Could you really hate a man who told Winston Churchill over dinner at Lord Beaverbrook’s, as he filched food from the former prime minister’s plate, that in World War II, “the United States saved England’s ass”?
Or silenced an officious desk clerk at Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel who wanted to inspect his departing luggage with: “You’ve got a lot of . . . nerve talking about a bath mat after you bombed Pearl Harbor!”
The answer is a definite “yes” and a great many people did detest Roy Marcus Cohn to the end of his often pitiable life Aug. 2, 1986.
Cohn once said he wanted the first line of his obituary to read: “Roy M. Cohn, who served as chief counsel to Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy . . . ,” adding, “I never worked for a better man or a greater cause.”
Cohn didn’t quite get his wish. When he died, the headlines trumpeted the fact that Roy died from the complications of AIDS. McCarthy came second.
For 36 days in the summer of 1954, long before Ollie North, millions of Americans did watch transfixed as the relatively new medium of television presented its first national spectacular--the Army-McCarthy hearings, live from the Senate Caucus Room in Washington.
In the center of this melodramatic maelstrom was the Republican junior senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy, until then nemesis of the liberals and the unchallenged anticommunist leader in America.
Close by Fighting Joe’s side was his chief counsel and the man who got him into this political morass, Roy Cohn, a 26-year-old New York Democrat and legal whiz kid who had demanded the Army give special treatment to his drafted buddy and committee staff sidekick, G. David Shine, heir to a multimillion-dollar hotel fortune.
It was the beginning of the end for McCarthy, who was soon condemned by his own Senate colleagues for his conduct growing out of the hearings. Within three years, he died of the effects of alcoholism.
But it was only a way station for the resilient Cohn, who would go on to give new and glorious dimensions to the meaning of the word notorious.
Even before he came to McCarthy’s service, Cohn established his brilliance by skipping a year of high school, entering Columbia before he was 17 and graduating from its law school before he was 20. When he passed the New York bar, he was under age and had to wait until he was 21 to practice law.
Within two years, as an assistant United States attorney in New York, he prosecuted more than 200 defendants and played an important role in the treason conviction of atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (strongly urging death for both). By 1952, using his political influence, he became a special assistant to U.S. Atty. Gen. Jim McCranary, specializing in internal security matters.
Two biographies of Cohn appear this month, “Citizen Cohn” by Nicholas von Hoffman and “The Autobiography of Roy Cohn” by his close friend Sidney Zion. Both are filled with often lurid details from the life of a man whom Von Hoffman indelicately described in a recent Los Angeles Times interview as “working his way through a huge national intestine.” Conservatives such as myself did not want to believe the worst about Roy. Now everyone has the chance to share our vanished incredulity.
In his heyday in the ‘70s, Cohn acquired banks and corporations (including the toy maker Lionel), throwing together million-dollar deals usually aimed at producing the cash flow he needed to sustain his sybaritic life style. Earlier, in the ‘60s, Cohn survived the manic plotting against him by his archenemy, Bobby Kennedy, who as his brother Jack’s U.S. attorney general saw to it that Cohn was indicted three times. Each time, Cohn was acquitted. (Jack assured Cohn that he did not share his brother’s dislike for him.)
Toward the end, five face lifts later, you could tune in Ted Koppel’s ABC “Nightline” most any late evening and there would be gnome-like, heavy-lidded Roy, still holding forth as an expert on civil liberties, anticommunism, libel law or New York social mores.
Those who knew him personally or thought they knew what he stood for either loathed Cohn or loved him. A physician whom the author quotes extensively on Cohn’s homosexual escapades and whom I happen to know told me bitterly, while Cohn lay dying, “The bastard should have died years ago.” But his last lover, youthful Peter Fraser, a handsome and loyal New Zealander who took care of him to the end, said simply: “Few people loved me and I certainly loved him . . . he protected me. . . .”
An old Cohn friend whom Von Hoffman misnames in his book told me: “Roy was ghastly, just awful to be around sometimes, but he was exciting. In spite of it all I liked him. Once he showed up in the Bahamas when Pat Buckley and I were waiting for Bill to arrive by boat. There stood Roy on the pier, tanned the color and texture of shoe leather and wearing a loud T-shirt with ‘Super Jew’ written across the front.”
The same friend sued Cohn for a debt owed him (as many had to) and all he got was a judgment that was never paid. “But he helped me when I was in trouble,” he insisted.
Cohn spent more than $1 million a year, and yet his homes and boats were often in need of repair. Once his phone service was cut off because of nonpayment of astronomical bills. He owed everybody, including the Internal Revenue Service, which filed claims against him of more than $7 million in back taxes. Cohn’s answer: an article in Parade magazine entitled “How to Beat the I.R.S.”
I first met Cohn on the day McCarthy died in 1957. I can attest that even then his sleek coolness in person only enhanced his growing reputation as a wheeler-dealer. Over the years, I saw him infrequently, usually at New York anniversary dinners for William F. Buckley’s National Review magazine.
Cohn was a close personal friend of Buckley’s for many years. It did not seem to bother their relationship when Buckley publicly advocated the tattooing of warnings on the buttocks of AIDS sufferers. But then Cohn always and emphatically denied to the very end both that he was a homosexual and that he had AIDS. Indeed his reputation was for consistent “fag bashing,” voicing loud opposition to laws that would protect gays from discrimination.
How could one man “so morally repugnant” (Von Hoffman’s words) remain the friend and darling of leading Americans, on both the right (J. Edgar Hoover, Bill Buckley, Sen. Jesse Helms, Ronald Reagan) and the left (Norman Mailer, Hale Boggs, Abe Beame)? How could he be “engaged” to the voluble Barbara Walters (who remained loyal though distanced at the end) while nightly bedding down beautiful young men whom his indulgent straight friends called “Roy’s bodyguards.”
Unfortunately, neither book ever solves the human riddle that was Roy Cohn. In its own way, each book catalogues the symptoms but avoids diagnosing the illness. There is no Rosebud for Citizen Cohn.
As a flamboyant and greatly feared lawyer, Cohn represented the spectrum from Francis Cardinal Spellman to Donald Trump to Mafioso don Carmine Galante (who was shot down in cold blood) to Lyndon LaRouche.
He was magnificent in a courtroom, speaking for hours without notes, even giving the closing argument at one of his own trials (thus slyly appearing before the jury without having to face cross-examination). But he hated paper work, dumping it on hard-pressed juniors or neglecting it altogether. A judge once told him, “You’re almost as good as you think you are, Mr. Cohn.”
In his last months of life, Cohn was disbarred from law practice in New York for ancient charges of bilking a client of $100,000 and pressuring another to sign a deathbed will making Cohn his executor. His list of stellar character witnesses included Buckley, Walters and liberal law school professor Alan Dershowitz. Cohn’s typical response was to label the bar ethics committee “a bunch of yoyos.”
Von Hoffman’s book cries out for better organization and, often, proof. An extensive Von Hoffman quotation from an old friend of mine now in retirement, former Chicago Tribune Washington correspondent Willard Edwards, prompted me to call Edwards.
“I’ve never talked to Nicholas von Hoffman in my life,” Edwards told me, though he did not deny the accuracy of the book, since he had not seen it.
But there is no gainsaying the fact that Von Hoffman, author of nine previous books, did talk to a great many people during a year’s research. And content alone makes the Cohn story riveting reading.
Those of us on the right viewed Von Hoffman in his Washington Post days as a witty left-liberal, amusing but far out. Later he converted from statism to libertarianism, the social and sexual tenets of which may explain his unusually even-handed treatment of the easily sensationalized Cohn. The author, perhaps hyping sales a bit, has been far more judgmental of Cohn in newspaper interviews than in his book.
Author Sidney Zion, on the other hand, admits his liberal credentials. In a catty cross-reference, Von Hoffman calls Zion “an agreed-upon writer . . . a man of once loud liberal reputation who has been excommunicated by his former political companions for being one with Roy. . . .” Zion was legal correspondent for the New York Times, where he and others usually gave Cohn the publicity he craved. (“I admit it, I love publicity,” Cohn said.)
In return, Times journalists, among carefully selected others, got the scoops only Cohn seemed able to deliver. When John Hinckley shot President Reagan, Cohn, sitting in his New York law office, knew from his White House contacts the President’s condition before the network TV anchors did.
But Zion spends inordinate time apologizing for befriending, liking and, now, missing his old buddy Roy.
He need not. If nothing else, Cohn could be a charming rogue and the ultimate in more than just prurient entertainment. One critic compared the common fascination with Cohn to that of gawkers at a traffic accident.
Zion’s book has the possible virtue (if you believe Cohn) of using Cohn’s own self-justifying words to describe the important events of his life. Oten there is a marked difference between Von Hoffman’s and Zion’s description of the same events. (Cohn told Zion he wasn’t drafted because he was appointed to West Point, although he failed the physical. Von Hoffman says a friendly New York congressman gave Cohn repeated appointments despite the physicals as a means of avoiding the draft.)
Cohn became too ill to finish the “autobiography,” which concludes with Zion telling more stories and throwing in Cohn’s random description of people he did or did not like, including Vice President George Bush (“an international tragedy”), New York Mayor Ed Koch (“a double-dealing hypocrite”), Jerry Ford (“he doesn’t know which end is up”) and Nancy Reagan (“I like her”) among others.
Spiro Agnew, who took bribes as governor of Maryland and as Nixon’s vice president, Cohn tells us, did nothing wrong, only what was customary in politics.
And neither did Roy Cohn, if you’ll accept what he told his old friend Zion: “I have no sense of overriding guilt concerning my past, I look back with a clear conscience.”
As the nuns used to tell us at Sacred Heart Grade School, remember him in your prayers.