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Michael Meeropol: The Many Lives Of Roy Cohn

Today, I would like to take off my economist’s hat and put on my proud papa’s hat.   My daughter Ivy has just finished a documentary about the life of right wing Republican lawyer-fixer Roy Cohn.   The film is one of two documentaries about the former Joseph McCarthy and Donald Trump consiglieri.  Hers is entitled “Bully, Coward, Victim, The Story of Roy Cohn.”  The other is called “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”  (The title for that film comes from a quote from an exasperated Donald Trump as he complained bitterly that Attorney General Jeff Sessions was not sufficiently “protective” of him [Trump].)

[For an article about Ivy’s film, see , “Secrets and Lies.  Trump Mentor.  Joe McCarthy protégé.  AIDS victim.  More than three decades after his death Roy Cohn still haunts American life,” Carl Swanson in the Vulture column of New York Magazine, September 16, 2019.

Because  of his relationship with Trump, interest in Cohn was peaked when Trump was elected.   It also has been reinforced by the revival of Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America in which Cohn is a major character.

Ivy’s film is currently at both the NY and the Woodstock Film Festivals.  The last showing in the Woodstock festival was in Woodstock on October 5.   The last showing in the NY Film Festival is/was on October 13.  It will be/was shown in Washington, DC on October 12 and in Provincetown, Mass. on November 1.   It will be broadcast on HBO sometime in 2020.

What I really appreciate about the film is best summarized both in the title and in the comments of a major “subject” in the film, the author Peter Manso.  Manso interviewed Cohn for Playboy back in 1981.   There are recordings in Cohn’s own voice in the film from Manso’s extensive interview tapes.    Early in the film, Manso states that soon after he began to interview Cohn he realized that it was insufficient to call him (Cohn) evil.   Specifically, Manso says “To call him evil --- it’s true --- but it doesn’t account for 100 other things about Roy.”

The film weaves a complicated tapestry of Cohn’s many lives.   It begins with Cohn the anti-communist warrior.   First he was an assistant US Attorney for the Southern District of New York where he participated in the prosecution of my parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.   The chief prosecution witness was David Greenglass (my mother’s brother), who worked as an army machinist at the Los Alamos, New Mexico facility where the first atomic bombs were built.   He claimed that my mother and father recruited him to spy for the Soviet Union.   He further claimed that he provided numerous sketches of his work at Los Alamos to both my father and to a Soviet courier who came to pick the material up at his Albuquerque, New Mexico apartment.   We now know that much of his testimony was perjured --- in particular the assertion that my mother typed up all the spy materials he provided. 

[For details of the roles of David Greenglass and his wife Ruth both at the trial and in service to the Soviet Union during World War II, as well as the perjuries they committed at the trial see Michael Meeropol,   “ ‘A Spy Who Turned His Family In’:  Revisiting David Greenglass and the Rosenberg Case,”    American Communist History, May 31, 2018 .                     

For the specifics of David Greenglass’s perjury about my mother’s typing see Sam Roberts, The Brother:  The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case   (New York:  Simon and Shuster, 2014):  482-484.]

Initially, Greenglass had denied that his sister had anything to do with espionage.   He was interviewed by the Grand Jury in August of 1950 where he made categorical statements to that effect.   In February of 1951, confronted by a “new” story from his wife that his sister Ethel Rosenberg had typed up the spy material, he was told by Cohn that he would have to call his wife a liar if he kept to his original story.  He changed his story to fit his wife’s story and that is what they both told the jury at the trial.  (In those days the defense did not have automatic access to Grand Jury testimony.   Both Greenglasses’ Grand Jury testimonies were made public in 2008 [Ruth] and 2015 [David].)   The film does not provide any of these details but it does have an interview with Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz in which he relates conversations with Cohn in which Cohn stated that because the government had access to secret information that could not be revealed at the trial, they “fixed” the case and therefore, in Cohn’s words as reported by Dershowitz, “framed guilty people.”   There also is an audio clip of Cohn stating that he examined David Greenglass (which was true) and “put the whole case together” which was a ridiculously self-serving exaggeration.

When the film turns to Cohn’s role as Joseph McCarthy’s sidekick, it shows Cohn working alongside McCarthy to harass witnesses hauled before McCarthy’s committee but it also shows (briefly) how Cohn overreached when he tried to get special treatment for another McCarthy associate, G. David Shine, when he was drafted into the army.   The conflict between Cohn and the army led to the nationally televised Army-McCarthy hearings which ended up being McCarthy’s downfall.   [The filmmaker Emile De Antonio used 188 hours of kinescopes (in the 1950s there was no video tape) of the televised hearings to create a 1 hour 37 minute documentary entitled “Point of Order.”  It shows a number of instances in the hearing where McCarthy’s and Cohn’s tactics were skillfully exposed by both the Army’s counsel Joseph Welch and other Senators, particularly Stewart Symington of Missouri.  The DVD of the documentary can be purchased from Amazon and is probably available in numerous libraries.   There is footage from that documentary in Ivy’s film including an exchange between McCarthy and Welch where Welch comes close to “outing” Cohn by using the terms “pixie” and “fairy” after which the footage cuts to a stony-faced Cohn sitting beside McCarthy.   Some commentators stated that this was Welch’s way of saying that he “knew something “ about Cohn and would be willing to use it if Cohn and McCarthy misbehaved.   In fact, that exchange was the closest anyone came to “outing” Cohn until decades later.]

Using interviews with Cohn’s friends (such as the gossip columnist Cindy Adams) as well as clips from the Broadway revival of Angels in America, interviews with Tony Kushner and the actor Nathan Lane who portrayed Cohn, the film shows that Cohn was a closeted gay man.   While working with McCarthy he strongly supported the firing of homosexuals from the federal government because of their alleged risk to national security because they could be easily blackmailed.   This effort to purge homosexuals from government, known as the “lavender scare,” resulted in the firing of more people from the government for that reason than for reasons of being a communist or a potential security risk because of left-wing leanings.   [For details on the lavender scare see David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare:  The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government.  (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2004)].   Cohn was also a strong ally of the anti-gay forces on the New York City political scene (he was a lawyer for the Archdiocese when Francis Cardinal Spellman was in charge – Spellman was a notorious right-winger and persecutor of gays though it was rumored that he, himself, was a closeted gay man).

However, the film also shows that Cohn attempted to walk a fine line between being a FULLY closeted gay man and someone who could publicly participate in gay life while living in Provincetown Mass in the 1980s.   Tony Kushner says in an interview in the film that Cohn pushed the envelope --- seeing how close he could get to being “out” without in fact being “out.”

So --- to return to the title of the film: 

Cohn was a bully as a side-kick to McCarthy going after both communists (or alleged communists) and gays.   He was also a bully when he prosecuted my parents -- suborning the perjury of David Greenglass to win a conviction for my mother and communicating with the Judge to encourage him to sentence her to death.

He was a coward in that, even as he was dying of AIDS he refused to acknowledge it.  Had he publicly admitted he was gay and suffering from AIDS it might have reduced some of the stigma associated with the disease and arguably might have saved many many lives.   He preferred to die falsely claiming he had liver cancer --- he even said this to members of his family.

And Cohn was also a victim of the virulent homophobia that led to almost criminal inaction on the part of the US government during the early years of the AIDS epidemic.  [For a gut wrenching withering examination of the initial government indifference to the AIDS epidemic, see Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On (NY:   St. Martin’s Press, 1987).]   Arguably, it was that homophobia that meant that he could never have pursued the public career he desired had he not stayed in the closet.  And especially at the end, he must have been tortured by the knowledge that he had contracted AIDS.

A couple of reviewers have said that Ivy is “empathic” towards Cohn.  She takes a similar approach to that of the masterful Tony Kushner in Angels in America.

In that play, the character who represents the “intelligence” of the drama – the drag queen nurse Belize – offers forgiveness to Cohn, and the fictionalized Ethel Rosenberg says Kaddish over Cohn’s dead body before of course ending by calling him a son of a bitch!   [There is a new revised edition of Angels in America that was published in 2013 by the Theater Communications Group.   Belize’s act of foregiveness and the saying of the Kaddish are on pages 265-267.]

And I haven’t even told all the various strands of Cohn’s life that are touched on in this film.   But among the highlights are Cohn the man who helped frame my parents and counsel McCarthy --- Cohn the man who became a high profile fixer-lawyer in New York City --- Cohn the man who frequented Studio 54 and El Morocco --- Cohn the man who mentored Donald Trump --- Cohn the man who summered in Provincetown, Massachusetts enjoying a gay life without worrying about paparazzi --- And finally, we have Cohn the closeted gay man who died a miserable death suffering from AIDS while to the last claiming he had liver cancer.


Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author with Howard and Paul Sherman of the recently published second edition of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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