The Autobiography of Roy Cohn


Title:                      The Autobiography of Roy Cohn

Author:                  Sidney Zion

Zion, Sidney (1998). The Autobiography of Roy Cohn. Secaucus, NJ: Lyle Stuart

LOC:       88002232

KF373.C62 A3 1988

Date Posted:      July 3, 2013

“I went to work for Joe McCarthy in January 1953,” Roy Cohn told Sidney Zion, “and was gone by the fall of ‘54. Less than two years. But a lifetime was packed into it, and more if obituaries tell the tale. Does anybody doubt how mine will open? ‘Roy M. Cohn, who served as chief counsel to Senator Joseph R. McCarthy . . .’ Which is exactly how I want it to read.” He got his wish. That was exactly how it did read, all over America, when he died of AIDS in August of 1986 at the age of 59. But now the post-mortems have begun, and the picture we get is stranger by far than that of a baby-faced 26-year-old anti-Communist who somehow managed to dominate the front pages in the 1950s.[1]

If Mr. Zion’s Autobiography of Roy Cohn and Nicholas von Hoffman’s Citizen Cohn have it right, Roy Cohn was one of the most curious child prodigies ever born. Moreover, he was trapped throughout his life inside his own early precociousness. Many others were trapped with him along the way. One of them was Joe McCarthy. McCarthy never knew what he was dealing with. He didn’t destroy himself, as it is so often put. He was unable to survive Cohn’s prodigious obsessions.

In 1985 Cohn was already dying when he approached his friend Mr. Zion, a former magazine editor and New York Times reporter, for help in writing his life story. Mr. Zion tape recorded a series of interviews until Cohn’s strength gave out, then fleshed out the book with Roy Cohn stories of his own. Meanwhile, Mr. von Hoffman, a well-known liberal journalist and no friend of Roy Cohn’s, set out to write an unauthorized biography and record the voices of all the players other than the dead man, and there were plenty of them. McCarthy and his cause were soon dead, but Cohn, propelled by a peculiar monomania, lived on as before, sitting shank-to-flank with the movers and the shakers, on through the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and the 1980s, whispering to them sotto voce, behind the hand, brokering their dreams of power.

These two books should be read in tandem. It is not a hard task. Both hum along at a merry clip, thanks in part, perhaps, to the two authors’ headlong dead-heat race to publication. And in the end both bog down. The problem is not literary. They bog down in the depressing spectacle of a prodigy who grew old without overcoming the childhood fevers that inflamed him.

Most child prodigies are pint-sized musicians, artists, poets, dancers, mathematicians or chess players. Their talents, however dazzling, have no direct effect on the lives of their fellow citizens. But Cohn was a child political prodigy. His talent was not for political science, either. It was politics as practiced in the Bronx County Courthouse, in the 1930s, where the rules of the Favor Bank, with its IOUs and “contracts,” were the only rules that applied.

By his own account, as well as Mr. von Hoffman’s, Cohn had no boyhood. He was raised as a miniature adult. His father, Albert Cohn, was a judge in the Bronx and a big makher, a very big deal, in the Bronx Democratic organization, which in turn, under the famous Edward J. (Boss) Flynn, had a pivotal position in the national Democratic Party. Cohn grew up in an apartment on Walton Avenue, just down the street from the courthouse, near the crest of the Grand Concourse, watching big makhers coming and going through the living room, transacting heavy business with his father.

“I didn’t hang around arguing with my buddies about whether DiMaggio was better than Mel Ott,” says Cohn. His idea of recreation was discussing with his father interesting cases that had come before his court. He claims he was only 8 when the force of his logic changed, forever, the judge’s attitude toward eyewitness testimony. At 12, he says, he got into a serious argument with the old man over the proper operations of the Favor Bank. Judge Cohn had ascended to the Appellate Division thanks to the political machinations of another judge, Francis Martin. So Al Cohn had a very big marker out, an IOU outstanding, collectible by Francis Martin. Two years later Judge Martin came to Al Cohn and asked him to vote his way in a case before the Appellate Division. Al Cohn refused, saying his conscience wouldn’t allow it. Both Roy and his mother, Dora Marcus Cohn, descended on Al, saying he had broken the law of the Favor Bank. When it came time to pay up on a marker as big as the one Al Cohn had out to Francis Martin, that was “a contract.” You had no choice but to pay up on a contract—at least in the eyes of Roy Marcus Cohn, age 12.

Cohn says he was 15 when he pulled off his first major piece of power brokerage. Using his uncle Bernie Marcus’ connections, he acted as intermediary in the purchase of radio station WHOM by Generoso Pope, father of one of Cohn’s schoolmates. According to Cohn, Pope gave him a $10,000 commission, and Cohn kicked back a portion of it to a lawyer for the Federal Communications Commission—an F.C.C. kickback at age 15. By age 16 or 17, according to Mr. von Hoffman, Cohn thought nothing of calling a police precinct to fix a speeding ticket for one of his high school teachers. At 18, in the last year of the Second World War, says Mr. von Hoffman, Cohn avoided the draft by having himself nominated to West Point three times in a row by a friendly Congressman and failing the Academy’s minimum strength and endurance tests three times in a row, eating up time until the war and the draft were over.

Using speed-up programs designed for veterans, Cohn got both his undergraduate and law degrees at Columbia in three years. He was not yet 20. The day he got word he had passed the bar examination, he was sworn in as an Assistant United States Attorney. Within months, by his own account, he had set his first outrageous publicity fire.

He was the lone attorney on duty in the office one Saturday when a small-time gangster was arrested and found to be carrying $10,000 in counterfeit bills. At the arraignment Cohn told a wire-service stringer the case involved a big-time counterfeiting ring. That afternoon the story and Assistant United States Attorney Cohn were spread across the front page of The New York World-Telegram. The only problem was that Cohn didn’t have a shred of information about any ring, great or small. So before his superiors could question him about it on Monday morning, he got on the telephone and found a Treasury Department investigator—disgruntled by the lackadaisical way the courts treated counterfeiting cases—who promised to back him up. “I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about,” Cohn told Mr. Zion, “but the dough had to come from somewhere, didn’t it?”

The metier—courthouse wheeling and dealing—was his father’s, but Cohn’s reckless confidence seems to have been the contribution of his mother. Not that she was either reckless or confident herself. The picture Mr. von Hoffman gives us of Dora Marcus is of a small, homely, not very bright, anything but charming woman who at the age of 31 married Al Cohn. He was 40. Apparently it was a marriage of convenience. She had some money and stood to inherit a great deal more; the Marcuses had founded a bank catering to European immigrants, the Bank of United States (no the, presumably to own up to the fact that it wasn’t actually part of the United States Government); and Al Cohn, the son of a Lower East Side pushcart peddler, was woefully short on money for the pursuit of his political career. Dora’s case was simpler. By the standards of the 1920s she was already an old maid. She needed a husband. She settled for one who in her mind was far beneath the eminence of the Marcuses.

The two of them were never crazy about each other. Al Cohn was a cold fish, under the best of circumstances. The center of Dora’s life became their only child, Roy—and all the more so when the Bank of United States failed in 1930 and her brother, Roy’s Uncle Bernie, went to jail. According to Mr. von Hoffman, she envisioned Roy Marcus Cohn as the rising star who would restore the brilliance to the Marcus name. She became a caricature of the overprotective mother. When it rained she actually hunted her boy down at school and, later, at his business offices, to bring him his rubbers. She openly advertised him as a genius. When a schoolteacher called her to tell her he was taking Roy and some other students to a ball game after school, she said, “That’s nice, you can learn a lot from my son.”

The Bronx wasn’t good enough for her Woy—as she pronounced his name, according to Mr. von Hoffman, in a common New York speech warp of that time. So when Roy was 8 Muddy—Cohn called his mother by this fond bit of baby talk even when he was grown—forced Al to move from the bastion of his courthouse power, Walton Avenue in the Bronx, to Park Avenue and 92d Street. Roy Marcus Cohn would be a Marcus aristocrat not bound by the ways of the Cohns or other ordinary people. Woy lived there on Park Avenue with Muddy until the day she died. He was by then middle-aged.

In the United States Attorney’s office the little prince moved in on major cases immediately. He played a bit part in the prosecution of Alger Hiss and developed his crusader’s concern with the issue of Communist infiltration of the United States Government. As Cohn told Sidney Zion, this was by no means a right-wing tack at the time. Anti-Communism and its obverse, loyalty, were causes first championed after the Second World War not by Joseph McCarthy but by the Truman Administration.

By age 23 Cohn was at center stage for the so-called Trial of the Century, the prosecution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for delivering atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. For a start, says Cohn, at the age of 21 he had taken part in a complicated piece of Favor Banking, involving Tammany Hall and one of its men’s auxiliaries, the mob, to get Irving Saypol his job as United States Attorney. Saypol became the prosecutor in the Rosenberg case and made Cohn his first lieutenant. Next, says Cohn, he did some Favor Banking for an old family friend, Irving Kaufman. Al Cohn had played a big part in getting Judge Kaufman a Federal judgeship. Now Judge Kaufman was dying to preside at the Trial of the Century. Cohn says he went straight to the clerk in charge of assigning judges to criminal cases, pulled the right strings, and Judge Kaufman was in.

Throughout the trial, says Cohn, he and Judge Kaufman kept in secret communication. Judge Kaufman, he says, would go out on the street and use a telephone booth next to the Park Avenue Synagogue. Cohn would take the call at a booth behind the judge’s bench in the courtroom. “If the Rosenbergs had a communication system like Irving had,” Cohn told Mr. Zion, “they never would have been caught, let alone executed.”

An American Bar Association committee exonerated both men of any improper conduct in 1977. How much of Cohn’s version is true and how much is just big talk? Either way, it offers a clue to Cohn’s purpose in deciding, at the 11th hour, to leave an autobiography behind. Stories like this were not likely to improve his account on the moral ledger before he crossed the River Jordan. His own picture of the Rosenberg case is far more damaging to Roy Cohn than Mr. von Hoffman’s. No, his main purpose seems to be to establish, for the record, that he was a player at the very heart of the action, that he was there . . . where things were happening. This is the part of Cohn’s makeup that Mr. Zion himself resonates with. Politically, Mr. Zion could beat even Mr. von Hoffman in a showdown of liberal or left credentials. After all, Mr. Zion was the co-founder of one of the wildest organs of the New Left, Scanlan’s Monthly. But Mr. Zion’s account, in his own Roy Cohn stories, is beyond politics. Cohn is his fellow boulevardier, his fellow dynamo who gets the action going. Mr. Zion invokes H. L. Mencken: “What a dull world it would be for us honest men if it weren’t for its sinners.”

Mr. von Hoffman is not immune to Cohn’s rakish bravura. He seems alternately fascinated and repelled. When sufficiently repelled, he expounds on what he sees as Cohn’s pernicious legacy of “conformity” and “securityism” in American life. Then his literary zest takes over and he gives us Roy Cohn the eternal child trying to show the world just how big a makher, just how fearless an autocrat, Al Cohn’s and Dora Marcus’s son could be.

Cohn was more than Senator Joseph McCarthy, Republican of Wisconsin, could handle, in any case. McCarthy was not destroyed because he made wild charges concerning Communist influence in America. As polls showed repeatedly, so long as he stuck to that broad theme, he had tremendous bipartisan support. It was the sons of two established Democratic Party families who vied for the position of chief counsel to McCarthy’s Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security. One was Roy Cohn. The other was Bobby Kennedy. Cohn won out because, among other considerations, he had, at age 26, vastly more experience as a prosecutor. Kennedy signed on as an assistant counsel, and Cohn treated him like a gofer, making him go out for sweet rolls and coffee refills, earning his eternal hatred. What did McCarthy in was his attack on the United States Army. It was Dwight Eisenhower’s Army, and by now, 1953, Eisenhower was President of the United States. And who got McCarthy into his last, ruinous tarball battle with the Army? The little prince.

Cohn had brought aboard the McCarthy team, as an unpaid special investigator, one G. David Schine, the rich young handsome blond son of a hotel-chain operator. Mr. Schine’s only qualification for the job was that he had written an amateurish tract entitled “Definition of Communism” and published it with his own money. Not even McCarthy knew why he was there. He only kept him on to make Cohn happy. McCarthy seemed to think that Cohn, in addition to being bright and energetic, was highly organized, tightly wound, cool and disciplined as well.

He wasn’t. What baby autocrat would live like that? Cohn and Mr. Schine proceeded to become a pair of bold-faced characters in the gossip columns, two boys out on the town, throwing a party that stretched from the Stork Club in New York to various dives, high and low, in Paris—where they arrived during a disastrous European tour, supposedly to monitor the work of United States Government libraries abroad. The European press mocked them unmercifully, depicting them as a pair of nitwit children.

What did Cohn see in Mr. Schine? Almost immediately there were rumors that they were lovers and even that McCarthy himself was in on the game. Cohn’s obsession with Mr. Schine, in light of what became known about Cohn in the 1980’s, is one thing. 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 when the Army-McCarthy hearings, the denouement of Joe McCarthy’s career, got under way in 1954.

McCarthy’s investigation of the Army’s security procedures had taken place the year before. Now Eisenhower loyalists on McCarthy’s subcommittee joined with Democrats to conduct hearings on the subject of—Roy Cohn.

David Schine was draft age. He had been classified 4-F because of a slipped disk, but now the highly publicized hard-partying lad was re-examined and reclassified 1-A. Cohn went to work. He tried to get the Army to give Mr. Schine an instant commission and a desk on the East Coast from which he could continue to serve the subcommittee and the Dionysian gods of the Stork Club and other boites.

Cohn made calls to everyone from Secretary of the Army Robert Stevens on down. He made small talk, he made big talk, he tried to make deals, he tendered IOUs, he screamed, and he screamed some more, he spoke of grim consequences. When all of this blew up in the form of a detailed log leaked to the press, Cohn was genuinely shocked. What had he done that any high official of the Favor Bank, any self-respecting makher, wouldn’t have done for a friend? All he had done was try to advance a few markers, make a few contracts, and scare the pants off a few bureaucrats who were so lame as not to have an account at the Favor Bank in the first place.

But he was no longer dealing with the courthouse crowd in the Bronx or even lower Manhattan. He didn’t know it, but he was dealing with Ike, and Ike had had enough. The thrust of the Army-McCarthy hearings was that McCarthy’s attack on the Army had been nothing but an insidious attempt to get favored treatment for Cohn’s friend Mr. Schine.

So what? Cohn remained confident that he could win against any odds. But, as he would later admit to Mr. Zion, he was no match for the Army’s counsel, the veteran Boston trial lawyer Joseph Welch. The hearings became a television drama that stopped America cold. The entire nation seemed to take time out to watch. The hearings had two famous punch lines, and Welch delivered them both.

The most famous came when McCarthy violated a secret Favor Bank deal between Welch and Cohn. As Cohn and Mr. von Hoffman both tell it, Cohn had approached Welch and agreed not to reveal that one of Welch’s young law associates, Frederick Fisher, had been a member of the National Lawyers Guild, reputed to be a Communist front, if Welch would not go into Cohn’s inglorious armed-service record. Welch agreed, but McCarthy, infuriated by Welch’s sarcastic, goading manner, blurted out the damning information about young Fisher, while Cohn mouthed the words, “No! No, Joe!” A wrangle ensued, climaxed by Welch’s line: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you no sense of decency?”

Everyone in the hearing room except McCarthy’s own team, even the reporters and photographers, rose up and cheered, and the McCarthy Era, as it was known, was over.

But that was not the line that got under Cohn’s skin. That one came in an exchange concerning a picture of Mr. Schine and Army Secretary Stevens that Cohn had put into evidence. It turned out that the photograph had been cropped. Welch began going after one of McCarthy’s staffers about the source of the altered picture: “Did you think it came from a pixie?”

McCarthy interrupted: “Will the counsel for my benefit define—I think he might be an expert on that -what a pixie is?”

Welch said, “Yes, I should say, Mr. Senator, that a pixie is a close relative to a fairy. Shall I proceed, sir? Have I enlightened you?” To Roy Cohn this was not funny. In his palmy days, the McCarthy days, he was often seen out on the town with good-looking young women. He worked hard at keeping up his reputation as a typical high-living New York bachelor. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, his forays into New York’s homosexual netherworld became increasingly open. Mr. von Hoffman offers a picture of Cohn in a sordid setting of kept boys, male prostitutes and venereal disease, culminating in AIDS and a dreadful, rotting death. But did this mean Cohn was a homosexual? Not in his own mind, he wasn’t, according to Mr. Zion. Engaging in sexual acts with other men was one thing; being a homosexual or “fag,” to use the term he says Cohn favored, was something else. No one as tough, aggressive and fearless as he was could possibly be a homosexual, no matter what he did for fun. Oddly enough, Cohn’s tough, aggressive business associates, from the courthouses, law enforcement, the construction industry, the mob, figured the same thing. The pretty boys who hung around Cohn on his yacht? They were crewmen—crewmen whose main duty was to drink Bloody Marys. The Favor Bank crowd didn’t want to confront the obvious any more than Cohn himself, says Mr. Zion.

Cohn did, in fact, have a toughness and manly aplomb that charmed many people who, like Mr. Zion, viewed his McCarthyite past with distaste. Cohn’s bra-vest performance, in the eyes of most who knew him, came in the 1960’s when, against overwhelming odds, he fought off Bobby Kennedy.

After the collapse of the McCarthy committee, Cohn had gone into private law practice in New York. He became famous all over again, this time as a tough lawyer, a “gunslinger” who could get results where all other lawyers failed. Mr. von Hoffman gives us the following picture of how Cohn the lawyer actually operated. If a case involved a problem Cohn could take care of by calling the right judge, the right district leader, the right gangster, union boss, contractor or newspaper columnist—or by growling and brandishing the fearsome Roy Cohn reputation—then he could achieve results that seemed miraculous.

But if a client came to him with a case that required standard legal strategies, days of depositions, acres of briefs, eternities of petitions, motions and appeals, that was a different story. The results, according to Mr. von Hoffman, were sometimes disastrous. Either nothing got done or the most elementary procedures were forgotten, and cases were lost by default. It was not merely that Cohn had no taste for such cases. He didn’t have the staff, either. He didn’t even have the law books. The office tried to make do with the out-of-date set his father had left him when he died. All he really had were his contacts, his telephone, his reputation as a hard number and his lifelong love of the Favor Bank and all its games. One of his well-remembered in-house axioms was: “I don’t want to know what the law is, I want to know who the judge is.”

It was in the gray area of the Favor Bank games that Bobby Kennedy decided to strike when his brother appointed him Attorney General in 1961. Mr. von Hoffman backs up Cohn’s claim that Kennedy had a Get Roy Cohn obsession and presents strong evidence that the phobia was highly personal. Now the tables were turned. Cohn was no longer the hunter with the power of the Senate behind him. He was the quarry with the full might of the Justice Department bearing down upon him.

For almost a decade the Justice Department’s surveillance, legal harassment and formal investigation of Cohn and his associates was unrelenting. In 1963 Kennedy, via the United States Attorney’s office in New York, indicted Cohn on charges of perjury and jury tampering in the so-called United Dye case. Cohn won acquittal in a jury trial. But his finest hour came at the end of a second trial in 1969 when he was charged with bribery in the Fifth Avenue Coach Company case. Just before the final arguments were to begin, Cohn’s lawyer, Joseph Brill, suffered a heart attack. Cohn, who had not taken the stand during the trial, rose and delivered the summation himself. He spoke for seven hours without a note, and the jury acquitted him. The performance was so brilliant, he was accused of having Brill fake a heart attack in order to set up the dramatic last act.

As Mr. von Hoffman demonstrates, the Government’s charges in these cases were often tortured and overly technical. They made the campaign against Cohn seem capricious—most obviously in the eyes of jurors. The high smell of the Get Cohn campaign was such that it still poisoned the air almost 20 years later when Roy Cohn was finally run to ground, five weeks before his death. He was disbarred by New York State on a medley of charges, the most serious being that he had misrepresented a document to an old friend, Lewis S. Rosenstiel, as Rosenstiel lay on his death bed, in order to get him to sign a codicil making Cohn one of the trustees of his estate. But even here, says Mr. von Hoffman, who is certainly not one of Roy Cohn’s defenders, it could be argued that the New York court was disregarding a perfectly plausible explanation.

Through all of this Cohn remained a friend and confidant of big makhers—and the most important of them were in the Democratic Party, just as in the old days back on Walton Avenue in the Bronx. Mr. Zion provides a marvelous vignette of Cohn at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. In 1968, now that Joe McCarthy himself was dead, Roy Cohn was the major living relic of McCarthyism, the cause that had branded the Democratic Party “the party of treason.” The body of the man who had made Cohn America’s public enemy No. 2, Bobby Kennedy, was barely cold, and Kennedy had been the party’s strongest candidate for the nomination. Moreover, Cohn had already been indicted on one criminal charge, and two more were pending. And here he was, with Mr. Zion in tow, heading out onto the floor of the Democratic National Convention. Mr. Zion watched, his mouth open, his chin on his collarbone, as Cohn worked the hall . . . Ohio . . . Florida . . . Texas . . . California . . . New York. . . . Congressmen, county leaders, district bosses shouldered one another out of the way in the rush to shake Cohn’s hand, embrace him, whisper in his ear. Finally they reached the delegation from Mr. Zion’s home state, New Jersey. Cohn waved to Tony Grossi, the county leader who had once given Mr. Zion a job in the United States Attorney’s office. Cohn said, “You know Sid, don’t you, Tony?” “Sure,” said Mr. Grossi. “How are ya, kid?”

“And with that,” writes Mr. Zion, Grossi walked away with Cohn, arm in arm, whispering in his ear.

So Cohn worked the floor, plunged once more into the arena—for what? For nothing—nothing but a bigger draft at the Favor Bank, another sure seat at the table of the mighty the next time the boys met, a renewed guarantee of entry into the inner room where the big makhers come and go, transacting their heavy business.


[1] Reviewed in the New York Times, Dangerous Obsessions” by Tom Wolfe (April 03, 1988) whose recent book is the novel The Bonfire of the Vanities.

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