Of the many varieties of evil attached to the legend of Roy Cohn, one of the most perplexing is the ease with which he commanded our undivided attention for so long. Take a moment to gaze upon the reams of serious culture devoted to Cohn, produced in an effort to decode New York City’s most churlish lawyer, as you would gaze upon Trump Tower in the late afternoon sun. For Esquire, he was a cover star twice over. One headline was reasonably circumspect, “Joe McCarthy’s Roy Cohn Tells It Like It Was,” the other a very neat bit of press for someone who spent his whole life imitating a bully: “Don’t Mess with Roy Cohn.” There was an earlier, shared cover for Time magazine, in 1954, which paired Cohn with his best friend and rumored lover G. David Schine. “McCarthy and His Men,” it winked. There were features in Life magazine—“The Hotshot One-Man Roy Cohn Lobby”—and Penthouse—“Fearsome and Unloveable?” Like a president or monarch, he was the recipient of dueling biographies: Citizen Cohn by Nicholas von Hoffman and The Autobiography of Roy Cohn, originally commissioned by Cohn’s high school friend, Si Newhouse.
The enigma of Cohn’s rigid face was no more readable under studio lights. In the 1970s and 1980s, he cycled through as a guest on Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow, a disembodied and combative guest on Larry King Live, and a sparring partner to Gore Vidal on the Bill Boggs Show. He double-dipped on television’s highest-rated news program, 60 Minutes, getting the good cop treatment in 1979, before facing Mike Wallace’s bad cop routine in 1986, months before his death. His cover appeal continued into the late 2010s, when New York magazine’s Frank Rich called Cohn “The Worst Human Being Who Ever Lived,” a fatal blow landed some thirty years after he died (though the article was primarily a critique of enabling Manhattan elites). Vanity Fair published an insider account of how Cohn maintained his “fierce bravado” in the face of the HIV-related illnesses he infamously refused to acknowledge, despite, as von Hoffman’s biography claims, the fact that he was still being sexually serviced by young men after it became clear he was dying. Unlike most who died at the height of the AIDS epidemic, newspapers across the country devoted multiple inches for Cohn’s obituary; but of course he wasn’t an AIDS victim, he was the former “McCarthy Aide and Feared Lawyer.”
In death, the habitual decoding of Cohn was replaced with interpretation. He would be revived again and again and again, under different guises and with different marble-voweled Bronx accents: on Broadway stages, where Tony Kushner immortalized him in Angels in America; on off-Broadway stages, where novelist Gary Indiana wrote him into a one-man play; and back on (cable) television in two HBO productions. Leading men lined up for the chance to mutter, “It’s a vendetta against me,” but only Al Pacino had the chutzpah to rake in an Emmy for his performance.
Take a moment to gaze upon the reams of serious culture devoted to Cohn, produced in an effort to decode New York City’s most churlish lawyer, as you would gaze upon Trump Tower in the late afternoon sun.
Why was Cohn a source of such bottomless intrigue? A newly released documentary on the lawyer, Where’s My Roy Cohn?, is the latest scratch at an itch that’s persisted for half a century now. The film, directed by former Vanity Fair journalist Matt Tyrnauer, is no mere Wikipedia scroll through an infamous life; it’s a comprehensive survey of Cohn’s still sizable influence over reactionary politics and thought in America. Like a silverfish, the Bronx-born lawyer lurks under every paving stone laid by the right from McCarthyism through Reaganism and into the Trumpian era. He was a New Yorker who could arrange things, make problems go away, and most of all, deliver bellicose pronouncements with the confidence they would be quoted accurately for all to see. It’s fair for Tyrnauer to present Cohn, as he does, as a kind of skeleton key with which to unlock the motivations and illogic that guide our current president, who was a former client and treasured protege of Cohn’s.
But Trump is just a partial answer to the question of our enduring fascination with Cohn, and it elides the matter of his legend—who gave birth to it, who nurtured it, who sustained it in old age, and who continues to memorialize it from beyond the grave. There are obvious, nearly aggressive hints that flash across the film, starting with Cohn’s own proclamation that every negative bit of publicity only fueled his reputation. This marks one of the first times in the documentary that we hear Cohn in his own words. Ever the print journalist, Tyrnauer’s narrative proceeds mostly according to slides of Cohn-centric newsprint. Clippings from the New York Times, New York Post and the Daily News weave between scenes. The oracles of modern life, we learn, had been narrating his story since Cohn’s gig as a twenty-four-year-old prosecutor who fought for—and received—the death sentence against accused Russian spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1951. The papers serve a function not unlike a scoreboard, charting Cohn’s wins, losses, and draws across a thirty-eight-year-career that ultimately ended in disbarment.
There’s an implicit undercurrent that clashes with the film’s cool, expository approach. After all, Cohn’s voice is brought to us by the microphones shoved in his face at courthouse scrums. His image is made by the cameras that tracked his nocturnal pursuits or framed his victories by day. It’s reasonable to wonder if a person like Cohn could exist at all in our minds today, or even have stalked the minds of his peers back then, if not for the media’s unabashed affection. Tyrnauer’s documentary doubles as an authoritative closing argument against the honorable fidelity of our papers and programs of record, even if he won’t explicitly make the point. Never mind the fact that Trump became president by imitating the same abrasive style as Cohn and was rewarded with the same credulous attention of the press (if not more). To watch this history of Cohn is to watch a history of the media working toward an end beyond power or wealth and more like immortality itself.
In the film, Tyrnauer speaks with Cohn’s three living cousins, including the feminist author Anne Roiphe and the journalist David Marcus. Their recollections of Cohn’s adolescence—the “Boy Rasputin” as he was once called—reveal a portrait of an intensely coddled child. The offspring of a purely transactional marriage, his mother, Dora Marcus, was considered “the ugliest girl in the Bronx.” But marrying her carried perks, namely a judgeship for Cohn’s father, Al Cohn. The cousins explain key crises in Cohn’s life through this prism. His early youth was consumed by appeasing his mother. To fill the outsized absence that followed her death, Cohn indulged in rampant promiscuity, with men, clients, and the media. His lust for power and money and his compulsive competitiveness, they argue, was an act of vengeance for his family’s expulsion from Jewish society during the Great Depression. Like the treasonous Rosenbergs before their death, his uncle, a bank president, was also sent to Sing Sing prison.
It’s tempting to psychoanalyze, but we should be less interested in the lies Cohn told about himself, and to himself, and more interested in how those lies were handsomely rewarded until his death. As the Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter David Cay Johnston puts it, “The headlines at the top of the story would be Roy’s version of events.” In a kind of pioneering bad faith, Cohn hacked the journalistic bug that ranks the acquisition of a quote over the actual message it contains. Still, the question remains: how is there only one Roy Cohn in our cultural memory? Was he so unique in his sprawling connections? In the merciless sweep of history, power is the thing that stays put. McCarthy drank himself to death after the nationally televised embarrassment of the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, but Cohn’s legend, as one historian tells Tyrnauer, remains “etched in stone.” The infamous ratfucker Roger Stone, another of Cohn’s proteges, sees this special power to manipulate the press—and by extension recorded history—as one that exists in a dimension beyond the realm of a mortal lawyering. “Roy,” he explains, “knew how to shape events.”
Still, we’re made to avert our eyes from the directness of Cohn’s magic act as we puzzle endlessly over the source of our fascination. Could it have anything to do with his oft-reported charisma, despite having a face that looked like a mask of a face? Or was it the company he kept? The lists are so numerous, and you can find them in nearly every summary of Cohn’s life: at his side there was designer Halston, Andy Warhol, William F. Buckley, Aristotle Onassis, Barbara Walters, Liz Smith, George Steinbrenner, John Gotti, Si Newhouse, et al. Perhaps it was his table at 21 Club, where every diner could see him? Or was it his fix at Studio 54? He could get anyone in, even Turkish diplomats in the city on overnight business. Roy’s allegedly incredible appetite for sex arouses prurient fascination in every retelling of his story. “The joke was five a night at a hundred a pop,” went one not-so-hushed rumor.
It’s tempting to psychoanalyze, but we should be less interested in the lies Cohn told about himself, and to himself, and more interested in how those lies were handsomely rewarded until his death.
But what of the ruthless legal mind who was amused by his collection of plush and porcelain green frogs and on whose bedroom door was affixed a small Mickey Mouse license plate with his name on it? (Andy Warhol’s bafflement at Cohn appears in his diaries: “He’s so incredible, he’s such a creep!”) We’re told that he was both the “personification of evil,” yet intensely loyal to the point of staying close with three of his best high school friends until his death. Is this fact blunted at all by knowing that those friends were also the chairman of Conde Nast, the CEO of Hearst Magazines, and the owner of the National Enquirer, respectively?
Despite Cohn’s predatory instincts and ardor for filth, despite his preference to eat with his hands and gobble handfuls of valium, despite his legal savvy ultimately being dispensed in the service of rich couples “fighting over gold faucets,” despite the fact that Cohn was the kind of person who “made everyone else lousy” as the Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin once explained, it was determined, far before any of us had a say, that he was a source of enchantment. As one Manhattan lawyer puts it midway through the film, “He made good copy.” And good copy shall inherit the earth, become the legend we pass down.
When cultural logic becomes dislodged from the grid of morality and taste, the toxic spiels of a person like Cohn become not only edible, but delicious. Addiction, or something like it, quickly follows. There is a value, goes one argument, to tolerating despicable words, ideologies, and people because the content is better. Occasionally, though, the fugue is broken, as in a 1988 Times book review of Cohn’s twin biographies. The mounting body of Cohn-lit is a diet full of empty carbs. “We read on and on,” it goes, “fascinated but unenlightened.”
And now we watch on and on, as what was good copy is even better content. Which raises the question, would Roy Cohn have flourished under the media’s current operating procedures? Recent events don’t suggest resistance from the press’s gatekeepers, not with the evidence that a convicted sex offender like Jeffrey Epstein could pay for good standing in elite society with pre-written articles in Forbes and HuffPost and friendships with a reporter and board member at the paper of record. Nor does the fact that if your dissembling has enough Machiavellian flair, you just might be able to parlay it into a lucrative CNN contract, like one of Trump’s own Cohn impersonators, Corey Lewandowski, recently did. The right kind of lying in this environment can lead to a major network rehabbing your image, or establishing you as a thought leader. Recent memory suggests, in fact, that you can do anything.
“People should’ve ignored him, and put him in jail,” editor Jason Epstein says in disbelief as the documentary draws to a close. We’re shown footage of Cohn, disgraced and defiant, on national television, where he announces his innocence in the face of disbarment proceedings and proclaims his vibrant good health. What if we had ignored him?
In 1965, or around the time Cohn was suing Martin Luther King Jr. for libel, the German philosopher Herbert Marcuse saw a “clear and present danger” in the media’s acceptance of would-be demagogues and fascists like Cohn, and he formulated a frighteningly simple fix: the withdrawal of attention. This “precensorship” as Marcuse called it, would reject communications “in word, print, and picture.” At the time, the philosopher, a mentor to Angela Davis, was responding to a world still reeling from Auschwitz and a cataclysmic World War. But in describing a “post-fascist” moment, he also heralded the familiar state of things to come. “The safe distance between ideology and reality, repressive thought and repressive action, between the word of destruction and the deed of destruction is dangerously shortened,” he wrote.
Marcuse was regularly assailed as an “apostle of chaos,” a “false prophet” or “werewolf.” He was the subject of verbal assaults by “former Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, former Gov. Ronald Reagan of California and the American Legion,” the Times wrote in his 1979 obituary. Though revered for a time, Marcuse’s celebrity would fade. Affection eluded his kind of radical politics. Unlike Cohn, he lacked, as the paper took care to note, “great personal flair.”