Two documentaries released this month examine Roy Marcus Cohn, the notorious lawyer and political fixer who first made headlines working for communist-hunting Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s: Matt Tyrnauer’s “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” and Ivy Meeropol’s “Bully. Victim. Coward. The Story of Roy Cohn.”
While Cohn had no children, the films feature interviews with the last family members alive who knew him — including me. My father — Cohn’s first cousin — refused to talk to Cohn. But while studying history at Brown University, I interviewed Cohn about the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings (which explored whether the U.S. Army was pressured to give preferential treatment to a former McCarthy aide and friend of Cohn’s).
We met regularly during the following decade as I started my career in journalism and I found him both repulsive and fascinating. Then, in what turned out to be Cohn’s final year of life, I shadowed him for a Vanity Fair story published in 1987.
Cohn is increasingly mentioned because his shadow looms over the Oval Office. Here are five things you might not know about him:
1. Cohn had an outsize influence on American history for more than 30 years.
He started as a prosecutor of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the early 1950s; he then became chief counsel to McCarthy, who led witch hunts against people suspected of being Communists; in 1973, Cohn met Donald Trump and began grooming him to become a national figure; President Reagan welcomed him to the White House in the 1980s after he became one of the first people on the East Coast to line up big donors for Reagan’s campaign.
Cohn advised everyone from Catholic archbishops to Mafia clients like Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno and Gambino family boss Paul Castellano. Cohn helped an upstart Australian publisher named Rupert Murdoch connect with American power brokers. It’s impossible to imagine anyone today with so much influence for so long in the law, the media, the Mob, the Church, plus Democratic and Republican politics.
2. Cohn made headlines going after “homosexuals” and “perverts” in the federal government — but around his friends, he made no secret of being gay.
Tyrnauer makes clear that Cohn brought male lovers to Republican events, and no one uttered a word. Even a 1986 “60 Minutes” segment danced around the question of whether he was gay. This is unimaginable now, with dozens of publications and websites vying to out a homophobic, closeted gay person.
Interviewing Cohn in 1985, I asked about persistent rumors that he had AIDS. “It’s a smear campaign,” he said. Then his thin lips pursed in a smile and he fixed his pale blue eyes on me. “Of course,” he added, “I have been a high-risk candidate.” (In fact, he did die the following year of AIDS-related complications, at age 59.)
3. Cohn was influenced by two very different women.
My relatives couldn’t stand Roy’s overbearing mother, Dora Marcus Cohn. She was the original helicopter parent — long before anyone knew that term — fussing over her only son’s grades, appearance and relationships. When Dora and her husband had dinner guests, princeling Roy sat at the table and held forth, even at age 7. When Roy went to sleepaway camp, Dora rented a room down the road. He lived with his mother until she died, when he was 40.
That’s when her sister — my grandmother, Libby Marcus — stepped in as Cohn’s maternal influence. His beloved Aunt Libby was an extrovert who was ahead of her time: She didn’t judge his sexuality. Also, she believed that family came first, even if a relative had abhorrent political views. She hobnobbed at Cohn’s parties — chatting up Andy Warhol, Norman Mailer, George Steinbrenner and, of course, young Donald Trump.
4. A family tragedy motivated Cohn.
My grandfather Bernard Marcus — Roy’s uncle — was president of a bank that expanded across New York City in the 1920s. He was a philanthropist, but couldn’t get respect from the city’s WASP upper crust. Bank of United States, as it was called, imploded in the Panic of 1930. Other bankers wouldn’t help the Jewish executive, and he became the scapegoat for the financial turmoil. He was sentenced to Sing Sing, the only banker who went to prison over the financial collapse. As an elementary school kid, Cohn visited his Uncle Bernie in Sing Sing: That left Cohn determined to beat the Establishment.
5. Cohn’s descendants have an eerie connection with director Ivy Meeropol.
When I met Ivy, I felt chills. I grew up hearing about my grandfather wrongly being sent to Sing Sing. Meanwhile, Ivy grew up hearing that Roy Cohn was responsible for a tragedy in her own family. He used every method available — legal, extralegal and illegal — to prosecute her grandparents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, for espionage.
The evidence indicated that Ethel was, at most, a bit player in a plot to provide top-secret U.S. military information to the Soviet Union — and she was the mother of two little boys. My vile, vicious, malicious cousin didn’t care. Both of Ivy’s grandparents went to the electric chair. In Sing Sing.