Picks and Pans Review: The Autobiography of Roy Cohn

updated 05/02/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/02/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Sidney Zion

Roy Cohn, who became an overnight celebrity as chief counsel to Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy during the witch-hunts of the postwar Red scare, led a chaotic, very public life full of political intrigue. Cohn's personal life was equally controversial. Few were objective about him, and the authors of these two books are no exceptions. Von Hoffman, a journalist and author, brings a liberal bias to Citizen Cohn (Doubleday, $19.95), especially when dealing with the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg espionage-conspiracy trial, which Cohn, then an assistant to U.S. Attorney Irving Saypol, helped prosecute. Zion, who knew Cohn for more than 20 years and patched together his unfinished autobiography (Lyle Stuart, $18.95), did little outside reporting to frame Cohn's self-aggrandizing picture of himself. Although Zion's book is very entertaining and seems to capture Cohn's voice faithfully, Zion approached it more as a friend than as the lawyer and journalist he is. Von Hoffman offers more insights—focusing, for instance, on Cohn's mother, Dora, as the key to his personality—and his book reflects impressive reportage. But Von Hoffman seems unable to amalgamate his sources smoothly, slapping in long, edited quotes that often leave doubt about who's talking. He also is sloppy, referring to the famous "pumpkin papers," for example, without explaining them (microfilms of documents that led to the perjury trials of Alger Hiss, they had been hidden in a pumpkin). But he traces Cohn's ride through the steeplechase of life thoroughly enough to allow us to marvel at this man who lived for power and pleasure. Cohn was the only child of a loveless marriage. His father, Al, was a New York judge who taught his son about backroom politics. Mother Dora so dominated her son that he lived with her until she died when he was 40. Zion uncovers the fact that Cohn's homosexual activity began when he was 15, the year he entered Columbia College; Von Hoffman got his subject's hospital records, detailing his torturous death from AIDS-related cancer in 1986. Both authors deflate the myth that Cohn was a powerhouse legal mind. He was, they suggest, a fixer, a deal-maker and a performer, capable of mesmerizing a jury. But he often cheated clients whose cases needed meticulous preparation; what they got was slipshod handling. Cohn seems finally to have been a pint-size man with a self-destructive streak as big as his mouth. He died broke and disbarred, a victim of what sometimes seems to have been sexual and professional suicide.

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