In our history we have heroes and villains And there could be no one more villainous and despicable in gay history than the monster named Roy Cohn.
Cohn born to an observant Jewish family in The Bronx, New York City on February 20th, 1927 howed signs of legal brilliance early, having been admitted to the bar at twenty-one, becoming an Assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan and playing a prominent role in the prosecution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1951. Cohn always took great pride in the Rosenberg verdict and claimed to have played an even greater part than his public role. He said in his autobiography that his own influence had led to both Chief Prosecutor Saypol and Judge Irving Kaufman being appointed to the case. He further said that Kaufman imposed the death penalty, based on his personal recommendation
In 1952, Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) appointed him as chief counsel to the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations on the recommendation of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, where Cohn became known for his aggressive questioning of “suspected” Communists. Cohn preferred not to hold hearings in open forums, which went well with McCarthy’s preference for holding “executive sessions” and “off-the-record” sessions away from the Capitol in order to minimize public scrutiny and to question witnesses with relative impunity. Cohn was given free rein in pursuit of many investigations, with McCarthy joining in only for the more publicized sessions.
Cohn invited his “friend” G. David Schine, an anti-Communist propagandist, to join McCarthy’s staff as a consultant. When Schine was drafted into the US Army in 1953, Cohn made repeated and extensive efforts to procure special treatment for Schine. He contacted military officials from the Secretary of the Army down to Schine’s company commander and demanded for Schine to be given light duties, extra leave, and exemption from overseas assignment. light duties, extra leave, an exemption from overseas assignment — and threatened to “wreck the Army” if they didn’t accede to his demands. The bitter irony of all this is that while Cohn was pursuing special treatment for his “special friend”, McCarthy’s witch hunt extended beyond communists to also include gay people. (See The Lavender Scare) That conflict, along with McCarthy’s accusations of Communists in the defense department, led to the Army–McCarthy hearings of 1954, in which among other developments the Army charged Cohn and McCarthy with using improper pressure on Schine’s behalf, and McCarthy and Cohn countercharged that the Army was holding Schine “hostage” in an attempt to squelch McCarthy’s investigations into Communists in the Army. During the hearings, a photograph of Schine was introduced, and Joseph N. Welch, the Army’s attorney in the hearings, accused Cohn of doctoring the image to show Schine alone with Army Secretary Robert T. Stevens. Welch asked the staffer sarcastically, “Did you think it came from a pixie?” McCarthy interjected, “Will counsel (Welch) for my benefit define– I think he might be an expert on that– what a pixie is?” Welch responded, “Yes. I should say, Mr. Senator, that a pixie is a close relative of a fairy.” in a jab at Cohn. Others in the chamber who were in on the rumors, broke into laughter. Cohn later called the remark, “malicious,” “wicked,” and “indecent.”
Although the findings of the hearings blamed Cohn rather than McCarthy, they are widely considered an important element of McCarthy’s disgrace. After the Army–McCarthy hearings, Cohn resigned from McCarthy’s staff and went into private practice.
After leaving McCarthy, Cohn had a 30-year career as an attorney in New York City. His clients included Donald Trump, Mafia figures Tony Salerno, Carmine Galante, and John Gotti, Studio 54 owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, Texas financier and philanthropist Shearn Moody, Jr., and the New York Yankees baseball club. He was known for his active social life, charitable giving, and combative personality. In the early 1960s he became a member of the John Birch Society and a principal figure in the Western Goals Foundation. He maintained close ties in conservative political circles. Cohn’s frequent phone pals included Nancy Reagan and the former C.I.A. director William Casey, who “called Roy almost daily during [Reagan’s] 1st election.” Cohn was also as an informal advisor to Richard Nixon.
Cohn was also friends with the now (illegitimate) President Donald Trump, and sought advice after they first met asking: How should he and his father respond to Justice Department allegations that their company had systematically discriminated against black people seeking housing?
“My view is tell them to go to hell,” Cohn said, “and fight the thing in court.”
Cohn also showed Trump how to exploit power and instill fear through a simple formula: attack, counterattack and never apologize.
Trump prized Cohn’s friendship and his reputation for aggression. According to a New York Times profile a quarter-century ago, when frustrated by an adversary, Trump would pull out a photograph of Cohn and ask, “Would you rather deal with him?”
In a 2008 article published in The New Yorker magazine Jeffrey Toobin quotes Roger Stone on Cohn’s homosexuality: “Roy was not gay. He was a man who liked having sex with men. Gays were weak, effeminate. He always seemed to have these young blond boys around. It just wasn’t discussed. He was interested in power and access. Stone worked with Cohn beginning with the Reagan campaign during the Republican Party presidential primaries, 1976.
While publicly closeted and working actively against gay rights, Cohn partied at the best gay bars and threw lavish parties in New York and Provincetown. In 1984, he was diagnosed with AIDS.
From LIFE magazine: THE SNARLING DEATH OF ROY M. COHN (1988)
Labor Day, 1984. Provincetown was readying itself for another night of dancing and partying, for this was the last holiday of the season. Lying on a chaise on the deck of Roy’s cottage, Russell Eldridge was sick. He was 20 years younger than Roy, but misfortune had come to Russell first. At one time or another Russell had done everything for Roy but get into bed with him. He had mixed the drinks, cut Roy’s hair, brought in the cash from Roy’s various businesses. He ran strange errands, such as rounding up the night’s boys at the Boat Slip bar in Provincetown. Gay people, straight people cottoned to Russell. He had a way of being a part of Roy’s madnesses and yet standing apart from them, looking on with sardonic good humor. Years ago he was supposed to have been wicked, the mean kind of man hustler. He had outgrown his bad self, but now Russell was 50 pounds lighter, a shaking scarecrow, wrapped in towels and lying on Roy’s deck.
There had been great times in Provincetown, but this time Russell hadn’t wanted to come. He couldn’t even walk by himself. “He knew he’d have to pretend he was feeling better than he was for Roy,” Russell’s friend Sue Greenig remembers. “That’s what he did until he couldn’t pretend anymore.” Roy acted as if there were nothing wrong with Russell, though he knew the virus was in both their bodies. Roy wasn’t admitting it, and Russell shouldn’t either.
Cohn used his connections to jump to the head of the line for treatment with the then-scarce and experimental AZT. By the time he died in 1986, he maintained his public denial both of his homosexuality and his disease — he said it was “cancer.” In Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, Cohn is portrayed as a power hungry, self-loathing hypocrite who is dying of AIDS while haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. Cohn’s name is also on a panel of the AIDS memorial quilt. It reads, “Roy Cohn: Bully, Coward, Victim.” A fitting eulogy if there ever was one.