Roy Cohn in 1964
|Born||Roy Marcus Cohn
February 20, 1927
New York City
|Died||August 2, 1986
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
Roy Marcus Cohn (//; February 20, 1927 – August 2, 1986) was an American attorney who became famous during Senator Joseph McCarthy's investigations into Communist activity in the United States during the Second Red Scare. Cohn gained special prominence during the Army–McCarthy hearings. He was also an important member of the U.S. Department of Justice's prosecution team at the espionage trials of Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
Born 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.
As 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 Trial
Cohn 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 had served 18 years in prison, said that Julius Rosenberg had spied for the Soviets, but that Ethel did not.
Work with Joseph McCarthy
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 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 U.S. 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, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower signed an executive order on April 29, 1953, that banned homosexuals from obtaining jobs in the federal government.
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 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.
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, 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.
When 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.
In 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 media
A dramatic and controversial man, Cohn inspired many dramatic fictional portrayals after his death. Probably the most famous is his fictionalized role in Tony 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 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.
Kurt Vonnegut's 1979 novel Jailbird featured a character named Roy M. Cohn. Vonnegut wrote in the novel's prologue that he had received verbal permission from Cohn, to whom he had promised in a January 1979 phone call to "do him no harm and to present him as an appallingly effective attorney for either the prosecution or the defense of anyone".
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 2007 novel Fellow Travelers by Thomas Mallon.
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 novel, titular character Joe Kavalier performed at Cohn's bar mitzvah as a magician named "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.
Roy Cohn is mentioned in Ken Perenyi's 2012 memoir Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of An American Forger.
- 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.
- "Roy Cohn, Aide to McCarthy and Fiery Lawyer, Dies at 59.". The New York Times. August 3, 1986. Retrieved 2008-03-11. "Roy M. Cohn, the flamboyant, controversial defense lawyer who was chief counsel to Joseph R. McCarthy's Senate investigations in the 1950's into Communist influence in American life, died yesterday at the age of 59."
- "Mrs. Albert C. Cohn Dies. Roy Cohn's Mother, 74.". New York Times. June 6, 1967. Retrieved 2008-04-04. "Mrs. Dora Marcus Cohn, widow of Justice Albert C. Cohn of the State Supreme Court and mother of Roy M. Cohn, lawyer and industrialist, died last evening at her home, 1165 Park Avenue. She would have been 75 years old on Thursday."
- "Albert Cohn. A Former Justice. Practiced Law Here With Son Roy Since Retiring From Appellate Bench.". New York Times. January 9, 1959.
- Goodman, Walter."In Business for Profit; Imagine That?", The New York Times, October 16, 1994. Accessed April 4, 2008. "The family's main derelictions occupy three chapters. One has to do with Mr. Newhouse's friendship with Roy Cohn, which began at Horace Mann, a Bronx preparatory school for affluent lads."
- "In a Neutral Corner; Roy Marcus Cohn", The New York Times, April 22, 1960. Accessed April 4, 2008. "By the time he was 20, Cohn, an alumnus of the Fieldston School in ..."
- "Roy Cohn, the flamboyant New York lawyer who catapulted to public prominence in the 1950s as the grand inquisitor of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's communist-hunting congressional panel, died yesterday at the age of 59.". Boston Globe. August 3, 1986. "Irene Haske, a spokeswoman at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, where Mr. Cohn died, said the primary cause of his death was cardio-pulmonary arrest, with "dementia" and "underlying HTLV III"
- "False testimony clinched Rosenberg spy trial". BBC News. December 6, 2001. Retrieved 2010-05-26.
- The Rosenberg file, By Ronald Radosh, Joyce Milton. p. 278
- Roberts, Sam (September 12, 2008). "Figure in Rosenberg Case Admits to Soviet Spying". The New York Times.
- Drogin, Bob (August 3, 1986). "Roy Cohn, Hero and Villain of McCarthy Era, Dies at 59.". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2008-03-17. "Millions of Americans watched the real-life TV drama as McCarthy and Cohn tangled with top Army officials, trading bitter charges and accusations. Army counsel John G. Adams testified that Cohn had threatened to "wreck the Army." Army special counsel Joseph N. Welch also accused Cohn of doctoring a photo that was introduced as evidence."
- "The Self-Inflated Target". TIME. March 22, 1954. Retrieved 2008-03-11. "While they talked, newsservice teletypes were clacking out, for the morning papers, the Army's sensational charge: Roy Cohn had threatened to "wreck the Army" in an attempt to get special treatment for one Private G. David Schine."
- Serwer, Andrew E. (1995-08-21). "Who's Crazy: The IRS or Mr. Moody?". Fortune (magazine). Retrieved 2011-03-05.
- "Group Acquires Lionel Control. Roy Cohn Heads Syndicate That Has Bought More Than 200,000 Shares.". New York Times. October 9, 1959. Retrieved 2008-09-21.
- Vartan, Vartanig G. (May 7, 1963). "Roy Cohen Loses Top Lionel Post. Board Elects Victor Muscat as Its New Chairman. Proxy Fight Sidetracked Earnings Record. Reviewed Shareowners Convene to Hear Reports on Company Operations During the Year.". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-09-21.
- "Cohn Ko'D". TIME. 1986-07-07. Retrieved 2008-03-15. "One hospital attendant testified in a Florida court that Cohn "tried to take (Rosenstiel's) hand for him to sign" the codicil to his will. The lawyer eventually emerged with a document bearing what the New York judges described as "a number of 'squiggly' lines which in no way resemble any letters of the alphabet.""
- Labash, Matt (5 Nov 2007). "Roger Stone, Political Animal, ‘Above all, attack, attack, attack—never defend.’". The Weekly Standard.
- Miller, Neil (2005). Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present. Advocate Books. pp. Ch. 18. ISBN 1-55583-870-7.
- Wolfe, Tom (April 3, 1988). "Dangerous Obsessions". The New York Times. "But so far as Mr. Schine is concerned, there has never been the slightest evidence that he was anything but a good-looking kid who was having a helluva good time in a helluva good cause. In any event, the rumors were sizzling away ..."
- Baxter, Randolph (November 13, 2006). "An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture". glbtq, Inc. "Tall, rich, and suave, the Harvard-educated (and heterosexual) Schine contrasted starkly with the short, physically undistinguished, and caustic Cohn."
- "1949 Ad Washington DC Pixie Camera for Wrist for Photo | eBay". Cgi.ebay.com. 2012-04-09. Retrieved 2013-11-02.
- Johnson, David K. (2004). The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. University of Chicago Press. pp. 15–19. ISBN 0-226-40481-1.
- Roy Cohn
- Paul ColichmanChief Executive Officer (2013-10-23). "Who is Roy Cohn?". Planetout.com. Retrieved 2013-12-05.
- Toobin, Jeffrey (2008-06-02). "The Dirty Trickster". The New Yorker. p. 58. Retrieved 2008-05-31. "He was interested in power and access. He told me his absolute goal was to die completely broke and owing millions to the I.R.S. He succeeded in that."
- From Haunted Mansions To The Brooklyn Bridge, NYC24.com. Accessed October 30, 2008.
- "Past Shows". Signature Theatre. Retrieved 2013-11-02.
- Holden, Stephen (1992-05-03). "Two Strangers Meet Through an Actor". New York Times.
- Vonnegut, Kurt (1979). Jailbird. Dell Publishing. p. 20. ISBN 0-440-15473-1.
- Wertheim, Larry M. "The Law of The Simpsons", Bench & Bar of Minnesota (Official Publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association), Vol. 60, No. 2, February 2003. Accessed October 30, 2008. "Hutz is often opposed by an older, nasal, pasty-faced lawyer (modeled on Joe McCarthy's Roy Cohn) who is retained by Mr. Burns and other corporate clients and who also acts as a prosecutor."
- "Arcade Publishing". Arcadepub.com. 2012-09-01. Retrieved 2013-12-05.
- Lubow, Arthur. "Onward and Upward with the Arts: Tony Kushner's Paradise Lost". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2013-11-02.
- Perenyi, Ken (2012). Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger. New York, NY: Pegasus. ISBN 978-1605983608.
- Cohn, Roy Marcus (1969). Interviewed by Herbert S. Parmet, ed. Reminiscences of Roy Marcus Cohn : oral history, 1969 (typescript + 1 reel). New York, New York: Columbia University Libraries. p. 15.
- Wolfe, Tom (April 3, 1988). "Dangerous Obsessions". The New York Times.
- Ward, Geoffrey C. (1988). "Roy Cohn". American Heritage Magazine.
- Von Hoffman, Nicholas (1988). Citizen Cohn; The Life and Times of Roy Cohn. Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-23690-5.
- Zion, Sidney and Cohn, Roy (1988). The Autobiography of Roy Cohn. St Martins. ISBN 0-312-91402-4.
- Roy Cohn at the Internet Movie Database
- Roy Cohn at Find a Grave
- Roy Cohn's square on the AIDS Memorial Quilt