Probing Family Connection, Ivy Meeropol's Roy Cohn Documentary Comes To HBO
There’s an important reason why Ivy Meeropol’s new film begins with a home movie. Her family’s path intertwines in important ways — both personally and historically — with that of her subject. “Bully. Coward. Victim. The story Of Roy Cohn” debuts on HBO Thursday. The documentary traces Cohn’s combative and controversial life, whose influence can be traced all the way to the Oval Office in 2020.
There's been a lot of renewed attention on Roy Cohn in the past few years. Why did you want to make a movie about him?
Well, you know, I have to say that what, what got me to commit to embarking on this project was the election of Donald Trump. I had thought about making a film about Cohn on and off for years, because I find him compelling. Fascinating figure I felt was an important figure to explore American history and also the obvious connection to my family, but I think it was because of the connection to my family that I resisted, because I had already dealt with that in my first film and didn't really want to revisit it. But once Donald Trump was elected, I really felt that I had to. I felt compelled to.
I think at this point we should have you explain your family's connection. Not everybody will know how Roy Cohn intersects with your grandparents.
Sure thing. Roy Cohn as a 23-year-old prosecutor in New York City was brought on to work as he was assistant prosecutor in my grandparents’ trial. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage, and were executed in 1953. When my father was 10 years old, and my uncle was 7, he made his name, prosecuting them and actually was very involved in pushing for specifically the execution of my grandmother, who there was really no evidence to indicate she'd been involved at all. And he knew that; he coached David Greenglass, who is my my mother's brother. Basically, Cohn’s major role in the case was to coach David Greenglass to say that his sister Ethel, my grandmother, was doing the typing of the notes that were going to be passed to the Soviet Union with alleged secrets that had been collected by the Greenglasses and my grandparents. David Greenglass later said, admitted that he'd never seen her doing any typing and that Roy Cohn had told him to say that.
We should say here your dad, Mike Meeropol, is a commentator for WAMC news, our listeners will probably know his name, spent many years working on that case and trying to find out what the government knew and when it knew it, and he's become a champion to try to exonerate his mother, your grandmother. So people may be familiar with that story. Your film is really kind of a parallel movie. Because it's about Roy Cohn and his influence but it's also about your dad.
That's right. I mean, what was interesting in the process of making this film was I wasn't sure how to use my family's story when we first began. I set out, as one does making a film about historical figure, trying to find everything out about Cohn’s life that I could; I'm finding excellent subjects to help bring his story to life and collecting archival footage and all that.
Meanwhile, grappling with how to weave our family's story without repeating what I did in Heir To An Execution, bringing something new to it, and also not having it dominate because again, this was just the beginning of Cohn’s. He didn't live that long, but he had a varied career and a lot of different aspects to it. So this was just when he was 23, before he even went to Washington, DC to become Joe McCarthy's Chief Counsel. It became clear that father would be a counterpoint to Cohn, you know, and so you kind of move back and forth between their two stories and experiences, especially during the period when my father, my uncle, we're trying to reopen the case, when Cohn appears and becomes the public representative of the government's case. So it this is, you know, he begins trailing them at their various press appearances. And you see in the film, an incredible piece of archival material that we found where my father actually confronts him at a debate that was hosted by a French television station.
It was just an incredible part of the movie. What was the setting of that? They were on a television show together on the same dais, effectively.
Yes. Well, TeleFrance had aired a play a play based on my grandparents story. This was a conversation that they wanted to air to play after the series. So, you know, it was a scripted dramatic version of the events around the trial. And so then they invited my father and Roy Cohn and Marshall Perlin, who was my father and uncle’s lawyer as they were trying to reopen the case. And yeah, my father had remembered doing this, but we didn't know where that footage was. And it took a lot of effort on our archival team to discover that. And my father, you know, he talks about how really relishing the opportunity to be on stage with Cohn.
Was that the only time that happened?
No, he there were two other times. He was on the Barry Farber show with Cohn. We were never able to locate that footage. And then we also have a little clip in the film of my father appearing before John Conyers’ committee, the House Judiciary Committee, and Cohn was there as well.
Let's talk a little bit more about Roy Cohn's origins. He was a prodigy in the law. He came from a family of Democrats in New York City, but quickly sort of radicalized in the opposite direction. And people puzzle over that in your movie. So where did his politics come from? And how did he gain so much power so soon?
He claimed to be a Democrat his whole life. He maintained that he was still a Democrat. I think it just it was like a way of irritating his opposition, because he was clearly you know, in every other way not a Democrat. He was a reactionary and a big Republican proponent and supporter and helped, you know, famously helped get Reagan elected. You know, he was just a genius at collecting people and amassing that kind of power and participating. And what he learned at a very young age, he called the favor bank, which was you do a favor for this person, and then they owe you, and he had so many layers of that in his life.
So, you know, for instance, I mean, he saw a great opportunity in my grandparents’ trial, he made his name that way. And he then went to Washington and worked with Senator McCarthy and again becomes, you know, this kind of rabid anti-communist figure. He used the fear of communism to amass power by by scaring people. He's being asked in an interview, you know, what do you get when you hire Roy Cohn? And he says, I think to Tom Snyder, he says, fear factor. And to me, he's not just talking about as your individual legal representative. It’s bigger than that with him. That was one way that he saw pretty quickly that he could put himself in a power position.
To a person, almost everybody in your film says at one point or another well he was just a terrible person. In what ways did that manifest?
Everything from not paying his bills, and we're not just talking big hotel expenses and things like that but down to, you know, the local dry cleaner. You see his own handwriting on these bills saying “don't pay.” He would just completely eviscerate people. We have the story of this poor gentleman, Richard DuPont, who was someone who Cohn took great advantage of and destroyed his life. There’s the obvious example of my family's story. That's the more prominent ones.
He was ruthless. I mean, he, he says it himself, he would do whatever it takes to win and that means breaking the rules. And he knew that the people he was fighting against couldn't break the rules. So he used that against them because he didn't care. And I think he was very comfortable with turning people against each other. You see him on the Larry King show, saying, you know, he doesn't support gay rights, he doesn't support women's rights, all these rights bills and you know, he's very dismissive of them, but yet he's living fairly openly in Provincetown and other parts of his life, hanging out Studio 54, as a gay man. So I think for a lot of people, that alone makes them a horrible person, the hypocrisy.
I don't think you ever explicitly say this in the film, but very much your movie is media criticism, at least from where I'm sitting. Can you talk about the way that his image was sort of created by the tabloid era?
One of the most revealing interviews that I did was with Cindy Adams, who you even hear me kind of react. We and we purposely left that in. ‘Well, Roy would ask me to kill a story or ask me to put something in‘ and then I said, ‘Well, how did he pull that off?’ And she just says: by asking me.
I'm thinking he had to work through much more complex channels to do that, but no, he just simply asked her and she did it. You know, he cultivated the media. I don't know anybody else who comes close to the ability to do that and you see it. Even Peter Manso is a good example. Peter Manso is progressive. He's actually a red diaper baby just like my father, even grew up in Knickerbocker Village on the Lower East Side where my father grew up, and believes as he's a progressive person, but yet he goes and does this interview with Cohn in the early 80s that where we gather all these the audio that we use in the film from and he becomes friends with him. He starts palling around with him after that interview, and it goes even further, he ends up buying a house with him and Norman Mailer and sharing a property on in Provincetown with him.
Lois Romano talks about how you'd come to town and, and he’d say come on over come to the bar, you know, by the Washington Post, I mean, he was really, really good at massaging the press that way and I think he traded information. He was someone who they enjoyed getting to be part of it. I mean, other journalists who didn't even end up in my film who I spoke to, you know, said they would get invited to his parties, and it would feel like they were getting access, but he was really using them.
Now, speaking of which, you mentioned at the beginning of this interview, that you were really inspired to make it once Donald Trump took office. Take us through the Cohn-Trump relationship. How did it start? And how did Cohn influence Trump?
They met at a club called, it's kind of funny to say, it's called Le Club. And this was in the early 70s. And it was quite the hot spot in New York City, on the Upper East Side. And from what I understand, Trump was desperate to get into this club. He definitely wrote about it in one of his books, that was where all the gorgeous women were, and he wanted to get into this club, and the club was one of Cohn’s haunts and they met there. Trump approached him. He supposedly heard that Cohn was really tough and he liked the way that he fought back and didn't take any anything from the other side and never gave up and he said, I'd like you to work for my family, with my father, with a real estate company that Trump's father owned. And they were involved in a in a discrimination case, a housing discrimination case. The the Trump family business was being investigated, and Cohn took on that case, and Cohn fought back. He used his classic Cohn tactics of attacking the government, Cohn called them Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. You know, it's that idea of like turning it around, you know, turning it back on and blasting them with worse accusations to inoculate themselves.
That kind of that was the beginning of this union. That became so much more than Cohn just being Trump's attorney. They became close friends. They, at certain periods of their friendship, relationship, they talked on the phone like five times a day. They went they socialize together, they went out together. But then what happened? Cohn really started to see that he could shape Trump's future and shape Trump's position and that would be advantageous of course to Cohn. So he introduced Trump to all of his Washington connections. And as Cohn became the biggest fundraiser and organizer in New York for the Reagan campaign, he simultaneously brought Trump into that circle. And what we discovered in making the film through the excellent journalist Lois Romano from the Washington Post is that Cohn really started to plant the idea in Trump's head and connect them to all the right people to get there that Trump could be a major figure on the national stage himself.
So he starts thinking he could be the nuclear arms negotiator. And now this is during the Cold War. And we are, you know, there's Trump who hasn't shown any sign of, of expertise, or even interest in any kind of major policy issues. There's Cohn going on TV and setting up an interview. He set it up themselves because he was friendly with Lois Romano. He said, you need to interview this guy, Donald Trump from New York, and that began and I feel like we really pinpointed almost the moment where Trump started thinking, Hey, I could do this.
And in a bit of foreshadowing, he says I could know everything there is to know about this arms negotiation in an hour.
Oh, it's unbelievable. Trump says yes to Lois Romano as she's interviewing him, I could learn everything I need to know about nuclear missiles and an hour and a half. We recognize that person.
And he also gets to know people like Roger Stone and Paul Manafort, who would play such an outsize role down the line.
That's right. I mean, they are all brought together and Cohn is the lynchpin.
I don't want to give away where the title of your movie comes from, because it's an interesting aspect of the story. But he had a very sad ending. Can you talk about the last few years of Cohn’s life?
Sure. And what makes it even more poignant is that he was really at the top of his game and he was in the position that he always wanted to be kind of back in Washington after being run out of town after the Army McCarthy hearings. He really always wanted to have be a big player in Washington and run out, spent all that time in New York, but he was back in the fold with the Reagan White House. And then he gets sick. And he and he says he has liver cancer, as people are noticing, he's not looking well, he's disappearing at times for treatments, and he goes on television looking just awful and frail. And when he's confronted directly by people, like Mike Wallace saying, you know, do you have AIDS? Because he did. He did have AIDS, and he never admitted it. Despite traveling to the National Institutes of Health in Washington, DC, where he was actually given access to early trials of AZT secretly, he's even told his own cousin who we have in the film, telling us If he was going there for a new treatment for liver cancer, and which the NIH wasn't even working on. It was AZT, and we know this now. This is something Tony Kushner explores and “Angels in America” as well. Of course, the AZT did not work and he died in 1986.
And he died never admitting that he was that he had AIDS and he also died being somewhat abandoned by many of the kind of biggest names in his circle. And some of the poignant audio that we have towards the end of the film, you hear a very diminished Cohn, you know, contemplating his own memorial service. And wondering who's going to be there, and if anyone's even going to say that he was a good guy, which I found surprising.
I know your film has a point of view. But he's not around to defend himself, of course. And given your family history, which is so vital to this story, I imagine someone could say, Oh, well, this is just kind of… “sour grapes” is not the right term. But do you know what I'm saying?
I know exactly what you're saying. Because I was aware of this the whole time that it could easily look like this is the Rosenberg revenge film, and I actively worked against that. I mean, I didn't want it to be written off as that and that's and that's not really what it is. If I had wanted to make a Rosenberg revenge film, I probably would have made this film years ago. But because the decision to make the film was motivated by my beliefs that we need to know more about our history we need to know more about how the Cohn tactics and ethos that that informs where we are now. I mean, I just I felt it was really important. It's another way of exposing you know how people like Cohn and Trump stoke the fear of whether it's communists, immigrants, Black Lives Matter protesters, who are being called thugs. You know, after 911, Islamic terrorists, all of that is used to divide us and I just felt it was an important part of history. Cohn’s life and how he wielded power is an important thing for all of us to understand now. It's beyond what happened to my grandparents. It's bigger than that.