- Historic Sites
July/August 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 5
Joseph McCarthy’s fall from favor after the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings was precipitous enough to satisfy all but his most unforgiving victims. Censured by his colleagues in the Senate, snubbed by the White House, ignored even by the newsmen who had once fought to be first to carry his press releases, he grew convinced that he was being hounded by triumphant Communists who had taken over the telephone company, and, when the tumblers of brandy and vodka he drank in relentless, suicidal succession began to produce delirium tremens, he screamed in fear of the writhing serpents he was sure surrounded him. “No matter where I go,” he sobbed to a friend toward the end, “they look on me with contempt. I can’t take it anymore…They’re murdering me.”
When McCarthy finally, mercifully, died in May of 1957, not yet fifty, Roy Cohn, the young investigator whose reckless arrogance had done more than anything else to start McCarthy on his downward slide, was among the pallbearers. Cohn had been revealed before the television camera as surly, irresponsible, and untrustworthy, and he had finally been forced to resign his post. Unlike McCarthy, he had seemed to thrive on all the exposure, and was already using his notoriety to build what turned out to be a thirty-year career as one of New York’s pre-eminent political fixers. Part of his “mystique,” he once said proudly, “depended on people thinking that I was getting away with every kind of shady deal.”
Because effective fixers do their work behind closed doors, on untapped telephones, and are careful always to cover their tracks and commit as little as possible to paper, efforts to chronicle their careers rarely satisfy. Two new books on Cohn further prove that rule. The core of The Autobiography of Roy Cohn (LyIe Stuart) is Cohn’s own sketchy, selfserving version of his life, left unfinished at his death, then edited by Sidney Zion. Since it was in Cohn’s interest always to seem more powerful than he really was, it is impossible to know which of his gaudy tales to believe about judges bought and sold, politicians made or ruined, and the base intentions that he claimed motivated all those who dared cross him, from Robert Kennedy to George Bush. A self-styled “flaming civil libertarian,” Zion has padded out this book with a number of stories intended, I think, to demonstrate his own generosity of spirit in having had Cohn for a buddy in the face of outraged friends.
Nicholas von Hoffman’s Citizen Cohn (Doubleday) is better, an attempt at a full life, but undercut by the inclusion of too many undigested passages from old newspaper and magazine articles, by the fact that a substantial number of the “several score” interviewees upon whom the author depends for his fresh material apparently preferred not to be identified, and by the author’s own unfortunate fascination with the clinical details of the life Cohn led as a clandestine but desperately promiscuous homosexual amid yacht-loads of tanned, young hustlers hired in Provincetown.
“Though Roy Cohn appears to have had no opportunity to develop the compulsive hatreds that lead many to adopt McCarthyism as a way of life,” the journalist Richard Rovere wrote when Cohn was McCarthy’s twenty-five-year-old counsel, “he is the sort of young man who takes things hard....He has a perpetual scowl and a studied toughness of manner. His voice is raspy, his manner cocksure enough to suggest vast insecurity.”
He never lost that manner. Even at the end, his face ravaged by AIDS and rendered strangely masklike by a series of face-lifts, TV talk-show hosts could count on him to act like the Cohn of old, interrupting his opponents, misrepresenting their views or personalizing his attacks upon them whenever, as very often happened, he ran short of facts.
Von Hoffman’s early chapters at least suggest some of the sources of the lifelong insecurity that evidently underlay his ceaseless aggression. Roy Marcus Cohn was born in 1927, the sole, adored offspring of an otherwise loveless marriage between Al Cohn, a soft-spoken Democratic judge, and Dora Marcus, a millionaire’s noisy daughter whose dowry may have included enough of her father’s money to buy her husband his seat on the bench. Two themes seem to have dominated this troubled woman’s long life: the belief that her husband was a failure because he was merely prosperous, and her determination that her son, with whom she would always live and whose life she would seek to run until her death in 1967, should be a spectacular success. “He was her crown prince,” a relative remembered, “…she was the queen,” and from the first, she taught him that rules applied to commoners, not royalty. While still a sixteen-year-old schoolboy, her son was already using his father’s influence to have his teachers’ traffic tickets quashed, and many years later she was outraged when, after calling to explain that Roy had been out the night before and so would be just a bit late for the first day of his own trial for attempting to rig a grand jury, his attorney told her to get his client out of bed and to court on time, even if he was a little sleepy.