Skip to main content


Roy Cohn

May 2024
6min read

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.

“People are forever asking me what I’d do differently if I had my life to live over again,” Cohn wrote. “I disappoint them because I wouldn’t change much....I have no sense of overriding guilt concerning my past, I look back with a clear conscience.” He shed no tears over the reputations he helped ruin while failing to uncover Communists in the government during his eighteen months at McCarthy’s side, and he shrugged off repeated charges of bribery, collusion, thievery, and tax evasion as nothing more than harassment. “I don’t care what the law is, tell me who the judge is,” he liked to say, and …you trust and the next thing you need is a truss.”

His single stated regret was that he and his young fellow-counsel, G. David Schine, had ever undertaken their celebrated 1953 trip to Europe to purge United States Information Agency libraries of “more than thirty thousand works by Communists, fellow-travelers and unwitting promoters of the Soviet cause.” And he was sorry about that only because the press had portrayed him and his sleepy-eyed fellow-crusader as ludicrous junketeers. (Even here, Cohn was still playing McCarthy’s old game: in fact, at issue were not thirty thousand “works” but thirty thousand individual copies of books by 418 men and women whom McCarthy’s researchers had solemnly concluded were “Communist” authors—among them W. H. Auden, Stephen Vincent Benét, John Dewey, Edna Ferber, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., even Bert Andrews, a devoutly conservative newspaper reporter whose own anti-Communist zeal had earlier helped Congressman Richard Nixon nail Alger Hiss for perjury.)

Homosexuals were expecially easy targets for McCarthy—and for his zealous young counsel. When Cohn and Schine checked into European hotels during their ill-fated excursion, they took turns insisting loudly on adjoining rather than double rooms, explaining tastefully to the baffled desk clerks, “You see, we don’t work for the State Department.” Cohn maintained public scorn for homosexuals to the end of his life, going out of his way to lobby against legislation on their behalf, and, according to Zion, once turning away a delegation that hoped he would agree to defend a public school teacher fired because of his sexual orientation. “I believe,” Cohn said, “that homosexual teachers are a grave threat to our children.”

Since Cohn tried to seem more powerful than he was, it is hard to know which of these stories to believe.

More than mere hypocrisy was at work here. Roy Cohn had a lot to prove, or thought he did. He always seemed eager to demonstrate that a Jew could be more ornately patriotic than any Gentile—in the early 1980s he was still leading his dinner guests in singing “God Bless America.” Above all, he sought to dominate everyone he met, perhaps to show that this mama’s boy was tougher than the next guy, whoever that next guy might be. Asked point-blank by a reporter if he was a homosexual, Cohn answered, “Every facet of my…aggressiveness, of my toughness, of everything along those lines, is just totally…incompatible with anything like that…”

He was diagnosed as having AIDS in 1984 and shortly afterward was brought at last before the disciplinary committee of the New York bar. Defending him against charges that included having demanded a loan of one hundred thousand dollars from a client in a divorce case, then refusing to pay her back, his partner was reduced to pleading that Cohn was “a man who loves people, loves animals. He once jumped into a river to save a dog in trouble.” It didn’t work. In the spring of 1986, with only weeks to live, he was disbarred.

Throughout his career Cohn manipulated gossip columnists to keep him in the limelight he loved, and it seems fitting that the most succinct summary of that career may have been offered by Liz Smith of the New York Daily News. Despite his reputation, she said, Cohn was never really a great lawyer: “I think he was a great bully, who had connections and who frightened…people, and who was…the greatest scrapper and fighter who ever lived....He was totally impervious to being insulted.”

And he never lost his power to bring out the worst in everyone. About the time of Cohn’s last hospitalization, I happened to attend a gathering of New York writers, several of whom were publicly identified with the cause of more enlightened treatment for AIDS victims. Party chatter among writers being no more elevated than it is among, say, construction workers, the causes of Cohn’s condition were eagerly discussed.

“I never thought I’d be saying this about anyone ,” said one best-selling novelist, well known for her generous support of humanitarian causes, “but I’m glad he’s got AIDS. He deserves it.”

“Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy,” agreed her no less celebrated, no less normally warm-hearted friend.

Everybody laughed.

That kind of merciless venom would not have surprised its target. Roy Cohn seems to have relished the special loathing his enemies reserved for him, and as these two disappointing books imply, it seems more than likely that on some level he shared fully in it.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.