Roy Marcus Cohn was born in New York City in 1927 and from the get-go, he was a wonder-kid. His father was a well-known Democrat and New York Supreme Court judge, Al Cohn.

While a child, Roy got a taste of the law from his mother’s side as well as his uncle Bernard Marcus was sentenced to Sing-Sing Prison for bank fraud.

By the tender age of 20, Roy Cohn graduated from Columbia Law School. Not anticipating such a young candidate, the New York Bar Association had set 21 as the minimum age for admissions and Cohn had to bide time for a year.

Once called, he joined the Justice Department of the United States as an attorney. He was a junior prosecutor in the Government’s high profile treason trial against Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage - many believed that they had given atomic weapon secrets to the Soviets although in the academic community, many believe that Ethel was innocent. Both were eventually convicted and, in 1953, executed. Julius, in any event, ran the spy ring.

Roy Cohn and McCarthyThis case got him noticed by Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957; pictured, below, with Cohn) who was looking for a legal soldier in his Communism witch-hunt. He got the job as chief counsel to McCarthy’s controversial committee by beating out another young Justice Department attorney, Robert F. "Bobby" Kennedy. Kennedy accepted a junior position but soon became involved in an altercation with Cohn which came close to blows being thrown. Kennedy resigned from the committee staff.

McCarthy aimed his powerful government committee not just on suspected communists but also at gays and lesbians.

In 1963, Time Magazine wrote of Cohn’s tenure:

"Few who ever saw or heard him will forget the malevolent, heavy-lidded stare with which he pinioned witnesses; the adenoidal snarl as he closed in for the kill against a suspected Communist - the McCarthy Committee caught precious few, if any."

Cohn threw fire on the coals of official government prejudice of gays and lesbians every chance he got. He persecuted them with a vengeance. Even though he was himself gay, he sold his soul to the Devil and recognized that to defend his brethren would ruin his chances at personal power and financial success.

And Roy Cohn seemed every bit gay. G. David Schine, "Cohn’s suspected lover" according to the Gay & Lesbian Biography, was quietly appointed consultant on psychological warfare to the House committee.

But when Schine was drafted into the US Army in 1953, Cohn used his influence to make sure that Schine never saw kitchen duty or overseas duty.

This eventually prompted a televised battle with the lawyer for the Army attending the House committee hearings and which, in the result, Cohn was forced to resign. Soon thereafter, in 1954, public uproar forced the shutdown of McCarthy’s committee and McCarthy himself, ostracized, killed himself by abusing alcoholism.

Cohn was a queer cat with nine lives and he returned to New York City and joined Saxe, Bacon & Bolan. He lived at home and, later, when his father died, with mother in a seven-room Park Avenue apartment.

His hypocritical anti-gay rhetoric stayed with him. According to the the 1997 Gay & Lesbian Biography, when a group of gay teachers asked his law firm to defend them, he smugly replied:

"I believe that homosexual teachers are a grave threat to our children. They have no business polluting the schools of America."

Apparently, they were fine in the halls of "justice", where his clients included Donald Trump and Mafioso John Gotti and even the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York.

He also did well financially, culminating in his purchase of the Lionel Corporation for $932,000 in 1959.

But he had made many enemies in government and he was audited by the IRS constantly. In 1959, he faced a 10-count indictment for perjury and obstruction of justice. While the charges moved through the court system, Cohn hinted that his old nemesis, Bobby Kennedy, now Attorney general, was behind it. He told the press:

"History speaks for itself. I have never been invited to any of his swimming parties."

Cohn was never convicted of any criminal charge but just as AIDS caught up to him in 1984, the New York Bar began disciplinary proceedings against him for a $100,000 he borrowed from a client, and for trying to get a dying man to change his will in Cohn’s favour.

Cohn was disbarred in 1986, just six weeks before he died, at the age of 59, on August 2, 1986.

Disingenuous to the end, Cohn had publicly denied having AIDS while the New York Bar disciplinary panel had referred to his performance as a lawyer as "particularly reprehensible".

The American Lawyer Magazine called him an embarrassment.

But Cohn once said, using words behind which were quite likely mutual feelings:

"I'm pleased to say that among my hundreds of really close friends, few are lawyers."

Commentary

"Julius and Ethel Rosenberg did not give atomic secrets to the Soviets - although that is often popularly claimed. They were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage. The guy who had actually got the secrets was Julius's brother-in-law David Greenglass, although Julius ran the spy ring. The current scholarly consensus on Ethel, BTW, is that she was innocent. David Greenglass admitted he perjured himself on 60 Minutes years ago, and his biographer Sam Roberts went into much detail on this. Essentially he lied about his sister in order to prevent the FBI from indicting his wife, Ruth, who remained an unindicted co-conspirator. Hoover even believed Ethel was likely innocent, but wanted her used as a "lever" to get Julius to confess--the thinking was that if they both went to the chair, one of them would crack (which obviously did not happen). Roy Cohn likely pre-rehearsed David's testimony to a degree that goes quite beyond rehearsal (the word "invention" comes to mind) - there was quite a bit of discrepancy from what he said to the Grand Jury, and also what he said when first arrested.

"As well, I think Fred Vinson (Supreme Court Chief Judge) ought to be in Duhaime's Hall of Shame for agreeing IN ADVANCE with Atty. Gen. Herbert Brownell to vacate the stay of execution of Julius and Ethel granted by Justice William O. Douglas. Just saying....

"Same CJ Vinson wrote the majority report in the case of Dennis...and a number of other decisions that basically used the law to uphold the worse excesses of McCarthyism."

Prof. B. Falk, Oct. 31, 2012

REFERENCES:

  • Duhaime, Lloyd, The Law's Hall of Shame
  • Famous Trials: The Trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, 1951, retrieved on Nov 24, 2009 from http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/FTrials/rosenb/ROSENB.HTM
  • Investigations: Going Which Way?, Time Magazine, Sept. 13, 1963
  • Krebs, A., "Roy Cohn, Aide to McCarthy and Fiery Lawyer, Dies at 59, New York Times (Obituary), August 3, 1986
  • "Roy Cohn", in Gay & Lesbian Biography (London: St. James Press, 1997), pages 123-125
  • Wheeler, K. and Lambert, W., "Roy Cohn: Is He A Liar Under Oath?", Life Magazine, Vol. 55, No. 1, Oct. 4, 1963, page 24.