Kelly Writers House Fellows Seminar, spring 2000
Elise Lang on Roy Cohn

Subject: Roy Cohn
Date: Wed, 24 Jan 2001 08:50:09 -0600

Roy Marcus Cohn, well known as Joe McCarthy’s "banty little mouthpiece"(1) was born in New York City, February 20, 1927. Son of Albert Cohn, a New York state judge and prominent figure in the Democratic Party, Roy Cohn entered the political arena at a young age. As an only child, Albert Cohn centered all his attention around his son. Merely eight years of age, Roy remembered his dad bringing home briefs and trial records, asking his thoughts on the cases. By ten, he actually had a dramatic impact on his father’s thinking about eyewitnesses in criminal cases. Roy was formally educated at Horace Mann, which was the best private school in Manhattan at the time. Subsequently, he attended Columbia College as member of the class of ’46, then graduated Columbia law school as part of the class of ’47. Following his brief time at Columbia, Roy was admitted to the bar at the young age of twenty-one.

Using his father’s political connections, Roy became the youngest Assistant U.S. Attorney in Manhattan. This position allowed him to play an important role in the trial of 11 leaders of the American Communist Party and the prosecution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Rosenberg’s had been accused of leaking atomic secrets to Soviets. Four attorneys prosecuted them for treason, but Roy Cohn single-handedly convinced the judge, an old family friend, to impose the death penalty. After helping Judge Kaufman earlier in his career, Roy had become a strong influence on his decisions. During this particular trial, although Kaufman was said to have "sought divine guidance"(1) to decide on giving the Rosenbergs to the death penalty, he actually used a phone booth near Park Avenue Synagogue to call Roy Cohn who picked up the call behind the bench in the courtroom. In this conversation, Kaufman asked Cohn’s advice, and subsequently sentenced the defendants to death.

Roy Cohn’s performance in the Rosenberg trial caught the eye of Edgar Hoover, who then recommended Cohn to McCarthy. In January 1953, Senator Joe McCarthy appointed Cohn to Chief Counsel of the Government Committee on Operations of the Senate, pushing Bobby Kennedy down to the Assistant Counsel position. By the fall of ’54, Cohn’s career with McCarthy had ended. As McCarthy investigated Communist infiltration into the U.S. Army, he raised fear concerning the laxity of Army security, using Irving Peress as an example. Irving Peress happened to plead the fifth when asked three separate questions regarding membership in subversive organizations. Nonetheless, he was ordered to active duty and later promoted, until a general recommended he be relieved from duty. McCarthy also drew attention to the David Greenglass’s assignment to the A-bomb project in Los Alamos. (Greenglass’s sister and brother-in-law happen to be Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.)

Dwight Eisenhower became furious with McCarthy’s accusations and the Army retaliated by slandering McCarthy. The Army revealed Cohn’s abuse of congressional privilege by trying to prevent David Schine, a good friend who Cohn recruited to McCarthy’s team, from being drafted. When this tactic failed, it was claimed that Cohn tried to pressure the Army into granting Schine special privileges. Exposure of these negotiations caused great embarrassment to both Republicans and Democrats forcing Cohn to resign. Immediately after, McCarthy was censured by the Senate.

Following his McCarthy days, Roy Cohn joined a top New York law firm and represented big names, such as the Gambino crime family. While he made plenty of money, his expensive taste overshadowed his income, which lead to a three million dollar debt in unpaid taxes. In the eighties, Cohn was disbarred on grounds of unethical and unprofessional conduct. On October 14, 1984, Cohn was diagnosed with AIDS. Despite his diagnosis, Cohn kept his sexual orientation secret by claiming that he had liver cancer and lobbying against New York City’s gay rights ordinance. Roy Cohn died on August 2, 1986, following a near two-year battle with AIDS.

"He lived in a closet that was the oddest in history—a closet with neon lights—but he maintained it fiercely." –S.Zion

Sources:  The Autobiography of Roy Cohn, by Sidney Zion,, q online, column by David Bianco

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