Roy Cohn was a Jewish lawyer from the Bronx who gained fame and later notoriety as chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy in his investigation into Communist activities in the 1950’s. Son of a judge and graduate of Columbia Law School at the age of twenty, Cohn had to wait until he was twenty-one to begin his legal career as a prosecutor in the Department of Justice offices in Manhattan.
Cohn worked on the Alger Hiss trial, an American lawyer, accused of being a Soviet spy, and was on the team of prosecutors who obtained espionage convictions and the death penalty for Soviet spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in 1951. Cohn often told others that it was his cross-examination of Ethel Rosenberg’s brother that sealed the convictions. He also bragged that it was his personal recommendation to the judge that the death penalty be imposed on the Rosenberg’s.
In 1954 Edgar Hoover of the Federal Bureau of Investigation chose Roy Cohn over Robert Kennedy to act as chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCartney, the decision apparently made to avert any accusations of anti-semitism. Several years later McCarthy and Cohn were investigated for the zeal they employed in the McCarthy hearings, including their condemnation of both communist sympathizers and homosexuals. Cohn bore the brunt of the criticism, while McCarthy’s career lay in shambles.
Cohn left the Department of Justice and went into private practice for thirty years, acting for high profile clients such as Donald Trump, Mafia figures Tony Salerno and John Gotti, Studio 54 owner Steven Rubell, the Roman Catholic Diocese in New York and the New York Yankees Baseball Club.
In the 1970’s and 80’s, federal investigators charged Cohn with professional misconduct, perjury, witness tampering and financial improprieties involving city contracts and private investments, but he was never convicted.
However, in 1986 a five member panel of the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division disbarred Roy Cohn for unethical conduct, misappropriation of client funds and pressuring a client to amend his will. The “will” incident happened in 1975 when Cohn attended upon a dying, comatose, multimillionaire client in hospital; lifted his hand, placed a pen in it and had him make a mark on a will that benefitted Cohn and his client’s granddaughter.
The official stripping of his license to practice law occurred in the last month of Cohn’s life in August 1986 at the age of 59. Mr. Cohn was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984 but kept his illness a secret. It was reported that Mr. Cohn’s goal was to die completely inpecunious, owing money to the U.S. tax authorities. He apparently succeeded.
Roy Cohn’s life and legacy survives in today’s popular culture. In the award winning “Angels in America”, written by Tony Kushner, Cohn was played by actor Al Pacino as a hypocrite haunted by the image of Ethel Rosenberg as he lays dying from AIDS. Characters modeled after Roy Cohn have also appeared in The Simpson’s, The X-Files, a Kurt Vonnegut novel and a song written by New Yorker, Billy Joel.
Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang