Roy Cohn's Diabolical Magnetism
Joe McCarthy’s lieutenant, Donald Trump’s mouthpiece—Cohn was a human car crash that even 30 years after his death we can’t stop watching.
For some, he was Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy’s sinister sidekick. For others, he was the merciless prosecutor who sent the Rosenbergs to the electric chair. For still others, he was the sleazy New York power broker who embodied the greed-is-good ethos of the Reagan years.
And for still others, he was the ultimate hypocrite—a closeted gay man who bashed his fellow homosexuals while dying of AIDS.
Gone more than 30 years, reviled during many of the 59 that he walked among us, Roy Marcus Cohn fascinates anew in the age of Donald Trump. For all the wrong reasons, count me among the fascinated.
Cohn’s unlikely renaissance is due mainly to renewed interest in his role in the ’70s and ’80s as consigliore to a certain protégé who was starting to amass a real estate empire. Shortly before the 2016 Republican National Convention, major articles in The New York Times and The Washington Post detailed how Roy instilled his unique brand of bullying duplicity in the man then known as The Donald. (One thinks of Tiberius nursing Caligula, as the former reportedly said, like a viper in Rome’s bosom.)
Recently, The New Yorker spotlighted the two men’s eavesdropped telephone conversations. Vanity Fair and Time offered Trump/Cohn analyses as well. In January it was reported that, desperate for a gunslinger to shoot down inquiries into Russia’s interference with the election, the president wailed, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”
And starting last month, in a role made famous in turn by Ron Leibman, F. Murray Abraham, and Al Pacino, Nathan Lane is playing Cohn in a Broadway revival of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning drama Angels in America.
Why should Roy Cohn—once described to me by my late, quite conservative journalist friend Ralph de Toledano as “a liar, a vicious character, one of the lowest people I’ve ever met in my life”—still be worth a minute of our time?
I ask as someone who has long had his own admittedly weird attraction to the subject. For much of the ’90s, I was an editor at the alumni magazine of Columbia College, where both Cohn and I (as well as Kushner and de Toledano) received our bachelor’s degrees. Even as I lauded distinguished graduates like Herman Wouk and Jon “Bowzer” Bauman of Sha Na Na, I occasionally reminded readers that Roy Cohn was also one of ours. Once I ran a photograph of Barbara Kruger’s sculpture “Justice”; it depicted Cohn in a star-spangled skirt and high heels kissing J. Edgar Hoover full on.
Call it perverse pride. Precisely because there was so little to be said for Cohn, even and especially in death, I sometimes felt a nagging obligation to call him out. He did, after all, heighten the Red Scare, defend mobsters, shaft myriad clients, and get disbarred by the New York State Supreme Court six weeks before his passing. The juiciest reason for this last was that he guided the hand of the liquor magnate Lewis Rosenstiel on his deathbed to sign a document that would make him, Roy, co-executor of his client’s estate.
And yet it’s hard to deny his diabolical magnetism. Part of it was due to his reputation as the ultimate fixer. He was the wired-in honcho who had the fix in with backroom politicos, could call upon the right judge for a favor, get you into Studio 54, or tie up your enemies in court for years. Who wouldn’t want such a secret weapon in their back pocket? “People in jams were always after me to get them Roy,” wrote Sidney Zion in The Autobiography of Roy Cohn.
Conversely, there is poignant reason for Roy’s hold on our imagination. For all his awfulness and influence he was distinctly pathetic, much like our commander in chief. Tony Kushner hit on this irony at a luncheon roundtable I attended at the Russian Tea Room when Angels was first making headlines. The matter of Roy’s death by AIDS quickly came up.
“There was a lot of gloating in the left-wing press and I felt angry on his behalf,” Kushner said. “Which shocked me, because I grew up as a lefty kid hating Roy Cohn.”
He was a villain who hardly deserved sympathy. Yet he somehow evoked pity by dying pretty much alone and bereft. Zion summed him up as “a man who never held public office, never ran a political party, never published a newspaper, never owned a TV station, never controlled a crime family, never built a building, never owned one. All Roy Cohn ever had was Roy Cohn.”
Equipped with eyes as hooded as his outlook, he was that dark half that most of us flirt with but never allow to emerge. “How he stayed out of jail, I don’t know,” de Toledano told me. But Roy managed and we marveled. That’s because secretly, so many of us yearn to break the rules, live like royalty, and die owing the Internal Revenue Service $7 million. In that sense, Roy Cohn was and still is a supremely vicarious thrill.
In my file cabinet is a signed Cohn letter written on the stationery of his law firm, Saxe, Bacon & Bolan, that I plucked as a souvenir from my alumni magazine years. I have, too, a striking photograph of him taken for Parade by Britain Hill. My favorite malefactor is staring straight into the camera, having just tossed a flurry of documents into the air with an “Oh, what the hell!” grimace on his bronzed lizard face.
Soon I’ll be matting and framing these totems in a joint display for my office wall. From behind my desk, engaged in what my accountant assures me is an honest living, I’ll periodically gaze upon them with disbelief and shameful envy. They will remind me that Roy Cohn’s legacy endures at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and, indeed, too many places we should want to mention.