's leadership, Lionel was plagued by declining sales, quality-control problems and huge financial losses. In 1963, Cohn was forced to resign from the company after losing a proxy fight.[50]

Later career and disbarment

Cohn aided Roger Stone in Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign in 1979–1980, helping Stone arrange for John B. Anderson to get the nomination of the Liberal Party of New York, a move that would help split the opposition to Reagan in the state. Stone said Cohn gave him a suitcase that Stone avoided opening and, as instructed by Cohn, dropped it off at the office of a lawyer influential in Liberal Party circles. Reagan carried the state with 46 percent of the vote. Speaking after the statute of limitations for bribery had expired, Stone said, "I paid his law firm. Legal fees. I don't know what he did for the money, but whatever it was, the Liberal Party reached its right conclusion out of a matter of principle."[51]

Following federal investigations during the 1970s and 1980s, Cohn was charged three times with professional misconduct, including perjury and witness tampering,[8] and he was accused in New York of financial improprieties related to city contracts and private investments. He was acquitted on all charges.[8] Many famous people showed up as character witnesses including Barbara Walters, William F. Buckley Jr. and Donald Trump, all of whom said that Cohn had a great reputation, stating that he had incredible integrity. In 1986, a five-judge panel of the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court disbarred Cohn for unethical and unprofessional conduct, including misappropriation of clients' funds, lying on a bar application, and pressuring a client to amend his will. That arose from an incident in 1975, when Cohn entered the hospital room of the dying and comatose Lewis Rosenstiel, the multi-millionaire founder of Schenley Industries, forced a pen to his hand and lifted it to the will, in an attempt to make himself and Cathy Frank, Rosenstiel's granddaughter, beneficiaries. The resulting marks were determined in court to be indecipherable and in no way a valid signature.[6]

Sexuality

When Cohn recruited G. David Schine as chief consultant to the McCarthy staff, speculation arose that Schine and Cohn had a sexual relationship.[52][53] Although some historians have concluded the Schine–Cohn friendship was platonic,[53][54][55] others state, based on the testimony of friends, that Cohn was gay.[56][57] During the Army–McCarthy hearings, Cohn denied having any "special interest" in Schine or being bound to him "closer than to the ordinary friend."[53] Joseph Welch, the Army's attorney in the hearings, made an apparent reference to Cohn's homosexuality. After asking a witness, at McCarthy's request, if a photo entered as evidence "came from a pixie", he defined "pixie" as "a close relative of a fairy".[53] "Pixie" was a camera-model name at the time; "fairy" is a derogatory term for a homosexual man. The people at the hearing recognized the implication, and found it amusing; Cohn later called the remark "malicious," "wicked," and "indecent."[53]

Speculation about Cohn's sexuality intensified following his death from AIDS in 1986.[8] In a 2008 article published in The New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin quotes erstwhile Cohn associate Roger Stone: "Roy was not gay. He was a man who liked having sex with men. Gays were weak, effeminate. He always seemed to have these young blond boys around. It just wasn't discussed. He was interested in power and access."[58] Stone worked with Cohn beginning with the Reagan campaign during the 1976 Republican Party presidential primaries.

Cohn always denied his homosexuality in public, but in private he was open about his sexual orientation with a few select friends. He had several long-term boyfriends over the course of his life, including Russell Eldridge, who died from AIDS in 1984, and Peter Fraser, Cohn's partner for the last two years of his life, who was 30 years his junior.[59] Fraser inherited Cohn's house in Manhattan after Cohn's death.[60]

Lavender scare

Cohn and McCarthy targeted government officials and cultural figures not only for suspected Communist sympathies, but also for alleged homosexuality.[61]

McCarthy and Cohn were responsible for the firing of scores of gay men from government employment; and strong-armed many opponents into silence using rumors of their homosexuality.[61][62] Former U.S. Senator Alan K. Simpson wrote: "The so-called 'Red Scare' has been the main focus of most historians of that period of time. A lesser-known element … and one that harmed far more people was the witch-hunt McCarthy and others conducted against homosexuals."[63]

Death

In 1984, Cohn was diagnosed with AIDS and attempted to keep his condition secret while receiving experimental drug treatment.[64] He participated in clinical trials of AZT, a drug initially synthesized to treat cancer but later developed as the first anti-HIV agent for AIDS patients. He insisted to his dying day that his disease was liver cancer.[65] He died on August 2, 1986, in Bethesda, Maryland, of complications from AIDS, at the age of 59.[7] At death, the IRS seized almost everything he had.[66] One of the things that the IRS did not seize was a pair of diamond cuff links, given to him by his client and friend, Donald Trump.[67]

According to Roger Stone, Cohn's "absolute goal was to die completely broke and owing millions to the IRS. He succeeded in that."[58] He was buried in Union Field Cemetery in Queens, New York. While his tombstone describes him as a lawyer and a patriot,[8][30][68] the AIDS Memorial Quilt describes him as "Roy Cohn. Bully. Coward. Victim."[69][70] It is this latter description that made Tony Kushner interested in Cohn.[71][72]

Media portrayals

A dramatic figure in life, Cohn inspired several fictional portrayals after his death. Probably the best known is in Tony Kushner's Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1991), which portrays Cohn as a closeted, power-hungry hypocrite haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg as he denies dying of AIDS. In the initial Broadway production, the role was played by Ron Leibman; in the HBO miniseries (2003), Cohn is played by Al Pacino; and in the 2010 Off-Broadway revival by the Signature Theatre Company in Manhattan, the role was reprised by Frank Wood.[73] Nathan Lane played Cohn in the 2017 Royal National Theatre production and the 2018 Broadway production.[74][75]

Cohn is also a character in Kushner's one-act play, G. David Schine in Hell (1996). He is portrayed by James Woods in the biographical film Citizen Cohn (1992), by Joe Pantoliano in Robert Kennedy and His Times (1985), by George Wyner in Tail Gunner Joe (1977), and by David Moreland in The X-Files episode "Travelers" (1998), in which an elderly former FBI agent speaks to Agent Fox Mulder about the early years of the McCarthy era and the beginning of the X-Files. In the early 1990s, Cohn was one of two subjects of Ron Vawter's one-man show Roy Cohn/Jack Smith; his part was written by Gary Indiana.[76] He was the subject of two 2019 documentaries: Bully, Coward, Victim: The Story of Roy Cohn, directed by Ivy Meeropol (a documentary filmmaker and granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg)[77] and Matt Tyrnauer's Where's My Roy Cohn?[78]

Bibliography

  • Cohn, Roy (1954). Only a Miracle Can Save America from the Red Conspiracy. Wanderer Printing Co.
  • Cohn, Roy (1968). McCarthy. New American Library. ISBN 978-1125326596.
  • Cohn, Roy (1972). A Fool for a Client: My Struggle Against the Power of a Public Prosecutor. Dell Publishing. ISBN 978-0-440-02667-9.
  • Cohn, Roy (1977). McCarthy: The Answer to 'Tail Gunner Joe'. Manor Books. ISBN 978-0-532-22106-7.
  • Cohn, Roy (1981). How to Stand Up for Your Rights and Win!. Devin-Adair Publishers. ISBN 978-0-8159-5723-2.
  • Cohn, Roy (1982). 'Outlaws of Amerika' The Weather Underground. Western Goals.
  • Cohn, Roy (1986). Roy Cohn on Divorce: Words to the Wise and Not So Wise. Random House. ISBN 978-0-394-54383-3.

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Further reading

  • Cohn, Roy Marcus (1969). Interviewed by Herbert S. Parmet (ed.). Reminiscences of Roy Marcus Cohn: Oral History, 1969. New York City: Columbia University Libraries. p. 15.
  • Von Hoffman, Nicholas (1988). Citizen Cohn; The Life and Times of Roy Cohn. Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-23690-4.
  • Ward, Geoffrey C. (1988). "Roy Cohn". American Heritage Magazine. Archived from the original on November 15, 2007.
  • Wolfe, Tom (April 3, 1988). "Dangerous Obsessions". The New York Times.
  • Zion, Sidney & Cohn, Roy (1988). The Autobiography of Roy Cohn. St Martins. ISBN 978-0-312-91402-8.
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