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Roy Marcus Cohn

Roy Cohn in 1964
Born February 20, 1927(1927-02-20)
New York City
Died August 2, 1986 (aged 59)
Bethesda, Maryland
Cause of death AIDS
Education Horace Mann School
Fieldston School
Columbia College
Columbia Law School
Occupation Lawyer
Known for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg trial (1951)
Joseph McCarthy's chief counsel (1953–1954)
Parents Dora Marcus
Albert C. Cohn

Roy Marcus Cohn (February 20, 1927 – August 2, 1986) was a Jewish-American conservative attorney who became famous during Senator Joseph McCarthy's investigations into KGB and GRU espionage against the United States. Cohn gained special prominence during the Army-McCarthy Hearings. He was also an important member of the U.S. Department of Justice's prosecution team at the espionage trials of Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Alger Hiss, and William Remington.


Early life

Born in The Bronx, New York City, Cohn was the only child of Dora Marcus (1892–1967) and Judge Albert Cohn (1885–1959), who was influential in Democratic Party politics.[1][2][3] He lived in his parents' home until the death of his mother Dora Marcus Cohn in 1967 (his father Albert Cohn died in 1959), after which he lived in New York, the District of Columbia, and Greenwich, Connecticut.

After attending Horace Mann School[4] and the Fieldston School,[5][6] and completing studies at Columbia College in 1946, Cohn graduated from Columbia Law School at the age of 20. He had to wait until his 21st birthday to be admitted to the bar, and used his family connections to obtain a position in the office of United States Attorney Irving Saypol in Manhattan the day he was admitted.[1]

Although he was registered as a Democrat, Cohn supported most of the Republican presidents of his time and Republicans in major offices across New York.


As Saypol's assistant at the U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan, Cohn helped to secure convictions in a number of well-publicized trials of accused Soviet operatives. One of the first involved the prosecution of William Remington, a former Commerce Department employee who had been accused of espionage by KGB defector Elizabeth Bentley. Although an indictment for espionage could not been secured, Remington had denied his longtime membership in the Communist Party USA on two separate occasions and was convicted of perjury in two separate trials. Cohn also prosecuted 11 members of the American Communist Party Politburo for preaching the violent overthrow of the United States Government (see Smith Act). In addition, he was deeply involved in the Alger Hiss case.

The Rosenberg trial

Cohn was most famous for his role in the 1951 espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Cohn's direct examination of Ethel's brother David Greenglass, who had passed them classified documents stolen by Klaus Fuchs from the Manhattan Project. Greenglass' testimony was the main reason for the Rosenbergs' conviction and later execution.

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 Saypol and Judge Irving Kaufman being appointed to the case. He further alleged that Judge Kaufman imposed the death penalty based on his personal recommendation.

Tail-Gunner Joe

The Rosenberg trial brought the 24-year-old Cohn to the attention of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director J. Edgar Hoover, who recommended him to McCarthy. McCarthy hired Cohn as his chief counsel, choosing him over Robert Kennedy, reportedly in part to avoid accusations of an anti-Semitic motivation for the investigations. Cohn assisted McCarthy's work for the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, becoming known for his aggressive questioning of suspected Communists. Cohn tended to be disinclined to hold the hearings in open forums. This mixed 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.

Senator McCarthy (left) chats with Cohn at the Army-McCarthy Hearings

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 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 that Schine be given light duties, extra leave and not be assigned overseas. At one point, Cohn is reported to have threatened to "wreck the Army" if his demands were not met.[7][8] This 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, while McCarthy and Cohn counter-charged 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 accused Cohn of doctoring the image to show Schine alone with Army Secretary Robert Stevens.[7] 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.

Later career

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, 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, serving as an informal advisor to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.[1]

Cohn was the grandnephew of Joshua Lionel Cowen, founder of the Lionel model train company. By 1959, Cowen and his son Lawrence had become involved in a family dispute over control of the company. In October 1959, Cohn and a group of investors stepped in and gained control of the company, having bought 200,000 of the firm's 700,000 shares, which were purchased by his syndicate from the Cowens and on the open market over a three-month period prior to the takeover.[9] Under Cohn's leadership, Lionel was plagued by declining sales, quality control problems, and huge financial losses. In 1963, he was forced to resign from the company after losing a proxy fight.[10]

Federal investigations during the 1970s and 1980s charged Cohn three times with professional misconduct, including perjury and witness tampering.[1] He was accused in New York of financial improprieties related to city contracts and private investments. He was never convicted of any charge. In 1986, a five-judge panel of the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court disbarred Cohn for unethical and unprofessional conduct, including misappropriation of clients' funds, lying on a bar application, and pressuring a client to amend his will. In this case in 1975, Cohn entered the hospital room of a dying and comatose Lewis Rosenstiel, the multi-millionaire founder of Schenley Industries, forced a pen to his hand and lifted it to the will in an attempt to make himself and Cathy Frank — Rosenstiel's granddaughter — beneficiaries. The resulting marks were determined in court to be indecipherable and in no way a valid signature.[11] He lost his law license during the last month of his life. At this time, National Review senior editor Jeffrey Hart referred to him as "an ice-cold sleaze."


Roy Cohn spent several decades living a discreet life as a gay man. When he brought on Schine as chief consultant, speculation arose that Schine and Cohn had a sexual relationship, although some historians have more recently concluded the friendship was platonic.[12][13][14] During the Army-McCarthy hearings, Cohn denied having any "special interest" in Schine or being bound to him "closer than to the ordinary friend."[12] Joseph Welch, the Army's attorney in the hearings, made an apparent reference to Cohn's homosexuality. After asking a witness if a photo entered as evidence "came from a pixie," he defined "pixie" for McCarthy as "a close relative of a fairy." Fairy was, and is, a derogatory term for a gay man. The people at the hearing recognized the allusion and found it amusing; Cohn later called the remark "malicious," "wicked," and "indecent."[12] Cohn and McCarthy targeted many government officials and cultural figures not only for suspected Communist sympathies, but also for alleged homosexuality.[15]

In 1984, Cohn was diagnosed with AIDS[16] and attempted to keep his condition secret while receiving experimental drug treatment. He participated in clinical trials of AZT, a drug initially synthesized to treat cancer, but later developed as the first anti-HIV agent for AIDS patients. He insisted to his dying day that his disease was liver cancer.[17] According to Republican political consultant Roger Stone, for whom Cohn was a role model, Cohn's "absolute goal was to die completely broke and owing millions to the IRS. He succeeded in that."[18]


He died on August 2, 1986 in Bethesda, Maryland, of complications from AIDS at the age of 59.[6] He is buried in Union Field Cemetery in Queens, New York.[1][7][19]

Fictional portrayals and references in popular culture

A dramatic, controversial man in life, Cohn inspired many dramatic fictional portrayals after his death. Probably the most famous is his role in Tony Kushner's Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, in which Cohn is portrayed as a power-hungry hypocrite who is haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg as he lies dying of AIDS. In the initial Broadway production, the role was created by Ron Liebman; in the 2003 HBO version of Kushner's play, Cohn was played by Al Pacino. Cohn is also a character in Kushner's one-act play, G. David Schine in Hell.

Cohn has also been portrayed by James Woods in the 1992 biopic Citizen Cohn, by Joe Pantoliano in Robert Kennedy and His Times, and by George Wyner in Tailgunner Joe.

Cohn is portrayed by actor David Moreland in the X-Files episode "Travelers", in which an elderly former FBI agent speaks to Agent Fox Mulder about the early years of the McCarthy era and the beginning of the X-Files.

In the early 1990s Cohn was also one of two subjects of Ron Vawter's one man show Roy Cohn/Jack Smith, with Cohn's part written by Gary Indiana.[20]

Kurt Vonnegut included a fictionalized character named Roy M. Cohn in his 1979 novel Jailbird. Vonnegut used Cohn with his verbal permission, promising in a January 1979 telephone call to "do him no harm and to present him as an appallingly effective attorney for either the prosecution or the defense of anyone," according to the prologue of the novel.[21]

Roy Cohn is mentioned in Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire".

The nasal voice of the unnamed but recurring Blue-Haired Lawyer character on The Simpsons, often retained by Mr. Burns or acting as the prosecutor, is based on that of Roy Cohn.[22] As well, a mock Paul Harvey radio broadcast in The Simpsons episode "Homer's Barbershop Quartet" reports "that little boy that nobody liked grew up to be... Roy Cohn. And now you know the rest of the story." In "Thirty Minutes over Tokyo", another episode of The Simpsons, money management guru Chuck Garabedian explains that he got his suit cheap "because Roy Cohn died in it."

Roy Cohn plays an important role in Mary-Beth Hughes' 2002 novel Wavemaker II.

Roy Cohn appears as a character in the novel Fellow Travelers by Thomas Mallon (Pantheon Books, 2007).



  1. ^ a b c d e "Roy Cohn, Aide to McCarthy and Fiery Lawyer, Dies at 59.". The New York Times. August 3, 1986. Retrieved 2008-03-11. "Roy M. Cohn, the flamboyant, controversial defense lawyer who was chief counsel to Joseph R. McCarthy's Senate investigations in the 1950's into Communist influence in American life, died yesterday at the age of 59." 
  2. ^ "Mrs. Albert C. Cohn Dies. Roy Cohn's Mother, 74.". New York Times. June 6, 1967, Tuesday. Retrieved 2008-04-04. "Mrs. Dora Marcus Cohn, widow of Justice Albert C. Cohn of the State Supreme Court and mother of Roy M. Cohn, lawyer and industrialist, died last evening at her home, 1165 Park Avenue. She would have been 75 years old on Thursday." 
  3. ^ "Albert Cohn. A Former Justice. Practiced Law Here With Son Roy Since Retiring From Appellate Bench.". New York Times. January 9, 1959. 
  4. ^ Goodman, Walter."In Business for Profit; Imagine That?", The New York Times, October 16, 1994. Accessed April 4, 2008. "The family's main derelictions occupy three chapters. One has to do with Mr. Newhouse's friendship with Roy Cohn, which began at Horace Mann, a Bronx preparatory school for affluent lads."
  5. ^ "In a Neutral Corner; Roy Marcus Cohn", The New York Times, April 22, 1960. Accessed April 4, 2008. "By the time he was 20, Cohn, an alumnus of the Fieldston School in ..."
  6. ^ a b "Roy Cohn, the flamboyant New York lawyer who catapulted to public prominence in the 1950s as the grand inquisitor of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's communist-hunting congressional panel, died yesterday at the age of 59.". Boston Globe. August 3, 1986. "Irene Haske, a spokeswoman at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, where Mr. Cohn died, said the primary cause of his death was cardio-pulmonary arrest, with "dementia" and "underlying HTLV III" 
  7. ^ a b c "Roy Cohn, Hero and Villain of McCarthy Era, Dies at 59.". Los Angeles Times. August 3, 1986. Retrieved 2008-03-17. "Millions of Americans watched the real-life TV drama as McCarthy and Cohn tangled with top Army officials, trading bitter charges and accusations. Army counsel John G. Adams testified that Cohn had threatened to "wreck the Army." Army special counsel Joseph N. Welch also accused Cohn of doctoring a photo that was introduced as evidence." 
  8. ^ "The Self-Inflated Target". TIME. March 22, 1954.,9171,819554,00.html. Retrieved 2008-03-11. "While they talked, newsservice teletypes were clacking out, for the morning papers, the Army's sensational charge: Roy Cohn had threatened to "wreck the Army" in an attempt to get special treatment for one Private G. David Schine." 
  9. ^ "Group Acquires Lionel Control. Roy Cohn Heads Syndicate That Has Bought More Than 200,000 Shares.". New York Times. October 9, 1959. Retrieved 2008-09-21. 
  10. ^ "Roy Cohen Loses Top Lionel Post. Board Elects Victor Muscat as Its New Chairman. Proxy Fight Sidetracked Earnings Record. Reviewed Shareowners Convene to Hear Reports on Company Operations During the Year.". New York Times. May 7, 1963. Retrieved 2008-09-21. 
  11. ^ "Cohn Ko'D". TIME. 1986-07-07.,9171,961662,00.html. Retrieved 2008-03-15. "One hospital attendant testified in a Florida court that Cohn "tried to take (Rosenstiel's) hand for him to sign" the codicil to his will. The lawyer eventually emerged with a document bearing what the New York judges described as "a number of 'squiggly' lines which in no way resemble any letters of the alphabet."" 
  12. ^ a b c Miller, Neil (2005). Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present. Advocate Books. pp. Ch. 18. ISBN 1555838707. 
  13. ^ Wolfe, Tom (April 3, 1988). "Dangerous Obsessions". The New York Times. "But so far as Mr. Schine is concerned, there has never been the slightest evidence that he was anything but a good-looking kid who was having a helluva good time in a helluva good cause. In any event, the rumors were sizzling away ..." 
  14. ^ Baxter, Randolph (November 13, 2006). "An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture". glbtq, Inc. "Tall, rich, and suave, the Harvard-educated (and heterosexual) Schine contrasted starkly with the short, physically undistinguished, and caustic Cohn." 
  15. ^ Johnson, David K. (2004). The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. University of Chicago Press. pp. 15–19. ISBN 0226404811. 
  16. ^ Roy Cohn
  17. ^ Who is Roy Cohn?
  18. ^ Toobin, Jeffrey (2008-06-02). "The Dirty Trickster". The New Yorker: pp. 58. Retrieved 2008-05-31. "He was interested in power and access. He told me his absolute goal was to die completely broke and owing millions to the I.R.S. He succeeded in that." 
  19. ^ From Haunted Mansions To The Brooklyn Bridge, Accessed October 30, 2008.
  20. ^ Holden, Stephen (1992-05-03), "Two Strangers Meet Through an Actor", New York Times, 
  21. ^ Vonnegut, Kurt (1979). Jailbird. Dell Publishing. pp. 20. ISBN 0440154731. 
  22. ^ Wertheim, Larry M. "The Law of The Simpsons", Bench & Bar of Minnesota (Official Publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association), Vol. 60, No. 2, February 2003. Accessed October 30, 2008. "Hutz is often opposed by an older, nasal, pasty-faced lawyer (modeled on Joe McCarthy's Roy Cohn) who is retained by Mr. Burns and other corporate clients and who also acts as a prosecutor."

Further reading

External links

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