The epiphany for filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer came the night of Donald Trump’s election in 2016. He recognized that Trump’s path to the White House had begun with the lessons of Roy Cohn, his former lawyer and fixer, a notorious aide to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and a sharp-elbowed attorney to mobsters and Studio 54.
After an election night filled with “disorientation, vertigo and depression,” Tyrnauer began writing a treatment for what would become his next documentary, “Where’s My Roy Cohn?”
The film, released Friday, follows the life and career of Cohn, who went from brilliant graduate of Columbia Law to ruthless courtroom fighter and manipulator who reveled in his public reputation as a malevolent force. His modus operandi was to never settle, never apologize and always be on the attack.
It was a creed adopted by his closest associates, including a young real estate developer he met in 1973, and it has never been more strongly felt than now. “If Trump had not been elected, Cohn would have been a bold footnote in American history,” says Tyrnauer. “The moment Trump won the electoral college, he was elevated to a modern Machiavelli.”
The film’s title was lifted directly from a quote attributed to President Trump at a moment of high anxiety, in early 2018 expressing alarm over the accelerating investigation into Russian interference in the election, and frustration over the recusal of Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions. Trump wanted a protector. “Where,” he lamented, “is my Roy Cohn?”
That incident is never discussed in the film, but the words hang as an oblique reference connecting our current political moment with the lingering influence of Cohn, who died at 59 of HIV/AIDS in 1986. “From beyond the grave,” Tyrnauer says, “he’s gotten the last laugh.”
To tell the story, Tyrnauer began interviewing his subjects before he had outside funding. He eventually found support through a program at the Sundance Institute, and financial help from Lyn Davis Lear, who became a producer on the film, and her husband Norman Lear.
The working title was “Roy,” but Tyrnauer knew what the title had to be as soon as he heard of Trump’s cry for an advocate in the Roy Cohn mold.
“I’m sensing that it’s hitting the zeitgeist,” he says of the film and its newly relevant subject matter. “Trump seems to be maddeningly Teflon,” he adds. “The student seems to have eclipsed the master.”
The film opens with audio from journalist Ken Auletta’s 1970s interview with Cohn for an Esquire magazine cover profile, as the attorney describes “a certain pleasure I derive from fighting against power and the establishment ... I will take on a cause against practically anybody.”
What follows is a kaleidoscope of images from across his four decades as a leading Communist-hunter and conservative power broker, from his time with McCarthy to friendly meetings in the Oval Office with Ronald Reagan and Rupert Murdoch. In a late-night TV interview with Tom Snyder, Cohn says Auletta’s damning, hard-hitting article was actually good for business.
“It’s fantastic,” says Cohn. “The worse the adjectives, the better it is.”
A former staff writer for Vanity Fair, Tyrnauer sees his documentary work as a natural extension of the kind of in-depth storytelling he did for the magazine. Among his most recent films was 2018’s well-received “Studio 54,” where the director found himself drawn toward Cohn’s combative defense of the nightclub owners in archival news footage.
By the 1960s, Cohn was an especially aggressive, media-savvy figure in New York, perpetually tanned and proudly flamboyant in a chauffeured Rolls-Royce, while socializing with the city’s political and media elite, including Barbara Walters, Ed Koch and William F. Buckley.
He represented the New York families of La Costa Nostra, including “The Dapper Don,” John Gotti, who served just two years in prison after being charged with murder in a bar crowded with witnesses. Cohn was also a constant presence in the tabloid press and a dependable source of gossip and innuendo.
“New York media society just wants good copy. They don’t care whether you’re a saint or a murderer,” Tyrnauer says over coffee at the patio restaurant of the Chateau Marmont. “New York is the ultimate transactional city, and I would say that Cohn influenced the dark nature of the city of that period and made it especially corrupt.”
Cohn’s career began amid the political paranoia of postwar America, then enjoying a new era of affluence while under threat of nuclear war with its rival superpower, the Soviet Union. At 23, Cohn was appointed to the team of prosecutors that convicted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg of revealing atomic secrets to the Soviets.
Though Ethel’s role in the espionage was significantly less certain than her husband’s, both were sent to the electric chair, orphaning their two sons. In the documentary, admirer Roger Stone recalls Cohn saying: “If I could have pulled the switch, I would have done it myself.”
The Rosenbergs’ case was a high-profile boost to the young lawyer’s career, and after five years in the Justice Department he served as chief counsel to McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Among the targets of the committee: suspected communists and homosexuals working in the government. Cohn himself was a closeted gay man.
The senatorwas revealed as a demagogue on live TV during the Army-McCarthy hearings, and would die of alcoholism just two years later. By then Cohn had returned to New York and made huge profits as a private lawyer in 1955, a moment brought vividly to life in the documentary with color footage of vintage Manhattan.
Relations with extended family members were complicated. Cohn was worshiped and coddled by his mother, who never acknowledged his homosexuality. After her death, Cohn’s aunt made a point of reaching out to Cohn, says his younger cousin, Dave Marcus, now a journalist.
“He yearned for some kind of ties to my family, but many, many people in the family rejected him,” says Marcus, whose father refused to be in the same room as Cohn.
In an interview with The Times, Marcus made a point of stating: “Roy Cohn was evil, vile, reprehensible and a menace to everything we care about, starting with democracy. But the thing is, he also was a fascinating character.”
Growing up, Marcus accompanied Cohn’s aunt to parties at the lawyer’s homes or on his boat. In the 1970s, that meant mingling with a crowd that might include author Norman Mailer, artist Andy Warhol and “60 Minutes” correspondent Mike Wallace. Trump was also a frequent guest.
“Roy was a raconteur. He was a snake charmer,” says Marcus, a key interview subject in the documentary. “If somebody wanted to scratch Roy’s back, Roy would happily scratch in return.”
In 1987, Marcus wrote an article for Vanity Fair documenting Cohn’s final months, after shadowing his cousin to homes in New York, Palm Beach and Connecticut, and seeing him at work and in social settings.
As a closeted gay man throughout his life, Cohn denied his homosexuality to the press. When he was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, Cohn insisted he had cancer.
In the film, one boyfriend, Wallace Adams, remembers Cohn bringing him along to functions filled with anti-gay Republicans. While the Reagan administration was criticized for failing to match the enormity of the 1980s AIDS crisis, the president and first lady quietly arranged for experimental treatments for Cohn.
“It’s one of the most hypocritical stories of modern times,” says Tyrnauer. “By his silence alone, he was doing great damage and continuing his legacy of being an enemy of gay people.”
During those final years, Cohn was charged with failing to pay federal income taxes by the IRS. He was also accused of bilking his own clients.
In one case, Cohn approached a former client in a divorce case and had her sign a check to him for a $100,000 loan, recalls attorney Martin London, who helped lead the case for Cohn’s eventual disbarment. The client’s repeated attempts to be repaid were rebuffed by Cohn.
“He doesn’t pay her,” London recalls to The Times. “And when she finally sues him, he says, ‘Oh, this wasn’t a loan at all. It was an advance against legal fees.’ I mean, can you imagine?”
After decades of escaping legal threats over his professional behavior, Cohn was finally disbarred for unethical conduct. He was already in the final stages of his disease, and his once-vibrant social circle began to abandon him. Trump stopped calling.
“Roy was hurt that several supposedly close friends, especially Trump, turned their backs on him when he needed real friends,” says Marcus.
Just six weeks after disbarment, Cohn was dead.