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roy m. cohn

Roy Cohn

[kohn]

Roy Marcus Cohn (February 20, 1927August 2, 1986) was an American conservative lawyer of Jewish ancestry who became famous during the investigations by Senator Joseph McCarthy into alleged Communists in the U.S. government, and especially during the Army-McCarthy Hearings. He was also an important person of the prosecution team for the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Early life

Born in New York City, Cohn was the only child of Dora Marcus (1892-1967) and Albert Cohn (1885-1959), a New York judge who was influential in Democratic Party politics. He lived with his parents until his mother's death in 1967, 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 was registered as a Democrat, Cohn supported most of the Republican presidents of his time and Republicans in major offices across New York.

Anti-Communist investigations

As Saypol's assistant at the U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan, Cohn helped to win a number of well-publicized anti-Communist cases. He was known for his zealous prosecution of William Remington (a former Commerce Department employee convicted of perjury relating to his membership in the Communist Party), for the prosecution of 11 Communist Party leaders for sedition under the Smith Act, and for his work in the Alger Hiss case.

Cohn was most famous for his role in the 1951 espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Cohn's direct examination of Ethel's brother David Greenglass produced the testimony (in which the brother later claimed he perjured himself) that was mostly responsible for the Rosenbergs' conviction and execution.

Cohn took great pride in the Rosenberg case, 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 (a family friend) being appointed to the case, and that Kaufman had imposed the death penalty on Cohn's personal advice.

The 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 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 tended to be disinclined to hold the 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 invited his friend 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 not be assigned overseas. At one point, Cohn is reported to have threatened to "wreck the Army" if his demands were not met. This conflict led to the Army-McCarthy Hearings of 1954, in which 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 accused Cohn of doctoring the image to show Schine alone with Army Secretary Robert Stevens. Although the findings of the hearings blamed on 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 career

After 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, 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 JBS intelligence gathering operation, the Western Goals Foundation. He maintained close ties in conservative politic 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, Cohn 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 never convicted of any charge. 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. He lost his law license during the last month of his life. At this time, National Review senior editor Jeffrey Hart referred to him as "an ice-cold sleaze".

Private life

Rumors of Cohn's homosexuality began to spread throughout Washington shortly after Joseph McCarthy appointed him chief counsel to McCarthy's subcommittee. When he brought on Schine as chief consultant, it became speculated that Schine and Cohn had a sexual relationship, although some historians have more recently concluded the friendship was platonic. During the Army-McCarthy hearings, he denied having "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 common derogatory term for a homosexual male.) 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

In 1984, Cohn was diagnosed with AIDS, and he attempted to keep his condition secret while receiving aggressive drug treatment. He participated in clinical trials of the new drug AZT. He insisted to his dying day that his disease was liver cancer.

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 I.R.S. He succeeded in that.

Death

He died on August 2, 1986 in Bethesda, Maryland, of complications from AIDS at the age of 59. He is buried in Queens, New York.

Fictional portrayals and references in popular culture

A dramatic, controversial man in life, Cohn inspired many dramatic fictional portrayals after his death. Probably the most famous is his role in Tony Kushner's Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, in which Cohn is portrayed as a self-hating, power-hungry hypocrite who is haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg as he lies dying of AIDS. In the 2003 HBO 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. This title may have been inspired by the National Lampoon comic strip Roy Cohn in Hell, published in that magazine right after Cohn's death.

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 Tailgunner Joe.

Cohn is portrayed in an episode of The X-Files, 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.

Kurt Vonnegut included a fictionalized Roy M. Cohn in his 1979 novel Jailbird. Vonnegut used Cohn with his verbal permission, promising 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 introduction 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 Blue-Haired Lawyer character on The Simpsons is based on that of Roy Cohn, according to DVD commentaries by show writers Al Jean and Mike Reiss.

Notes

References and further reading

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Books by Roy Cohn

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External links

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