Roy Cohn had the self-assurance of conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro and the pugnacious attitude of his protégée, President Donald Trump. Cohn, right-hand man to Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the Red Scare days of the 1950s, was both a victim and trafficker of anti-Semitism and homophobia. To borrow President Trump’s phrase, he was a “bad guy.” His own cousins called him the personification of evil. But the new HBO documentary film “Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn,” directed by Ivy Meeropol, tries to dig beneath the veneer of coldness and evil.
The House Un-American Activities Committee, led by McCarthy, was maligning gay people, contributing to what’s known as the “Lavender Scare.” I cannot imagine what it would have been like to be a closeted person at that time. None of which makes Cohn’s behavior inexcusable, but his internal cognitive dissonance when his own identity was being maligned must have been imaginable. As the film portrays, the attorney was both gay and Jewish, backed against a corner and utterly alone in his predicament.
Cohn was all about self-protection, so he may have felt forced to rat out the supposed enemies — traitorous Jews and communists. The Lavender Scare was a forgotten element of the Cold War; there were numerous campaigns meant to discredit gay people. Ads warning parents about gay men kidnapping children were moribund.
Cohn’s relationship with Trump was his second act in life, coming after his controversial stint as McCarthy’s chief counsel in the HUAC hearings. Cohn represented Trump in a countersuit after Donald and his father Fred were sued for racist rental practices. In 1973, the government charged them with violating the Fair Housing Act and illegally discriminating against black tenants. Cohn’s advice was to go on the offensive and he hit the government with a $100 million countersuit. Like the president, Cohn saw himself as a power broker, a fixer. His driver, Peter Allen, said of his boss, “There was no clear boundary between his personal life and his professional life.”
Cohn was incredibly shrewd: he never owned anything personally, the documentary shows. Everything was divested to his law firm so he did not have to pay his fair share of taxes to the IRS. His friends, including New York Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams, admitted: “Roy didn’t pay his bills.” She related a story in which Cohn picked up three Ming Dynasty-era artifacts worth $70,000 at the time. Months went by and Adams got a call from the art dealer complaining that Cohn had an outstanding bill. That day, she went with the driver and was let into Cohn’s Manhattan townhouse by his housekeeper, who let her take whatever she needed. They repossessed the art and returned it. That night, over dinner, Cohn did not mention the matter. He then walked out and told the maître’d that “the bill is in the mail.”
Cohn was an unquestionably unethical and immoral person. But a more interesting question is: Can a viewer of the film work up any empathy for someone like Roy Cohn — is there a dose of humanity there? He was a lawyer for the mob but also an active participant in mob business, according to confidants in the film, including his personal driver. The driver would be sent around to pick up documents, like a regular mob lawyer; many of Cohn’s enemies mysteriously disappeared. Fat Tony Salerno, whom Cohn represented, provided the concrete for Trump International Hotel & Tower, then the tallest concrete structure in the U.S. He arranged the deaths of mafia associates, the film alleges. To some Jews, Cohn, who prosecuted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the nuclear secrets trial, had Jewish blood on his hands. Filmmaker Meeropol, who is a granddaughter of the Rosenbergs, examines this side of Cohn as well some of the homophobia he faced; the contradictions are illuminating.
The closeted moral crusading personality who makes life for gay people miserable is a trope that is still existent. It’s easy to be attracted to the salacious elements of his story; he spent time in gay havens like Provincetown, Mass., and the decadent Studio 54 nightclub, and patronized sex workers. He came from a homophobic generation that did not tolerate a gay lifestyle. It’s not clear whether Cohn is more of a tragic figure for being a self-loathing Jew or a self-loathing homosexual.
I know that I have the privilege of having been born after these times and have escaped the ire of his prosecutorial decisions and the ideology of the people he supported. I am not gay or black, nor was I a Communist during the HUAC hearings. Perhaps this is why it is easy for me to have sympathy for Cohn.
The president distanced himself from his lawyer at the end of Cohn’s life, when he was dying of AIDS; at the time he still insisted to anyone who would listen that he had liver cancer. After his death, the IRS confiscated his fortune.
People, of course, are complex, and no one is purely evil or purely good. But my sympathy for the people Cohn hurt and the victims of the political machine he supported and profiteered from should not be outweighed by the sympathy I feel for the attorney himself. We should hold room in our hearts and minds for those who deserve it — the names sewn into the AIDS quilt, where Cohn’s name would eventually land.
Eli Reiter’s column appears monthly.