Citizen Cohn

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Roy Cohn was internationally known during a period of eighteen months, during 1953-1954, when he served as chief counsel to the Government Operations Committee of the Senate, chaired by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. McCarthy and Cohn made numerous charges about the presence of subversives and security risks in various government agencies, and Cohn and another young man, G. David Schine, made a highly publicized tour of United States Information Services libraries in Europe, announcing that they found in these libraries many works by authors they deemed subversive. When McCarthy’s popularity dropped drastically as a result of the so-called Army-McCarthy hearings in the summer of 1954, Cohn resigned and returned to his career as an attorney in New York City.

Before and after his period of national notoriety, Cohn was a highly successful advocate for his clients, chiefly because of his skill in using the network of contacts in the New York political world which he had inherited from his father and developed in the course of his career. Those in his circle of friends and acquaintances stretched from such gangland figures as Carmine Galante and Fat Tony Salerno to J. Edgar Hoover, William F. Buckley, Jr., and New York’s powerful Cardinal Spell-man. It also included George Steinbrenner, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Donald Trump, and such media figures as Rupert Murdoch, Sam and Si Newhouse of the Newhouse chain of newspapers, and Barbara Walters. Cohn made himself useful to many of these people, and some of them helped shield him from criminal charges brought against him at various times at the urging of Robert Kennedy and Robert Morgenthau. From his early entrance into the legal world (he had to wait until his twenty-first birthday to pass the bar examination), he made use of his father’s contacts and his own. Prior to his association with McCarthy, he had been an assistant United States attorney in New York, with precocious skill at drawing the attention of the news media. In that office, he had participated in the prosecution of accused spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. His public life was colorful and well publicized.

His private life, equally colorful but not much publicized, until it became known that he had died of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), was kept separate from his public activities, at least as long as his mother was alive. Dora Marcus Cohn was evidently unhappy in her marriage to Al Cohn, a minor politician and judge in the Bronx County Democratic machine from the 1920’s through the 1950’s. She married late and, as a member of the once-powerful Marcus family, considered that Al Cohn was socially beneath her. She therefore devoted all of her attention to her only child; relatives report that for as long as she lived, she acted as if he needed the care and attention due to a small boy. During her lifetime, she shared Roy’s living quarters and supervised his life. For as long as she lived, he was seen frequently in public in the company of women, and he took care to plant stories in gossip columns mentioning the possibility of his marrying. Once Dora Cohn was dead, he was more open about his homosexual relationships, although he continued to deny that he was homosexual. Stricken with AIDS, he claimed until the very end of his life that he was dying of liver cancer.

Cohn’s public and private lives are described in detail in Nicholas von Hoffman’s Citizen Cohn. It might seem improbable that a person known for his liberal views as a newspaperman and author would take the trouble to write a biography of Roy Cohn or that he would be evenhanded in doing so, but von Hoffman has done both. He was both fascinated and repelled by Cohn, a divided attitude which seems to have characterized many of those who knew the lawyer. Von Hoffman is clearly repelled by many of Cohn’s actions but argues that Cohn’s anti-Communism (unlike that of his mentor, McCarthy) was sincere and not simply a means of furthering a political career. He is also fascinated by the contradictions and mysteries of Cohn’s life.

The person von Hoffman describes was complex and difficult: Skillful in representing his clients in negotiations, Roy Cohn failed to prepare for courtroom appearances, relying on his skills in argument to cover up his sometimes scant knowledge of the case in which he was involved. He knew judges and attorneys, but he seems not to have known or cared much about the law. He could be, and often was, charming, but he could also be careless and cruel in his dealings with others. He was generous with friends, but he was equally generous with himself; he spent money on such luxuries as yachts, townhouses, holidays, but he was careless with his possessions, allowing them to decay, and he never accounted for the money that flowed through his hands. He was never convicted of a criminal offense, but at the end of his life, he was disbarred for lying about a loan he had taken from a client that he swore had been part of a fee.

What is most impressive, in the picture von...

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(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Nicholas von Hoffman, a liberal journalist, has written an uneven study that too much relishes retelling a legion of Roy Cohn stories to ever credibly criticize Cohn for the illegalities and corruption which von Hoffman would presumably have him represent. In von Hoffman’s account, Cohn becomes not the prince of darkness, who would appear drab and lacking in inventiveness beside him, but rather a wonderfully bad boy, full of energy and drive and possessing enough impudence for a whole law firm of hot shots. Cohn hurt people, ruined careers, stole money, fixed deals; he was the toughest and shrewdest lawyer on the scene.

Von Hoffman’s greatest problem in this book is his failure to establish a tight enough focus to override the wealth of anecdote and interview. He pauses too infrequently for observation, and the reader is swept along from one incredible escapade to another, with Cohn becoming more and more outrageous with each, until to criticize such a monstrous figure seems almost petty.

Von Hoffman does present a more balanced study of Cohn than does Cohn’s autobiography, which was completed by Sidney Zion and which has also recently appeared. Surprisingly, however, Cohn’s confessions are more restrained and less entertaining than von Hoffman’s, who seems at times to be regaling his readers with these tales for their moral edification. The result is that Cohn’s own book strikes one as being less self-serving and more honest, in a Roy Cohn sort of way, than does this more objective biography.

Roy Cohn was truly hated by his enemies and just as truly loved-- admired at least, for his singular talents--by his friends. Whether he was a smothered mama’s boy out for revenge or a slick opportunist exploiting the system remains unclear. Nevertheless, Cohn is a highly entertaining example of someone in the system who has learned its every twist and turn and orchestrates the system’s strength.

Sources for Further Study

ABA Journal. LXXIV, June 1, 1988, p. 112.

Booklist. LXXXIV, May 1, 1988, p. 1290.

Library Journal. CXIII, June 1, 1988, p. 108.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 10, 1988, p. 1.

The Nation. CCXLVI, May 21, 1988, p. 719.

National Review. XL, June 24, 1988, p. 44.

New York. XXI, April 18, 1988, p. 88.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, April 3, 1988, p. 1.

Newsweek. CXI, April 4, 1988, p. 68.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIII, April 1, 1988, p. 49.

Time. CXXXI, April 4, 1988, p. 82.

The Times Literary Supplement. June 24, 1988, p. 701.