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Roy Cohn

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Roy Marcus Cohn (February 20, 1927 – August 2, 1986) was an American lawyer who came to prominence during the investigations by Senator Joseph McCarthy into alleged Communists in the U.S. government, especially during the Army-McCarthy Hearings. He was also a key figure of prosecution in the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. A highly controversial figure, he wielded tremendous political power at times.

Early life Edit

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.[1][2][3] 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[4] and the Fieldston School[5][6], 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.[1]

Although he was registered as a Democrat, Cohn supported most of the Republican presidents of his time and Republicans in major seats across New York.

Anti-Communist investigations Edit

As Saypol's assistant at the U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan, Cohn helped to win a number of high-profile 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 prominent 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 soon gained power nearly equal to McCarthy's own in the United States 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 far 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 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. [7] [8] 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 photo of Schine was introduced, and Joseph N. Welch accused Cohn of doctoring the image to show Schine alone with Army Secretary Robert Stevens. [7] Although the findings of the hearings placed the blame on Cohn rather than McCarthy, they are widely viewed as a key element in McCarthy's fall from power. After the Army-McCarthy Hearings, Cohn resigned from McCarthy's staff and went into private practice.

Later career Edit

After leaving McCarthy, Cohn built a 30-year career as a high-powered 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 become 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.[1]

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.[9] 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.[10]

Federal investigations in the 1970s and 1980s charged Cohn three times with professional misconduct, including perjury and witness tampering.[1] 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.[11] 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 Edit

Rumors of Cohn's homosexuality began to spread throughout Washington, D.C. shortly after Joseph McCarthy appointed him chief counsel to McCarthy's subcommittee. When he brought on Schine as chief consultant, it became widely speculated that Schine and Cohn had a sexual relationship, although some historians have more recently concluded the friendship was platonic.[12][13][14] During the Army-McCarthy hearings, he denied having "special interest" in Schine or being bound to him "closer than to the ordinary friend."[12]

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."[12]

Cohn and McCarthy targeted many government officials and cultural figures not only for suspected Communist sympathies, but also for alleged homosexuality[15]

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 Internal Revenue Service. He succeeded in that."[16]

Death Edit

He died on August 2, 1986 in Bethesda, Maryland, of complications from AIDS at the age of 59. [6] He is buried in Queens, New York.[1] [7]

Fictional portrayals and references in popular culture Edit

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, and by Joe Pantoliano in Robert Kennedy and His Times.

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.[17]

Notes Edit

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 "Roy Cohn, Aide to McCarthy and Fiery Lawyer, Dies at 59.", The New York Times, August 3, 1986. Retrieved on 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." 
  2. "Mrs. Albert C. Cohn Dies. Roy Cohn's Mother, 74.", New York Times, June 6, 1967, Tuesday. Retrieved on 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." 
  3. "Albert Cohn. A Former Justice. Practiced Law Here With Son Roy Since Retiring From Appellate Bench.", New York Times, January 9, 1959. Retrieved on 2008-03-17. 
  4. 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."
  5. "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 ..."
  6. 6.0 6.1 "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. Retrieved on 2008-03-17. "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" 
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 "Roy Cohn, Hero and Villain of McCarthy Era, Dies at 59.", Los Angeles Times, August 3, 1986. Retrieved on 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." 
  8. "The Self-Inflated Target", Time (magazine), March 22, 1954. Retrieved on 2008-03-11. "While they talked, news service 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." 
  9. http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F50B15FB3858137B93CBA9178BD95F4D8585F9 "GROUP ACQUIRES LIONEL CONTROL; Roy Cohn Heads Syndicate That Has Bought More Than 200,000 Shares"], The New York Times, October 9, 1959. Accessed August 5, 2008.
  10. Vartan, Vartanig G. "ROY COHN 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.", The New York Times, May 7, 1963. Accessed August 5, 2008.
  11. "Cohn Ko'D", Time (magazine), 1986-07-07. Retrieved on 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."" 
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Miller, Neil (2005). Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present. Advocate Books, Ch. 18. ISBN 1555838707. 
  13. Wolfe, Tom. "Dangerous Obsessions", The New York Times, April 3, 1988. "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 ..." 
  14. 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.”
  15. 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 0226404811. 
  16. Toobin, Jeffrey. "The Dirty Trickster", The New Yorker, 2008-06-02, pp. 58. Retrieved on 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." 
  17. Artie Ziff Information and Facts.

References and further reading Edit

Books by Roy Cohn Edit

External links Edit


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