Roy Marcus Cohn (February 20, 1927 – August 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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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.
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.