When I was growing up, I remember hearing about someone named Roy Cohn. I didn't really know anything about him. Then when I moved to Connecticut, I read something about him living in Greenwich. Over time, I found out he was a lawyer who represented several celebrities. This week, I decided to do some more research and write a blog on him.
Roy Marcus Cohn was born in New York City on February 2, 1927, to Dora Marcus and Albert Cohn. Roy was an only child. His father was a State Supreme Court Judge , and his family lived on Park Avenue. He attended Horace Mann and Fieldston Schools. Cohn was a prodigy, who graduated from high school and college early, and finished Columbia University Law School at the age of 20. He had to wait a year to be admitted to the bar at age 21! As you can see, he was extraordinary, brilliant and articulate. His family was able to help him pull some strings, and he was able to land a job in the United States Attorney's Office in Manhattan, specializing in subversive activities.
Cohn prosecuted 11 members of the American Communist Party for preaching the overthrow of the United States government. He received much noteriety as a prosecutor in the infamous Rosenberg case.
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were accused of being Soviet spies and receiving classified documents on the Manhattan Project, the initiative that resulted in the creation of the atomic bomb. Cohn managed to get the death penalty for the pair in 1951, despite being accused of improper interaction with the judge. (An informant later cleared Ethel of any wrong doing.) At age 27, Cohn was recommended to Senator Joseph McCarthy by J. Edgar Hoover to serve as General Counsel during the "Red Scare" Congressional hearings. Robert Kennedy, who remained Cohn's greatest rival throughout his career, was passed over. Roy Cohn was a registered Democrat, but supported mostly Republican Presidents. He traveled around the country and the world to uncover Communists. Roy was a member of the anti-Communist John Birch Society, and offered informal advice to Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan. By this time, Cohn had established his reputation, and become a power broker in politics.
Following the McCarthy hearings in 1954, he returned to private practice. This resulted in a successful, if not somewhat trying (pardon the pun), thirty year career. He became a "lawyer to the stars" with the likes of Donald Trump; gangsters Tony Salerno, Carmine Galante and John Gotti; and the Catholic Diocese. As a defensive maneuver, Cohn took a very low salary ($100,000) from his firm. He arranged to have the corporation pay for his apartment in Manhattan, and part of his rent in Greenwich. The business also provided a chauffeur and paid his bills at LeCirque, the 21 Club and Studio 54. He had no bank accounts, stocks or assets. As he was fond of stating, he wanted to die without owing anything to the IRS!
After his mother's death in 1967, Roy Cohn moved around and lived in New York City, Washington DC and Greenwich (1982). He lived at 8 Witherell Drive in Rock Ridge, and could be often seen water skiing on Long Island Sound. He gave lavish parties at his estate, and was friends to the likes of Cardinal Spellman, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Bianca Jaggar, Andy Warhol, George Steinbrenner, Geraldine Ferraro and Governor Tom Kean of New Jersey. He was known for holding bashes at Studio 54, and often traveled to Acapulco for long weekends. His summer home in Provincetown was next to Norman Mailer. Esquire magazine featured his picture on one of their covers, and "60 Minutes" presented a story on his life and times.
Cohn made many enemies along the way. As a result, he became the chief target of numerous government agencies. The FBI went through his mail, the IRS audited his taxes for 20 years in a row, and he was accused of professional misconduct, perjury and witness tampering by the American Bar Association. He was indicted 3 times, but acquitted 3 times. Stories swirled about his stealing money from an escrow account, refusal to pay back a bank loan, and illegally making himself an executor of an estate to swindle a dying man. The SEC investigated him and charged him with making false reports. Whether it was his connection to McCarthyism or his defense of controversial figures, Cohn had become the target of the establishment.
Roy Cohn was a lifelong bachelor. Rumors surfaced about his sexual orientation. In 1984, Cohn announced he had been diagnosed with cancer, but a Doctor stated he had been diagnosed with HIV. At 58 years of age in 1986, Cohn succombed to AIDS. The powerful, intense, energetic man with the quick wit had met his match.
In many ways, Roy Cohn was bigger than life. His circle of friends had included Mayor Abraham Beame, Calvin Klein, Marvin Mitchelson, Rupert Murdoch, William F. Buckley and Estee Lauder. He managed to raise $4-million for Israel. He refused to apologize for his role in McCarthyism because he believed in a strong America. Cohn claimed to hold the record for having been audited by the IRS so many times (20).
He will no doubt be best remembered for his zeal in trying to uncover Communists during the McCarthy hearings. It would bring the debate about personal freedoms to the forefront. He will also be remembered for the controversial cases he handled. Like him or loathe him, he is still an important figure in the history of this country.