A Thirst for Power : Life and Times of Roy Cohn, the Flamboyant Lawyer Who Put Stamp on U.S. History

Times Staff Writer

Sooner or later, Roy Cohn's biographer said, still shaking his head after 18 months and 500 pages of grappling with this very issue, it comes down to this: How could a man "so morally repugnant" get away with it?

How could Cohn court, and win, the rich, the powerful, the influential? How did a 25-year-old lawyer rise to become general counsel to America's chief communist chaser, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, then survive to prosper long after McCarthy's fall? How did Cohn seduce the press? How did he become the darling of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover? How did his victims forgive his vitriol, not to mention vagaries such as blackmail? How could he insist up to his dying day on Aug. 2, 1986, that he was not suffering from AIDS? How did he succeed in breaking so many laws?

How, in short, did this boy from the Bronx put such a huge and ugly stamp on a large slice of recent American history?

Mystified and Fascinated

Nicholas von Hoffman, journalist, columnist, novelist, was left both mystified and fascinated by the subject of "Citizen Cohn" (Doubleday, $19.95), his just-released biography of the flamboyant lawyer and deal maker.

"There certainly is no easy answer," Von Hoffman said of Cohn's amazing ability to peddle and barter influence while flouting social convention.

"He was a whack," Von Hoffman said. "A dangerous whack, but a whack."

But in immersing himself in the daily and dirty details of Cohn's 59-year life, Von Hoffman came to see his subject as a "social isotope" through which "we could look at some very important social functions: politics, the courts, the media, money, celebrity."

Reviled and revered, feared and flattered, Cohn "was everywhere," working his way through "a huge national intestine," Von Hoffman said, that in its contractions, expansions and peristalsis mirrored the worst of society's own bodily functions.

"It was not pleasant," Von Hoffman added. In fact, researching Cohn's life was once again proof, in Von Hoffman's view, of "that old Washington bromide, never tell a child how they make laws or sausages."

Or, as Steven Brill, editor in chief of the American Lawyer and a longtime critic of Cohn has said, Roy Cohn was like an automobile accident, the kind that makes rubberneckers stop and stare. "People are drawn to Roy Cohn that way," Brill told Von Hoffman.

Cohn's craving for celebrity, according to Von Hoffman, was of drug-addict proportions. As a result, many people knew vaguely who he was without knowing fully what he had done. Those who were of age in 1950 would remember strongly the workings of the McCarthy committee, in which Cohn, as chief counsel, was the man who routinely asked witnesses, "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party." Younger people would recognize Cohn from the pages of People magazine: a regular at Studio 54, the frequent dinner companion of Barbara Walters, a guest at the White House, the lawyer of rich and famous divorcees.

"And yet you see his legacy in your purse and you see it in your wallet in the ID cards we all carry," Von Hoffman said. Though dramatically inept at catching communists--"the ones they identified, everyone knew," Von Hoffman said--Cohn and his cronies "built the national security state as we know it today."

"Roy's justification for what they did over time and at the time was that they had to warn America that steps had to be taken against infiltration," Von Hoffman said.

"Ultimately they prevailed. That became the hallmark of America. They were able to persuade the world, that is, the important American public, that all of these measures had to be taken not on an emergency basis, but institutionalized into our society. Whether in drug tests or lie detection, these men really ushered in these practices."

And even for McCarthy's own ultimate crashing ignominy at the hands of Boston attorney Joseph Welch, "it was not as though the underlying McCarthy message was repudiated," Von Hoffman said.

"We started with concerns in 1945 over expanding Russian hegemony and we ended up with Roy Cohn and Joe McCarthy. Interestingly enough," he went on, "if you look at the Iran-Contra hearings, that kind of rhetoric still persists in American public life. You still have these men going, 'Well, I was braver than you were.' "

A longtime veteran of Washington journalism, Von Hoffman had only passing interest in Cohn when 1 1/2 years ago an associate in his literary agent Ginger Barber's office suggested he write Cohn's biography. Soon he found himself rising to the challenge: Could he write a biography about someone for whom he had so little respect, someone who had made a career, and a life, out of trading on venality? Could he unjumble his own confusion about the era, information "which we have absorbed that, while colorful, is not correct?"

Though he refers to Cohn in conversation as "Roy," and often slips into the present-tense when discussing his subject, Von Hoffman never actually met the man. But in spending "a backbreaking 18 months" interviewing hundreds of friends, associates, clients, acquaintances and ex-lovers, he found the Cohn shadow extending from beyond the grave. Many of Von Hoffman's sources agreed to speak only on conditions of anonymity, and then proceeded to spin out extraordinary tales. Often, Von Hoffman was able to corroborate these stories with on-the-record interviews with sources who seemed eager to unburden themselves on the subject of Roy Marcus Cohn.

What Von Hoffman calls the "Roy Cohn Barter and Swap Exchange" began before Cohn left junior high school. Already writing a gossip column for the neighborhood newspaper, Cohn was also trading favors, reciprocities, even jobs. His joint skills of manipulating the press through carefully leaked gossip and parlaying power served him endlessly throughout his life, though perhaps most notably in his relationship with FBI Director Hoover. As Hoover's ideological soulmate, Cohn became the FBI chief's conduit to the press. Anything Hoover wanted to plant about someone, friend or foe, he directed to Cohn. So reliable was this gossip network that Walter Winchell's secretary dutifully awaited Cohn's reputation-destroying phone calls.

"When they wanted to stick it to somebody," former Rep. Neil Gallagher told Von Hoffman, "that was Roy's job."

In return, Hoover became Cohn's legal protector, essentially elevating him to beyond-prosecution status as Cohn calmly took bribes, dodged enormous debts, thumbed his nose at the Internal Revenue Service and, Von Hoffman said, stole from the city government of New York.

A large measure of Cohn's seeming invincibility came from his skill at using the media, Von Hoffman said.

Even reporters who hated what Cohn stood for came away calling him a likable fellow, Von Hoffman said, and that affability may have colored their coverage. In any case, Cohn remained a subject of interest to the news media, so much so, Von Hoffman said, that as Cohn was crumbling to the ravages of AIDS, producers from the television program "60 Minutes" called to say they wanted to do a segment on Cohn.

"His friend Peter Fraser says, 'Roy, you're too sick,' " Von Hoffman recalled. "And Roy says, 'Peter, how many people get to be done twice by '60 Minutes?' "

In that regard, Von Hoffman said, "Roy was kind of like the old Romans. He sought immortality through the media."

Cohn, a Republican, boasted nonetheless that his moles had no trouble penetrating the Democratic Party. To that end, Cohn publicly took credit for destroying George McGovern's 1972 presidential bid by helping to ensure that Sen. Thomas Eagleton would win the vice presidential spot. Cohn bragged openly that he knew all about Eagleton's "skeletons," his history of psychiatric treatment that included electroshock therapy that ultimately caused him to leave the ticket.

Cohn did toy briefly once with running for the Senate from New York, but mostly, Von Hoffman said, he contented himself with surrounding himself with political power, and exercising it on his own terms.

"He learned pretty early that electoral politics is essentially for chumps," Von Hoffman said. "He also knew that power is forever, not diamonds."

Thus Cohn cultivated Washington, and vice versa. His friendships survived changes in administrations, persisting firmly into the present Administration.

"My favorite story about (Atty. Gen. Edwin) Meese and Roy," Von Hoffman said, "is where Meese calls him up for tickets to 'La Cage Aux Folles,' and Roy decides this is no play for Meese to see."

Lived With Mother

In what Von Hoffman, rolling his eyes, calls a "bizarre-o" relationship, Cohn lived with his domineering and overprotective mother, Dora, until her death when Cohn was 42. Her critical standards helped gossip columnists dismiss Cohn as the kind of perennial bachelor who is a matchmaker's nightmare, when in fact Cohn was widely known as a homosexual playboy. Cohn's two "engagements"--to fashion designer Carol Horn and to television personality Walters--ended unceremoniously, though Walters remained a close friend and frequent companion until Cohn's death.

In New York, Cohn's favorite restaurant was the devastatingly expensive Le Cirque. Those who can afford its swank atmosphere are attracted also by the rich French food. But as his eccentricities surfaced more strongly than ever toward the end of his life, Von Hoffman recounts, Cohn took to sending Le Cirque's waiters scurrying for meals of Bumble Bee tuna.

"Roy was just impossible in some ways," Von Hoffman said. "He had this habit of eating off people's plates, even in the fanciest places." Once, when Cohn reached with his fingers to remove food from the plate of Frank Sinatra, "Sinatra's bodyguards are supposed to have moved forward protectively until Sinatra called them off."

Often, Von Hoffman discovered, Cohn would bring along his latest lover for these meals with close friends. "They never said anything," Von Hoffman said of Cohn's companions du jour . "It was as if they weren't there." Once, defying the tacit rule of ignoring Cohn's male acquaintances, New York gossip columnist Liz Smith leaned across the table at 21, another of Cohn's haunts, and asked his companion some questions about himself. As Von Hoffman reconstructs the conversation, the man cheerfully identified himself as Cohn's television repairman.

"Clearly," Von Hoffman said, "one of those celebrities who lived by looking at his own image."

Cohn lived at a relentless pace. "This was Disco Dan," Von Hoffman said. "He was always at Studio 54."

His vanity was legendary. To continue to attract his stable of young, beautiful men, Cohn had five face lifts. The result, as he neared death, was a grainy complexion that made Cohn look like a specimen from the Natural History Museum. Yet, writes Von Hoffman, he insisted on donning his orange tuxedo and demanding parties, parties, parties.

"One week of living Roy Cohn's life and I would have killed myself," Von Hoffman said.

But Von Hoffman, after all, barely tolerates New York. Mostly, he holes up in tiny Tenants' Harbor, Me., ignoring the city he calls "the great unflushed toilet, at least in the Western Hemisphere."

Disbarred, Disgraced

That same New York coddled Cohn, Von Hoffman contends, feting him even after he was disbarred by New York State in 1986 on three counts of misconduct and disgraced in the eyes of the legal Establishment. Real estate mogul Donald Trump, for one, hosted a lavish dinner for Cohn just six months before he died. Cohn's companion, Jay Taylor, told Von Hoffman the place settings alone at that dinner were worth $200,000 apiece.

In the end, "the spectrum of Roy's contacts was breathtaking," Von Hoffman found. But then, "Roy was extremely useful. He got things done for people."

Writing Cohn's biography, Von Hoffman came to feel he was creating a "holographic image" of his subject.

"One of the things that happens when you do a biography is that someone becomes real to you," Von Hoffman said. "God only knows if it's the actual person, but someone takes form."

To his astonishment, Von Hoffman, too, was drawn into the Cohn web. "I think what happened is that I came to have a sort of affection for him, which is not the same as approving of him," Von Hoffman said.

Cohn, his biographer said, was "dishonest, a scoundrel," but "he lit up people's lives. He revivified them. He was ceaselessly in motion, and he really could infuse excitement in people's lives. He lifted their spirits. People said that over and over."

Still, Von Hoffman said, "Roy, let's face it, was not a thing of beauty and joy forever. He was not a witty, witty man.

"There is no collection of Roy aphorisms," Von Hoffman said. "This is not La Rochefoucauld we're talking about."

Rather, Von Hoffman said, "he was a wild eccentric. He was a wild eccentric who was also a terrible man."

Cohn, Von Hoffman said, "would not be pleased with the book I have written." No doubt he would prefer his authorized autobiography, co-written with Sidney Zion, and out this spring from Lyle Stuart books.

But Cohn's giant ego certainly would have warmed, Von Hoffman said, at the thought that a book had been written about him, "to assure him a place in history."

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