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Tom Wolfe on Roy Cohn
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One of the odder figures in 20th Century American history was Sen. Joe McCarthy’s chief counsel, Roy Cohn, whose infatuation with another McCarthy staffer, handsome young G. David Schine, was used by Dwight Eisenhower to destroy McCarthy in 1954. Cohn went on to become a prominent NYC shady attorney before dying of AIDS in 1986 and then becoming a character in various gay Broadway plays, such as Angels in America. In 1988, shortly after publishing Bonfire of the Vanities, which is largely set in the Bronx County Courthouse where Cohn got his education, Tom Wolfe reviewed two biographies of Cohn. I will quote Wolfe at length for no particular reasons other than the pleasures of finding fugitive Wolfeiana and the inherent interest of the subject.

”I went to work for Joe McCarthy in January 1953,” Roy Cohn told Sidney Zion, ”and was gone by the fall of ’54.”

Less than two years. But a lifetime was packed into it, and more if obituaries tell the tale. “Does anybody doubt how mine will open? ‘Roy M. Cohn, who served as chief counsel to Senator Joseph R. McCarthy . . .’ Which is exactly how I want it to read.” He got his wish. That was exactly how it did read, all over America, when he died of AIDS in August of 1986 at the age of 59. But now the post-mortems have begun, and the picture we get is stranger by far than that of a baby-faced 26-year-old anti-Communist who somehow managed to dominate the front pages in the 1950’s.

If Mr. Zion’s ”Autobiography of Roy Cohn” and Nicholas von Hoffman’s ”Citizen Cohn” have it right, Roy Cohn was one of the most curious child prodigies ever born. Moreover, he was trapped throughout his life inside his own early precociousness. Many others were trapped with him along the way. One of them was Joe McCarthy. McCarthy never knew what he was dealing with. He didn’t destroy himself, as it is so often put. He was unable to survive Cohn’s prodigious obsessions….

Most child prodigies are pint-sized musicians, artists, poets, dancers, mathematicians or chess players. Their talents, however dazzling, have no direct effect on the lives of their fellow citizens. But Cohn was a child political prodigy. His talent was not for political science, either. It was politics as practiced in the Bronx County Courthouse, in the 1930’s, where the rules of the Favor Bank, with its i.o.u.’s and ”contracts,” were the only rules that applied.

By his own account, as well as Mr. von Hoffman’s, Cohn had no boyhood. He was raised as a miniature adult. His father, Albert Cohn, was a judge in the Bronx and a big makher, a very big deal, in the Bronx Democratic organization, which in turn, under the famous Edward J. (Boss) Flynn, had a pivotal position in the national Democratic Party. Cohn grew up in an apartment on Walton Avenue, just down the street from the courthouse, near the crest of the Grand Concourse, watching big makhers coming and going through the living room, transacting heavy business with his father….

Cohn says he was 15 when he pulled off his first major piece of power brokerage. Using his uncle Bernie Marcus’s connections, he acted as intermediary in the purchase of radio station WHOM by Generoso Pope, father of one of Cohn’s schoolmates. According to Cohn, Pope gave him a $10,000 commission, and Cohn kicked back a portion of it to a lawyer for the Federal Communications Commission – an F.C.C. kickback at age 15. By age 16 or 17, according to Mr. von Hoffman, Cohn thought nothing of calling a police precinct to fix a speeding ticket for one of his high school teachers.

Using speed-up programs designed for veterans, Cohn got both his undergraduate and law degrees at Columbia in three years. He was not yet 20. The day he got word he had passed the bar examination [his 21st birthday], he was sworn in as an Assistant United States Attorney. …

In the United States Attorney’s office the little prince moved in on major cases immediately. He played a bit part in the prosecution of Alger Hiss and developed his crusader’s concern with the issue of Communist infiltration of the United States Government. As Cohn told Sidney Zion, this was by no means a right-wing tack at the time. Anti-Communism and its obverse, loyalty, were causes first championed after the Second World War not by Joseph McCarthy but by the Truman Administration.

By age 23 Cohn was at center stage for the so-called Trial of the Century, the prosecution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for delivering atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. For a start, says Cohn, at the age of 21 he had taken part in a complicated piece of Favor Banking, involving Tammany Hall and one of its men’s auxiliaries, the mob, to get Irving Saypol his job as United States Attorney. Saypol became the prosecutor in the Rosenberg case and made Cohn his first lieutenant. Next, says Cohn, he did some Favor Banking for an old family friend, Irving Kaufman. Al Cohn had played a big part in getting Judge Kaufman a Federal judgeship. Now Judge Kaufman was dying to preside at the Trial of the Century. Cohn says he went straight to the clerk in charge of assigning judges to criminal cases, pulled the right strings, and Judge Kaufman was in….

It was the sons of two established Democratic Party families who vied for the position of chief counsel to McCarthy’s Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security. One was Roy Cohn. The other was Bobby Kennedy. Cohn won out because, among other considerations, he had, at age 26, vastly more experience as a prosecutor. Kennedy signed on as an assistant counsel, and Cohn treated him like a gofer, making him go out for sweet rolls and coffee refills, earning his eternal hatred. What did McCarthy in was his attack on the United States Army. It was Dwight Eisenhower’s Army, and by now, 1953, Eisenhower was President of the United States. And who got McCarthy into his last, ruinous tarball battle with the Army? The little prince.

Cohn had brought aboard the McCarthy team, as an unpaid special investigator, one G. David Schine, the rich young handsome blond son of a hotel-chain operator. Mr. Schine’s only qualification for the job was that he had written an amateurish tract entitled ”Definition of Communism” and published it with his own money. Not even McCarthy knew why he was there. He only kept him on to make Cohn happy. McCarthy seemed to think that Cohn, in addition to being bright and energetic, was highly organized, tightly wound, cool and disciplined as well.

He wasn’t. What baby autocrat would live like that? Cohn and Mr. Schine proceeded to become a pair of bold-faced characters in the gossip columns, two boys out on the town, throwing a party that stretched from the Stork Club in New York to various dives, high and low, in Paris – where they arrived during a disastrous European tour, supposedly to monitor the work of United States Government libraries abroad. The European press mocked them unmercifully, depicting them as a pair of nitwit children.

What did Cohn see in Mr. Schine? Almost immediately there were rumors that they were lovers and even that McCarthy himself was in on the game. Cohn’s obsession with Mr. Schine, in light of what became known about Cohn in the 1980’s, is one thing. 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 when the Army-McCarthy hearings, the denouement of Joe McCarthy’s career, got under way in 1954.

McCarthy’s investigation of the Army’s security procedures had taken place the year before. Now Eisenhower loyalists on McCarthy’s subcom-mittee joined with Democrats to conduct hearings on the subject of – Roy Cohn.

David Schine was draft age. He had been classified 4-F becau
se of a slipped disk, but now the highly publicized hard-partying lad was re-examined and reclassified 1-A. Cohn went to work. He tried to get the Army to give Mr. Schine an instant commission and a desk on the East Coast from which he could continue to serve the subcommittee and the Dionysian gods of the Stork Club and other boites.

Cohn made calls to everyone from Secretary of the Army Robert Stevens on down. He made small talk, he made big talk, he tried to make deals, he tendered i.o.u.’s, he screamed, and he screamed some more, he spoke of grim consequences. When all of this blew up in the form of a detailed log leaked to the press, Cohn was genuinely shocked. What had he done that any high official of the Favor Bank, any self-respecting makher, wouldn’t have done for a friend? All he had done was try to advance a few markers, make a few contracts, and scare the pants off a few bureaucrats who were so lame as not to have an account at the Favor Bank in the first place.

But he was no longer dealing with the courthouse crowd in the Bronx or even lower Manhattan. He didn’t know it, but he was dealing with Ike, and Ike had had enough. The thrust of the Army-McCarthy hearings was that McCarthy’s attack on the Army had been nothing but an insidious attempt to get favored treatment for Cohn’s friend Mr. Schine.

So what? Cohn remained confident that he could win against any odds. But, as he would later admit to Mr. Zion, he was no match for the Army’s counsel, the veteran Boston trial lawyer Joseph Welch. The hearings became a television drama that stopped America cold. The entire nation seemed to take time out to watch. The hearings had two famous punch lines, and Welch delivered them both….

But that was not the line that got under Cohn’s skin. That one came in an exchange concerning a picture of Mr. Schine and Army Secretary Stevens that Cohn had put into evidence. It turned out that the photograph had been cropped. Welch began going after one of McCarthy’s staffers about the source of the altered picture: ”Did you think it came from a pixie?”

McCarthy interrupted: ”Will the counsel for my benefit define – I think he might be an expert on that -what a pixie is?”

Welch said, ”Yes, I should say, Mr. Senator, that a pixie is a close relative to a fairy. Shall I proceed, sir? Have I enlightened you?” To Roy Cohn this was not funny.

By the way, in 1957, G. David Schine married the Swedish Miss Universe and they had six children. He never spoke publicly about McCarthy or Cohn again.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Category: History • Tags: Tom Wolfe 
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  1. Cohn was also famous for defying the IRS like nobody else had before or since.

  2. I met Cohn when I was in law school. Our Legal Ethics Professor invited him to speak to us as an example of what not to do after graduation. His famous line: “My ethics are to win.”
    If only they had developed that anti-HIV cocktail a few years earlier. Cohn was nothing if not uninteresting, and I wonder what he’d be saying today. Would he come out?

    BTW Steve: What calls to mind a 21-year-old review of two biographies all of a sudden?

  3. What a repulsive character this Cohn seems to have been. Poor Joe McCarthy.

    Did Cohn regret his role in have sent Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair? Or was that something that Tony Kushner made up?

    Great review by Wolfe.

  4. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    It says something about where we’ve come as a country that in Eisenhower’s America the preferred career path for a rich, blonde, hard-partying dimwitted offspring of a hotel chain owning family was anticommunist crusader, while in W’s America, it’s making a sex tape and appearing as yourself in a lame reality show.

  5. McCarthy was too early in his Army investigation. Military security standards were appalling but the military still had high public approval (the afterglow of WW II). By the time the military had lost its sacred cow status, public concern about internal security had waned. Eisenhower was reflecting the elite concensus of the time: McCarthy had peed in the punchbowl and they had had enough.

  6. “G. David Schine married the Swedish Miss Universe and they had six children.”

    All’s well that ends well…

  7. This is a man who truly loved his mother! And of how many of our leaders today can that be said?? (Surely not the current Prez!)

  8. I always sort of liked Roy Cohn, due to the enemies he made. It was a more extreme version of my attitude toward Richard Nixon. And was there anyone in New York City so far Left that they did not want Cohn to be their lawyer? I mean, with Conan The Litigator on your side, the trial and verdict were the least worries of your adversary. It was all the other stuff Cohn/Conan could pull that they were scared to death of.

  9. Josh says:

    Re Henry Canady:I seem to recall in reading the bio of Cohn that he could be a sloppy and negligent lawyer,and many of his worshipful clients wound up getting screwed,one famous woman in particular,whose name I dont recall. I remember seeing him on Nightline once and he kept licking his lips in a weird,forceful way. His mouth seemed to be some sort of non-human machine in need of constant lubrication. I thought it was so strange that he owned nothing. That was a new one on me. How could he be a big shot if he doesnt even own his car!? 🙂

  10. Jim –

    It’s a mistake to assume that the current popular consensus with regards to homosexuality accurately reflects either the biological facts of the matter or the manner in which people who engage in such acts view themselves. Cohn likely wouldn’t have “come out” as a “a” homosexual because, in his own estimation, he wasn’t one. I believe he spoke to the matter at one point and clearly denied being a homosexual, a term that refers to emasculated men, but rather said that he f**ks women and he f**ks men. In many cultures it’s the HYPER-masculine men who f**k other men. They’re so masculine that (in their view) “doing” women doesn’t suffice, etc. Of course I know nothing about Cohn’s actual homosexual antics or even his personality so I can’t comment on that, but I believe that it’s a false dichotomy to ask whether he would have “come out” or not being as that only presents a binary view of whether one “is” or “is not” a homosexual according to the prevailing 21st century view of the thing.

    Anon –

    Cohn was an ugly sonofabitch who lacked morals beyond winning. As for sending the Rosenbergs to the chair, I guess it’s fair to say that he really was the fellow to do it. Until just now I hadn’t been aware of the claim that Irving Kaufman was helped up to the bench in this case by Cohn bug if in fact he was then it looks like the only role in the Rosenbergs’ execution that Cohn DIDN’T play is that of actual executioner.

    As an aside, this thread must be so confusing to antisemites. You guys love the fact that those Jew-Communist Rosenbergs were killed so, in theory you should appreciate the Jewish Judge and Jewish Prosecutor who sent them to the chair. But that would mean lessening your antisemitism based on this information and thus not reviling Jewish criminals more than you do other criminals and thus caring less about who killed the Rosenbergs, etc, etc. It’s a killer loop really, but you guys are nothing if not inventive so I’m sure you can find ways to short-circuit it. Good luck.

  11. Cohn was related by marriage to feminist writer Anne Roiphe.

  12. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    “Of course I know nothing about Cohn’s actual homosexual antics or even his personality”

    Well, Cohn had been diagnosed with anal warts as well as AIDS, so I guess he did his fair share of “catching”. In Cohn’s case, his hypermasculinity was probably a front and a denial mechanism, like those supermacho gangsta rappers who play “catch” with their posses on the down low.

  13. “As an aside, this thread must be so confusing to antisemites. You guys love the fact that those Jew-Communist Rosenbergs were killed so, in theory you should appreciate the Jewish Judge and Jewish Prosecutor who sent them to the chair.”

    As far as the trial of the Rosenbergs is concerned I haven’t noticed that the fact that many of the figures involved were Jews has done much to derail the narrative that the whole affair was motivated by antisemetic hysteria masquerading as anti-communism. Curiously, that they were actually guilty as charged doesn’t seem to have had much impact on this narrative either. There’s a head-scratcher for you to ponder, Mnuez.

  14. josh said…

    I remember seeing him on Nightline once and he kept licking his lips in a weird,forceful way.

    He was probably on coke.

    Anonymous said…

    Did Cohn regret his role in have sent Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair?

    Why should he? The Zionists and Communists had already split by that time. The Rosenbergs were traitors to the Jewish state as well as America.

  15. I remember in Bonfire of the Vanities how the Irish prosecutor says to the Jewish one something like “all you Jews have the gay gene”. I wonder if this review had anything to do with the genesis of that.

  16. Did Cohn regret his role in have sent Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair? Or was that something that Tony Kushner made up?

    The Rosenbergs were guilty. They got what they deserved.

    The anti-anti-Semites herein are parroting the usual Pee Cee cant.

  17. The roles of Jews in the Rosenberg case are actually easy to understand once you consider the basic facts. As a group, Jews have ben selected by long evolution to do what is best for the tribe. If that means doing something bad to one or two individual Jews, that is not necessarily unthinkable. The Rosenbergs were, as Cohn and Kaufman knew, almost certainly factually guilty, even though Venona (and positive confirmation of that guilt) was not public knowledge. Stalin was the head of the Soviet Union at the time, and he was not above some suspicion of having been prepared to backstab the Tribe when he, so co-incidentally, died. So while the majority of Jews still listed to port politically and the ranks of hardcore Marxists were still predominantly Jewish, anticommunism had a Jewish component as well by then.

    Leniency toward the Rosenbergs from an all-Jewish court would have been percieved as Jewish cohesion. Executing them on the other hand did more to provide an illusion of Jewish noncohesion than any other act in the century.

    Further, they did offer them an out if they would confess and fink on others, all the way to the final walk. Julius would probably have went for it, but Ethel preffered they die martyrs than live as finks-a decision with at least a component of Tribal loyalty in itself.

    If they had faced a Gentile court, or if loving brother David Greenglass had not narked, or if it had taken even another year or two to bring thenm to trial, they likely would have got a few years.

    The fact is that many American bomb scientists, most but not all Jews, had decided that giving the Soviets assistance in bomb building was a right thing to do. They did not want an American nuclear monopoly, nor did they want to simply give the needed bomb data to all and sundry-and in those pre-Internet days couldn’t have done so anyway. They decided that if the Soviets had nuclear weapons, the nuclear genie could be contained to a few “superpowers” and there would be a “balance of power”. The Rosenbergs were part of one chain in a multiple transmission and I think by 1955 the intelligence services had that figured out. Killing them served little purpose, but by then it was done.

    The people I felt bad for, but only out of dismay of their own lameness, were the Rosenbergs’ sons, at least one of whom was consumed by hatred for Cohn. He should have just walked up to Cohn-who was chauffeured around in an aluminum bodied Roller with COHN on the license plates-and put a 1911A1 clip into his guts in front of as many witnesses as possible. He should have dropped the piece, turned himself in, pleaded bugsy, did a few years, taken a dive for Jeboo and hit the rubber chicken circuit like Colson.

  18. Man, it’ll be great when mnuez becomes a bar mitzvah and finally finds something else to do besides boring everyone here.

  19. Cohn was related by marriage to feminist writer Anne Roiphe.

    Got it.

  20. Another thing about Cohn is that he had the classic homosexual upbringing: distant, uninterested dad and plenty of smother love from his mommy. In pre-PC days this type of family dynamic was regarded as the incubator for a homosexual personality disorder.

  21. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    “Cohn likely wouldn’t have “come out” as a “a” homosexual because, in his own estimation, he wasn’t one. I believe he spoke to the matter at one point and clearly denied being a homosexual, a term that refers to emasculated men”

    The HBO production of Angels in America addressed this, with lines by Cohn (played by Al Pacino) said to his physician (played by James Cromwell). When his physician brings up the anal warts, Pacino goes into a rant about how he’s not gay, that a gay man wouldn’t be able to pick up the phone and call the White House, etc.

    “Leniency toward the Rosenbergs from an all-Jewish court would have been percieved as Jewish cohesion. Executing them on the other hand did more to provide an illusion of Jewish noncohesion than any other act in the century.”

    In other words, an actual act of Jewish non-cohesion is, in your mind, evidence of Jewish cohesion. Got it.

    – Fred

  22. “BTW Steve: What calls to mind a 21-year-old review of two biographies all of a sudden?”

    First I’ve heard of Cohn personally, kind of reminds me of Rahm Emanuel (except Emanuel is a much better ballet dancer).

  23. Perhaps the much-reviled Sen. Joe M. wasn’t as wrong as people have been taught to think he was:

    The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America–The Stalin Era (Modern Library Paperbacks) (Paperback)

    by Allen Weinstein (Author), Alexander Vassiliev (Author) “WHO WAS LAURENCE DUGGAN and why was he targeted for recruitment as a Soviet intelligence agent?…” (more)

    Key Phrases: New York, United States, Soviet Union (more…)

    Editorial Reviews Review

    The Haunted Wood fills in a valuable part of cold war history: the Soviet Union’s attempts to spy on the United States from the time of FDR’s New Deal, through the Second World War, and into the 1950s. Allen Weinstein (author of a highly regarded history of the Hiss-Chambers case, Perjury) and Alexander Vassiliev (a KGB agent turned journalist) ( Weinstein undoubtedly part of tribal plot to cover up all sins of fellow tribesfolk. — DD ) show that among the Americans caught in the Soviet orbit were many top government officials, including a Congressman from New York and a close advisor to President Roosevelt, as well as an American ambassador’s daughter. Most of these early spies were leftists driven by ideology–as opposed to money, which seems to have motivated many of the later cold war traitors, such as Aldrich Ames. (The Congressman, interestingly, is an exception–he demanded so much compensation that the Soviets gave him the code name “Crook.”) The greatest windfall for the U.S.S.R. during this period was the acquisition of atomic secrets, with contributions from agents like Ted Hall, Klaus Fuchs, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (the authors do not believe, however, that the scientist Robert Oppenheimer was a Soviet spook). Yet there were also notable failures, many brought on by Stalin’s insatiable appetite for purges; defections by Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley also dealt several mortal blows. By the end of the 1940s, the Soviet spy ring in the United States was in serious breakdown. Weinstein and Vassiliev make use of both American sources and Soviet archives to deliver what will surely be an authoritative account for many years–or at least until more top-secret archives on both sides of the Atlantic become declassified. And don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. –John J. Miller –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

    From Publishers Weekly

    Like Yale University Press’s The Secret World of American Communism and The Soviet World of American Communism, by Harvey Klehr et al., this account of the “golden age” of Soviet spying, 1933-1945, draws heavily on recently declassified Russian archives, but turns those documents into a narrative history. Historian Weinstein (Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case) and retired KGB agent Vassiliev offer new background for such controversial Cold War figures as Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Unlike recent spies (such as Aldrich Ames), Stalin-era turncoats were motivated primarily by ideology. Many harbored the naive belief that the U.S.S.R. was an oppression-free utopia, while others saw the Soviet Union as the only credible bulwark against European fascism. Some spies even mixed ideology with emotion, such as the daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Germany who carried on a love affair with her Russian handler. Soviet espionage’s most dazzling success was the theft of atomic secrets from the Manhattan Project, a coup that enabled the U.S.S.R. to accelerate its own nuclear program. Ironically, by the 1950s, when America became obsessed with the “Red menace,” Soviet espionage had been decimated by the high-level defections of Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley. The authors write as historians, not polemicists, eschewing both cheap moralism and apologetics. Although the narrative occasionally bogs down in profuse detail, it is also packed with plenty of intriguing characters and cloak-and-dagger tales of secrecy, subversion and betrayal. This is an important contribution to the history of the Cold War.

    Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

  24. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    “an actual act of Jewish non-cohesion is, in your mind, evidence of Jewish cohesion. Got it.”

    Anti-semitism is truly a foolproof ideology. Every Jewish behavior supports it, no matter what – whether a Jew does X or the opposite of X, either way it’s evidence that the Jews are like the anti-semites say they are.

  25. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Everyone seems to have posted in 2009 and some refer negatively to George W. I just want to point out that under Obama that when congress did away with "don't ask, don't tell" in the US military, they did away with prohibitions on sodomy of both humans and animals with no explanation.

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