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Roy Cohn in 1964
|Born||Roy Marcus Cohn
February 20, 1927
New York City
|Died||August 2, 1986 (aged 59)
Cause of death
|Education||Horace Mann School
Columbia Law School
|Known for||Julius and Ethel Rosenberg trial (1951)
Joseph McCarthy's chief counsel (1953–1954)
Albert C. Cohn
Early lifeBorn to a non-observant 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), who was influential in Democratic Party politics. His great-uncle was Joshua Lionel Cowen, the founder and longtime owner of Lionel, the toy trains manufacturer. He lived in his parents' home until his mother's death, after which he lived in New York, the District of Columbia, and Greenwich, Connecticut.
After attending Horace Mann School and the Fieldston School, and completing studies at Columbia College in 1946, Cohn graduated from Columbia Law School at the age of 20. He had to wait until his 21st birthday to be admitted to the bar, and used his family connections to obtain a position in the office of United States Attorney Irving Saypol in Manhattan the day he was admitted.
Although he registered as a Democrat, Cohn supported most of the Republican presidents of his time and Republicans in major offices across New York.
CounterespionageAs Saypol's assistant at the U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan, Cohn helped to secure convictions in a number of well-publicized trials of accused Soviet operatives. One of the first involved the prosecution of William Remington, a former Commerce Department employee who had been accused of espionage by KGB defector Elizabeth Bentley. 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. Cohn also prosecuted 11 members of the American Communist Party Politburo for preaching the violent overthrow of the United States Government (see Smith Act).
The Rosenberg TrialCohn 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 which had been stolen by Klaus Fuchs. Greenglass would later admit that he intentionally lied at the trial in order "to protect himself and his wife, Ruth, and that he was encouraged by the prosecution to do so." 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 Saypol and Judge Irving Kaufman being appointed to the case. He further said that Kaufman imposed the death penalty based on his personal recommendation. If these ex parte discussions between a prosecutor and a judge outside the courtroom took place, they were improper.
In 2008 a co-conspirator in the case, Morton Sobell, who served 18 years in prison, said that Julius Rosenberg had spied for the Soviets, but that Ethel did not.
Work with Joseph McCarthyThe 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 Kennedy, reportedly in part to avoid accusations of an anti-Semitic motivation for the investigations. 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. This mixed well with McCarthy's preference for holding "executive sessions" and "off-the-record" sessions away from the Capitol in order to minimize public scrutiny and to question witnesses with relative impunity. Cohn was given free rein in pursuit of many investigations, with McCarthy joining in only for the more publicized sessions.
Cohn would play a major role in assisting Senator McCarthy's crusade against Communism. 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 the identity of their sexuality a secret. Convinced that the employment of homosexuals was now a threat to national security, US President Dwight Eisenhower signed an executive order on April 29, 1953 which banned homosexuals from obtaining jobs in the federal government.
G. David Schine, an anti-communist propagandist, to join McCarthy's staff as a consultant. When Schine was drafted into the army in 1953, Cohn made repeated and extensive efforts to procure special treatment for Schine. 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 overseas assignment. At one point, Cohn is reported to have threatened to "wreck the Army" if his demands were not met. This conflict, along with McCarthy's accusations of Communists in the defense department, led to the Army–McCarthy hearings of 1954, in which among other developments the Army charged Cohn and McCarthy with using improper pressure on Schine's behalf, while McCarthy and Cohn counter-charged 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 Stevens. Although the findings of the hearings blamed Cohn rather than McCarthy, they are widely considered an important element of McCarthy's disgrace. After the Army–McCarthy hearings, Cohn resigned from McCarthy's staff and went into private practice.
Later careerAfter leaving McCarthy, Cohn had a 30-year career as an attorney in New York City. His clients included Donald Trump, Mafia figures Tony Salerno, Carmine Galante, and John Gotti, Studio 54 owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, Texas financier and philanthropist Shearn Moody, Jr. and the New York Yankees baseball club. He was known for his active social life, charitable giving, and combative personality. In the early 1960s he became a member of the John Birch Society and a principal figure in the Western Goals Foundation. He maintained close ties in conservative political circles, serving as an informal advisor to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
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. Under Cohn's leadership, Lionel was plagued by declining sales, quality control problems, and huge financial losses. In 1963, he was forced to resign from the company after losing a proxy fight.
Federal investigations during the 1970s and 1980s charged Cohn three times with professional misconduct, including perjury and witness tampering. He was accused in New York of financial improprieties related to city contracts and private investments. He was acquitted of all charges. 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. In this case in 1975, Cohn entered the hospital room of a 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.
Cohn aided Roger Stone in Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign in 1979–80. Cohn helped 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 later 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."
He lost his law license during the last month of his life.
SexualityWhen he brought on G. David Schine as chief consultant, speculation arose that Schine and Cohn had a sexual relationship, although some historians have more recently concluded the friendship was platonic. During the Army–McCarthy hearings, Cohn denied having any "special interest" in Schine or being bound to him "closer than to the ordinary friend." Joseph Welch, the Army's attorney in the hearings, made an apparent reference to Cohn's homosexuality. After asking a witness if a photo entered as evidence "came from a pixie," he defined "pixie" for McCarthy as "a close relative of a fairy." Fairy was, and is, a derogatory term for a gay man. Pixie was also a brand name for a line of cheap cameras. The people at the hearing recognized the allusion and found it amusing; Cohn later called the remark "malicious," "wicked," and "indecent." Cohn and McCarthy targeted many government officials and cultural figures not only for suspected Communist sympathies, but also for alleged homosexuality.
DeathIn 1984, Cohn was diagnosed with AIDS and attempted to keep his condition secret while receiving experimental drug treatment. 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. He died on August 2, 1986 in Bethesda, Maryland, of complications from AIDS at the age of 59. According to Republican political consultant Roger Stone, for whom Cohn was a role model, Cohn's "absolute goal was to die completely broke and owing millions to the IRS. He succeeded in that." He was buried in Union Field Cemetery in Queens, New York.
Portrayals in mediaTony Kushner's Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, in which Cohn is portrayed as a closeted, power-hungry hypocrite who is haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg as he lies dying of AIDS. In the initial Broadway production, the role was created by Ron Liebman; in the 2010 Off-Broadway revival by the Signature Theatre Company in Manhattan, the role was reprised by Frank Wood; in the HBO miniseries version of Kushner's play, Cohn was played by Al Pacino. Cohn is also a character in Kushner's one-act play, G. David Schine in Hell.
Cohn has also been portrayed by James Woods in the 1992 biopic Citizen Cohn, by Joe Pantoliano in Robert Kennedy and His Times, and by George Wyner in Tail Gunner Joe.
Cohn is portrayed by actor David Moreland in the X-Files episode "Travelers", 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 also one of two subjects of Ron Vawter's one man show Roy Cohn/Jack Smith, with Cohn's part written by Gary Indiana.
Kurt Vonnegut included a fictionalized character named Roy M. Cohn in his 1979 novel Jailbird. Vonnegut used Cohn with his verbal permission, promising in a January 1979 telephone call to "do him no harm and to present him as an appallingly effective attorney for either the prosecution or the defense of anyone," according to the prologue of the novel.
Roy Cohn is mentioned in Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire".
The nasal voice of the unnamed but recurring character Blue-Haired Lawyer on The Simpsons, often retained by Mr. Burns or acting as the prosecutor, is based on that of Roy Cohn. A mock Paul Harvey radio broadcast in The Simpsons episode "Homer's Barbershop Quartet" reports "that little boy...that nobody liked ...grew up to be... Roy Cohn. And now you know the rest of the story." In "Thirty Minutes over Tokyo", another episode of The Simpsons, money management guru Chuck Garabedian explains that he got his suit cheap "because Roy Cohn died in it."
Roy Cohn appears as a character in the novel Fellow Travelers by Thomas Mallon (Pantheon Books, 2007).
Cohn is briefly mentioned in Michael Chabon's novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay as one of protagonist Stanley Konigsberg's classmates at the Horace Mann School. In the world of the novel, titular character Joe Kavalier performed at Cohn's bar mitzvah as the magician 'The Amazing Cavalieri'.
In the 2012 comic novel Nick & Jake by Tad Richards and Jonathan Richards, Cohn and his partner G. David Schine come to Paris in 1953, where Cohn tries to make a citizen's arrest of Nick Carraway (the narrator of The Great Gatsby).
During the creation of the 'Names Project' AIDS-memorial quilt, a square was anonymously added which carried the legend: 'Roy Cohn: Bully, Coward, Victim'.
- Cohn, Roy (1968). McCarthy. New American Library.
- Cohn, Roy (1981). How to Stand up for Your Rights and Win!. Devin-Adair Publishers. ISBN 0-8159-5723-8.
- Cohn, Roy (1986). Roy Cohn on Divorce: Words to the Wise and Not So Wise. Random House. ISBN 0-394-54383-1.
- Cohn, Roy (1972). A Fool for a Client: My Struggle Against the Power of a Public Prosecutor. Dell Publishing. ISBN 0-440-02667-9.
- Cohn, Roy (1954). Only a Miracle Can Save America From the Red Conspiracy. Wanderer Printing Co.