by Bill Stamets

“Where’s My Roy Cohn?” Not in White House.

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on October 13, 2019

Where’s My Roy Cohn?
directed by Matt Tyrnauer
written by Tom Edge
scored by Lorne Balfe presented by Sony Pictures Classics
MPAA-rated PG-13 for thematic content, some sexual material and violent images.
running time: 97 minutes

 

by Bill Stamets
 

“Roy Cohn, Aide to McCarthy and Fiery Lawyer, Dies at 59” reads the obit in the New York Times on August 3, 1986. That’s the epitaph Roy Cohn predicts in a “60 Minutes” interview clip that Matt Tyrnauer places near the end of his diligently researched documentary “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” Although the insistently in-your-ear score by Lorne Balfe – whose credits include the documentary “Salinger,” the biopic “Churchill,” the action thriller “Mission: Impossible– Fallout” and the video game “Assassin’s Creed III”– may fit Cohn’s histrionics, it can at times over-amp this true crime chronicle.

On the day of the film’s release the New York Times ran an op-ed headlined “Roy Cohn Is How We Got Trump” with the sub-headline “From McCarthyism to the mob to Trump, Cohn enabled evil. Why did elites embrace him?”

Where did Tyrnauer– a Vanity Fair chronicler of elites– get the title for his latest documentary? From a January 4, 2018 New York Times article. “Obstruction Inquiry Shows Trump’s Struggle to Keep Grip on Russia Investigation” indicated: “the president erupted in anger in front of numerous White House officials, saying he needed his attorney general to protect him. Mr. Trump said he had expected his top law enforcement official to safeguard him the way he believed Robert F. Kennedy, as attorney general, had done for his brother John F. Kennedy and Eric H. Holder Jr. had for Barack Obama. Mr. Trump then asked, `Where’s My Roy Cohn?’ He was referring to his former personal lawyer and fixer, who had been Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s top aide during the investigations into communist activity in the 1950s and died in 1986.”

“Joe McCarthy’s Roy Cohn tells it like it was” announced Esquire’s cover for an article by Cohen in February 1968. Trump’s current attorney general, William Barr, is not in Cohn’s league. To adapt a rehearsed 1988 riposte from a vice presidential debate in Omaha, a 2019 observer could taunt Trump’s attorney general William Barr: “I knew Roy Cohn. Roy Cohn was a friend of mine. Attorney General, you’re no Roy Cohn.” Nor is Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, a former mayor of New York City.

Tyrnauer opens with a close-up of a tape recorder meter. In a voiceover writer Ken Auletta recalls interviewing Cohn for Esquire. We hear the original audio transcribed in subtitles. “What makes Roy Cohn tick?,” asks Auletta. “A, uh, love of a good fight, uh, a certain pleasure I derive from fighting against power and the establishment. I will take on a cause against practically anybody. I hate hypocrisy.” Cohn lived for irony– and to play the press– imply those last three words.

Esquire headlined its December 1978 cover story “Don’t Mess with Roy Cohn, The Legal Executioner.” Auletta there asserts: “He is a self-proclaimed `cynic’ who nevertheless calls many of his cases `causes.’”

Fights, fees and infamy drive this cynic more than any cause, even if vigorous anti- Communist endeavors launched Cohen’s career. Right out of Columbia’s law school, he started as a Special Assistant Attorney General and earned notoriety during the 1951 espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. From there he became chief counsel to the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations run by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Cohn’s contemporaries and later historians suspect he was more of a sinister opportunist than an ideologue. Ever the provocateur, he gave Auletta this quote: “I believe there’s going to be a Communist world someday.”

Cohn put “cause” in quotes when testifying before the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice in Congress: “[B]ehind the Rosenberg agitation is the hand of the world Communist movement which ritualistically sparks `causes’ and uses well-meaning people with sincere beliefs to unknowingly further their ends.” Seven months before the Rosenbergs were executed by electrocution in 1953, an internal FBI document reported that an agent in its Manhattan office “said Roy Cohn, Special Assistant Attorney General has informed him that attorneys for the Rosenbergs are out to get Cohn. Cohn assumes that his office and home telephones are tapped and that his office contains hidden microphones. He asked for an FBI check.”

Drawing on family lore shared by three cousins, “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” traces the birth of Cohn to brokering by the well-heeled, well-connected kin of “the ugliest girl in the Bronx,” as the mother of one cousin put it. “Nobody would marry Dora [Marcus] so they cut a deal with a young lawyer named Al Cohn. If he would married Dora they would make him a judge.” He did and they did.

Only child Roy received overmuch attention from his mother, who lived with him until her death in 1967. Roy’s father made him sit with his political and business cronies at the dinner table and the whip-smart lad imbibed their lessons. According to Auletta he “began speaking at political rallies at the age of nine.” Tyrnauer relates Cohn fixing a traffic ticket for a high school teacher. Cousin-by-marriage Ann Roiphe, interviewed in the film, once wrote that Cohn’s parents “thought he might grow up to be the first Jewish president of the United States.”

“Why would a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx, the son of a renowned liberal Democratic judge, choose to make his name by prosecuting the Rosenbergs and working for Joe McCarthy?,” asks Cohn in his posthumous autobiography edited by Sidney Zion. The press kit Sony Pictures Classics hands out for Tyrnauer’s film does not answer Cohn’s flippant query but makes a diagnosis: “Cohn’s tinderbox of fury and insecurity contributed to his raging need to control his world and administer pain on his adversaries. The irony of his life is that his key adversaries were representations of himself: Cohn was a homophobic, anti-Semitic member of the establishment.”

Contradictions inscribe Cohn’s identity. He participated in government anti-gay investigations, sneered at smears aimed at himself, and denied on his death bed he was gay and AIDS had anything to do with his participation in an experimental AZT drug trial arranged by his friends President and Nancy Reagan. Cohen spent his last four weeks in a National Institutes of Health clinical center in Bethesda, Maryland. Among the causes of his death listed on the death certificate: “dementia” and “underlying HTLV-3 infections.”

Al Pacino plays an ailing Cohn in an HBO film adapted from Tony Kushner’s stage production “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” James Woods plays him in “Citizen Cohn,” another HBO production. “Cohn loved to cast himself in the classic American role of the charismatic, maverick individualist,” writes Stephen J. Bottoms, a prof of contemporary theatre and performance.

“Roy was the definition of a self-hating Jew,” testifies his cousin Dave Marcus in Tyrnauer’s film. Marcus, formerly a Miami Herald reporter, contributed “Roy Cohn’s Last Days” to the August 1987 issue of Vanity Fair. He asked Cohn, his father’s cousin, about AIDS. “Roy said, his anger apparent even in his feeble voice. `It’s a smear campaign.’”

Cohn was honored by Jewish organizations in New York City. The American Jewish League Against Communism, Inc. presented a plaque saluting his efforts, at age 25, “in the cause of Americanism and for noteworthy devotion to the principles of Judaism” at the Hotel Astor on June 18, 1952. His after-dinner comments, placed in the Congressional Record, display bravado in laying bare his rhetorical devices.

In accepting this award I realize I must abide by the customary code for the recipient of an award in making his acceptance speech. He must disclaim any right to the award and try to modestly persuade the committee that they have the wrong man. But he must do so in such an intelligent and persuasive way that committee is more than ever intrigued into believing that they have acted wisely in making their selection.

A month later Jewish Life published “Letter to Roy M. Cohn” wherein Arthur D. Kahn slammed him as “a representative of the American Judenrat, which like the German Judenrat and the Warsaw Ghetto Judenrat, hopes to buy security for itself… You will be remembered like the German and Warsaw Ghetto Judenrat members, if at all, along with the traitors, renegades, opportunists, sycophants… who are a disgrace in the history of every people.”

The Chicago Tribune defended Cohn by invoking a different moment of European history. “Purging the McCarthy Committee” editorialized on July 17, 1954: “To a legion of Americans who detest Communists, Roy Cohn could take on something of the quality of an American Dreyfus.” Towards the end of his life Cohn had an Irish wolfhound named Disraeli, presumably after Benjamin Disraeli. The two-time British prime minister was born into a Jewish home but converted to the Anglican Church at age 12 after his father’s death.

Cohn returned to the Hotel Astor on July 28, 1954 for another American Jewish League Against Communism gala. Senator Joseph McCarthy was the keynote speaker. The Catholic opinion weekly Commonweal picked up on a theme from the accusatory letter in Jewish Life, noting the event’s “indomitable godliness, the constantly repeated thought that Heaven had put a blanket security clearance on the activities of Joe and Roy (God bless them) and personally endorsed their crusade.”

Cohn attended a League luncheon the following year. Two years later he delivered a McCarthy eulogy at a League luncheon. News accounts identify Cohn as the League’s president at various times. One mentioned its listed address was the same as Cohn’s law firm.

In his 1968 Esquire cover story– with the snide headline “Believe me, this is the truth about the Army-McCarthy hearings. Honest”– Cohn describes letters he received from viewers of the televised proceedings: “One woman said candidly she had been a strong anti-Semite until she heard my testimony about my work and the fight against communism. Now she no longer believed that all Jews were Communists.” Besides “a number of marriage proposals,” he got “some business offers.”

Notoriety’s upside is marketing. Tyrnauer cues up a 1978 video from Tom Snyder’s television show. When the host quotes derogatory phrases from Auletta’s article, Cohn parries with his bad-mouthers: “The worse the adjectives the better it is for business… scare value.” Wording threats is lawyerly tradecraft. “We just tell the opposition Roy Cohn is representing me, and they get scared,” Cohn client Donald Trump once bragged.  Auletta writes: “`The mere sending of a letter from Roy Cohn has saved us a lot of money,’ says builder Donald Trump.”

A month before the 2016 Republican National Convention nominated Trump, a New York Times profile noted: “One of Mr. Trump’s executives recalled that he kept an 8-by-10-inch photograph of Mr. Cohn in his office desk, pulling it out to intimidate recalcitrant contractors.”

Tyrnauer finds a television clip of Cohn showing off his photo with Trump: “Let me tell you about this. This is a picture of Donald and me in which he says `Roy is my greatest friend’… By the way, this picture hangs in my office directly next to a picture I treasure of the president and Mrs. Reagan, two of my favorites.” A 2017 Vanity Fair article titled “How Donald Trump and Roy Cohn’s Ruthless Symbiosis Changed America” claims Cohn gushed, “Donald is my best friend” after throwing a birthday party for him. The byline is Marie Brenner’s. This co-producer of “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” makes a few appearances on camera.

Trump was just 23 when he introduced himself to Cohn at Le Club and asked what to do about Justice Department charges that Trump and his father Fred did not rent apartments to blacks. Cohn began representing Trump. “`I made Trump successful,’ he would occasionally boast, according to Mr. Marcus,” reports the New York Times under the headline “What Donald Trump Learned From Joseph McCarthy’s Right-Hand Man.” That article also quotes “Mr. Cohn’s lover… [who] spent a great deal of time with Mr. Trump”: “Donald was certainly his apprentice.”

Brenner speculates about Cohn’s regard for Trump in a transcript of a 2018 interview for a Frontline documentary: “He was his confidante. He was an ersatz father… who had a crush on Donald Trump as a young man.” She quotes Marcus in her 2017 piece: “`Donald fit the pattern of the hangers-on and the disciples around Roy. He was tall and blond and… frankly, über-Gentile. Something about Roy’s self-hating-Jewish persona drew him to fair-haired boys…and Donald was paying homage to Roy… I wondered then if Roy was attracted to him.’”

Although Brenner shared with Frontline that “Trump, in his early 30s, had a kind of adorable-monster quality,” his mentor is hardly coddled by a contemporary in Tyrnauer’s film: “Roy Cohn’s contempt for people, his contempt for the law was so evident on his face that if you were in his presence you knew you were in the presence of evil.” Less vituperatively, Life magazine in 1969 called him “a corporate manipulator of the first order” and “a masterful lobbyist… with but a single client: Roy Cohn.” Three years later a document in the FBI’s file on Cohen contained a handwritten note at the bottom of a typed letter: “[redacted] is like an [redacted] spewing forth its black fluid to hide his true character.” If the author of that simile is comparing Cohn to an octopus, he is using an anti-Semitic trope, knowingly or not.

Marcus writes that at his last New Years party Cohn told guests: ”I thank you all for coming, and with great confidence I look forward to seeing you next year. Since our president cannot run for office again, I want you all to know I am available in 1988.” The cunning mechanic of witch hunts during the red scare mentored a future president who rants against “witch hunts” without a clue what that means.

Cohen taught Trump to accuse his accusers in kind. During prolonged proceedings to disbar him, Cohn told the Washington Post in late 1985: “What McCarthy was accused of practicing is actually being practiced against me.” Among 37 character witnesses for Cohn was Trump: “If I summed it up in one word, I think the primary word I’d use is his loyalty.” One intimate tells Tyrnauer: “Roy was incredibly loyal to friends, and he was intensely loyal to Donald Trump. Trump took his legal business to somebody else when Roy had AIDS. He stopped seeing Roy and calling Roy and hanging out with Roy.” If loyalty is a measure, Trump manages to make Cohn look good.

Cohn once asked Trump for a hotel room for a lover dying with AIDS. Trump owned the Barbizon Plaza Hotel and that’s where the man would die. Trump billed Cohn. “He refused to pay,” reported the New York Times. The paper also learned Trump once gave Cohn a pair of diamond cuff links. Another lover of Cohn who survived him inherited them. He had Bulgari baubles assessed. “The diamonds turned out to be fakes.”

“Donald Trump did not respond to multiple requests to be interviewed for this film,” announces a final title in the documentary. Tyrnauer had better luck with access when making his documentaries “Valentino: The Last Emperor” and “Studio 54.”

Seven years before Cohn died he told the Washington Post: ”I won’t be saying ‘please forgive me’ on my deathbed.” An epitaph he could not foresee was sewn by an anonymous contributor to The Names Project AIDS memorial quilt: ”Roy Cohn Bully Coward Victim.”

                                                                                                                          ©2019 Bill Stamets

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