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People Top 5
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- July 14, 1986
- Vol. 26
- No. 2
A Life Lived on the Brink
Roy Cohn, Though Disbarred and Gravely Ill, Remains Defiant
"They're a bunch of cheap politicians and I couldn't care less," he pronounced in his flat, final style. He spoke thus of the court upon which his late father, Albert Cohn, once sat. "A bunch of nobodies."
The five-judge panel was unanimous in the verdict to disbar Cohn, citing his unethical conduct in four specific cases: It took Cohn 18 years to repay a 90-day $100,000 loan from a client; he virtually forced a signature on a codicil to the will of a dying millionaire, naming himself an executor; he lied on an application to join the District of Columbia Bar Association, and he violated an escrow order in which he squandered assets under his care.
All this the court laid out in public in great detail and with an unmistakable touch of anger. The court ignored private appeals to stay the verdict since, given the state of Cohn's health, the question would soon be moot. Cohn, argued the advocates for mercy, would never practice law again no matter what the court decided.
But the court would not be moved. The accounting for Roy Cohn was judged overdue. The wunderkind who, at 26, bullied the United States Army and made tremble all the vast bureaucracy of the government with his reckless search for Communists, had left too long a trail of enemies to expect—some would say to deserve—pity now. "The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine," commented one old foe who declined to be identified. When he was asked last March by 60 Minutes' Mike Wallace about appealing to a bar committee for sympathy, Cohn bristled: "I'm not going to crawl before this committee or any committee like it."
The circumstances of what may be Roy Cohn's last days, however, are certainly pathetic. Once a brazen bon vivant, he lives in a kind of medicated twilight in a small stone cottage deep in the Greenwich, Conn, woods. The house, the car in the yard, his Manhattan town house all belong to a complex of corporations, keeping the IRS (to whom he owes $7 million in back taxes, interest and penalties) at bay. He lives on an expense account from his law firm—Saxe, Bacon & Bolan. (One of the partners is Stanley Friedman, the Bronx County Democratic chairman under federal indictment for bribery.) Cohn's economic status has become as visibly fragile as his health.
Despite a lucrative legal career in which he earned millions, Roy Cohn wound up owning only the exquisite wardrobe that no longer fits his wasting frame and the carefully kept American flag that flies over the door of the house in Connecticut that belongs to a cutout corporation. He also owns pictures. Scores of pictures. Nixon and Reagan and J. Edgar Hoover and Cardinal Spellman. Hubert Humphrey and Barbara Walters. They are inscribed and framed and spread over all the surfaces of the homes and apartments he occupies, as if their testimony will, in some way, ratify the life that was led.
Roy Marcus Cohn was born an only child in the Bronx. His father, before becoming a judge, was a power broker for the late Ed Flynn, one of New York's old-style political bosses. "At his father's table, he learned how things are done," says Sidney Zion, also an attorney, who is ghosting Cohn's autobiography. At the age of 9, he told Franklin Roosevelt that he agreed with packing the Supreme Court. "I always had guts" is his proudest boast. "I'm a stand-up guy."
Cohn graduated from Columbia University Law School at 19. He went to work for the United States Attorney's office and played a part in prosecuting Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted as Soviet spies, then executed in 1953. His main role, however, was as liaison with the press. It was Roy Cohn who would go to the Stork Club to drop off inside tips about the trial at Table 50, the famous nook kept for the exclusive use of Walter Winchell. When J. Edgar Hoover was in town he would join Winchell at the Stork Club. Young Cohn would sit at Table 50 with the head of the FBI and the world's most powerful newspaper columnist and leak information about traitors. He had a flair for self-promotion. He spoke with a kind of left-handed, wise-guy savvy that belied his privileged upbringing.
In the fall of 1952, in the midst of the Korean War, while the nation was obsessed with internal subversion, Cohn was transferred to Washington as a low-ranking prosecutor. Eventually he was appointed chief counsel for Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. It was in this role that the image of Roy Cohn became indelibly etched in our history. There he was, with his puffy, indifferent eyes and his cold, indifferent voice—a public tormentor. There he was, casually whispering into the ear of the Senator, egging him on to every excess.
And there he was, with his young friend David Schine, traipsing over Europe, supposedly investigating subversion. When Schine was drafted, Cohn threatened to "wreck the Army" unless his friend was relieved from all onerous duty, but that backfired—as did his boss's larger attack on the military. A wily old attorney for the Army, Joseph Welch, turned the tables on McCarthy on national TV and wrecked his career. Cohn changed his base of operations back to New York, where he and his mother shared a nine-room apartment on Park Avenue. He entered the world of the political wheeler-dealer—running errands for the bosses, bearing messages, taking tricky cases, doing deals. His list of clients included alleged mob guys like Tony Salerno and Carmine Galante. He went to work for multimillionaire Yankee owner George Steinbrenner in his fight with Dave Winfield. He represented Aristotle Onassis when the shipping tycoon wanted to divorce Jackie.
Cohn was drawn to the wolves, the ones who, if they got into trouble, would be grateful forever.
Marvin Mitchelson, the father of palimony, met Roy Cohn more than 20 years ago. They were co-counsel in one of the divorce cases involving the late songwriter Alan Jay Lerner. "We were coming into the city in his car," recalls Mitchelson. "He had two phones going. The thing that impressed me was that he put the call from Europe on hold for 20 minutes while he spoke to someone in the Bronx."
Three months ago Mitchelson went to see Cohn at his Connecticut home. The house smelted stuffy, like a sickroom. "He was doing his best to make a good fight, but he was very, very sick," says Mitchelson. "God, I remember the parties! Legions of people who worshiped or were awed by his supposed power."
He was not good at handling his own finances, according to the record. He tried to take control of Lionel, the toy train maker, to turn it into a high-tech company, but the company lost millions. He tried to promote championship fights for Floyd Patterson, but he had no gift for it. It was this enterprise that caught the attention of the IRS. For more than 20 years, despite his friendship with Presidents, the IRS has laid siege to Cohn's assets. "He tried to open an IRA last year," recalls Zion. "Fifteen hundred dollars. The IRS seized it the next day. The next day!" Squads of young attorneys and accountants made a career of turning Roy Cohn's books inside out after Robert Morgenthau became a U.S. Attorney. Cohn accused Morgenthau of a personal vendetta. During the early '60s, Cohn was indicted three times by federal grand juries for conspiracy to commit perjury and obstruct justice. He was acquitted each time.
Another charge was not a legal matter—just persistent rumors over the years about Roy Cohn's sexual preference. He denies that he is a homosexual, although he does not seem to resent the question. He also denies that he is dying from AIDS. He insists that he is dying of liver cancer and that Barbara Walters—whom he has known for 30 years—was the love of his life.
"He made the good times," says Zion. "Wherever he was, that was the right place to be." There is, as there always has been, a central enigma about Roy Cohn. He is an intellect who prefers the company of scoundrels. He has been intoxicated with wealth and power and yet may finish his life on charity. He has made the entire government dance and yet could not control his tax returns. He dines at New York's elegant Le Cirque, yet the meal is invariably tuna fish.
These days he is attended by a young associate, Peter Fraser, who frets about his boss's drinking and diet. The big-shot friends and cronies are, for the most part, gone. The celebrity-packed parties have ended. Roy Cohn, who made the mighty quake, is a lonely, dying man.
September 28, 2016
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