Rusty Solomon, reporter for the NY Times, reports that this is the first in a series of chronicles on famous disbarred attorneys. What follows is the story of Roy Cohn.
Roy Marcus Cohn (February 20, 1927 – August 2, 1986) was an famous lawyer who came to fame during Senator Joseph McCarthy’s investigations into Communism during the late 50s. Cohn gained special prominence during the McCarthy hearings. He was also an member of the U.S. Department of Justice’s prosecution team at the espionage trials of Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
Born in New York City, Cohn was the only child of Jewish parents Dora Marcus and Judge Albert Cohn who was influential in Democratic Party politics. He lived in his parents’ home until his mother’s death, after which he lived in New York, the District of Columbia, and Greenwich, Connecticut.
After attending high school and completing studies at Columbia College in 1946, Cohn graduated from Columbia Law School at the age of 20. He had to wait until his 21st birthday to be admitted to the bar, and used his family connections to obtain a position in the office of United States Attorney Irving Saypol in Manhattan the day he was admitted.
Cohn supported most of the Republican presidents of his time and Republicans in major offices across New York.
Cohn had a 30-year career as an attorney in New York City. His clients included Donald Trump, Mafioso heads, Studio 54 owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, Texas financier and philanthropist Shearn Moody, Jr. and the New York Yankees baseball club. He was known for his active social life, charitable giving, and incredible personality. In the 1960s he became a member of the John Birch Society and a principal figure in the Western Goals Foundation. He maintained close ties in conservative political circles, serving as an informal advisor to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Cohn was the grandnephew of Joshua Lionel Cowen, founder of the Lionel model train company. By 1959, Cowen and his son Lawrence had become involved in a family dispute over control of the company. In October 1959, Cohn and a group of investors stepped in and gained control of the company, having bought 200,000 of the firm’s 700,000 shares, which were purchased by his syndicate from the Cowens and on the open market over a three-month period prior to the takeover. Under Cohn’s leadership, Lionel was plagued by declining sales, quality control problems, and huge financial losses. In 1963, he was forced to resign from the company after losing a proxy fight.
Federal investigations during the 1970s and 1980s charged Cohn three times with professional misconduct, including perjury and witness tampering. He was accused in New York of financial improprieties related to city contracts and private investments. He was never convicted of any charge. In 1986, a five-judge panel of the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court disbarred Cohn for unethical and unprofessional conduct, including misappropriation of clients’ funds, lying on a bar application, and pressuring a client to amend his will. In this case in 1975, Cohn entered the hospital room of a dying and comatose Lewis Rosenstiel, the multi-millionaire founder of Schenley Industries, forced a pen to his hand and lifted it to the will in an attempt to make himself and Cathy Frank—Rosenstiel’s granddaughter—beneficiaries. The resulting marks were determined in court to be indecipherable and in no way a valid signature. He lost his law license during the last month of his life. At that time, National Review senior editor Jeffrey Hart referred to him as “an ice-cold sleaze.”
Roy Cohn spent several decades living a discreet life as a closeted gay man. When he brought on Schine as chief consultant, speculation arose that Schine and Cohn had a sexual relationship, although some historians have more recently concluded the friendship was platonic. During the Army–McCarthy hearings, Cohn denied having any “special interest” in Schine or being bound to him “closer than to the ordinary friend.” Joseph Welch, the Army’s attorney in the hearings, made an apparent reference to Cohn’s homosexuality. After asking a witness if a photo entered as evidence “came from a pixie,” he defined “pixie” for McCarthy as “a close relative of a fairy.” Fairy was, and is, a derogatory term for a gay man. Pixie was also a brand name for a line of cheap cameras. The people at the hearing recognized the allusion and found it amusing; Cohn later called the remark “malicious,” “wicked,” and “indecent.”Cohn and McCarthy targeted many government officials and cultural figures not only for suspected Communist sympathies, but also for alleged homosexuality.
In 1984, Cohn was diagnosed with AIDS and attempted to keep his condition secret while receiving experimental drug treatment. He participated in clinical trials of AZT, a drug initially synthesized to treat cancer, but later developed as the first anti-HIV agent for AIDS patients. He insisted to his dying day that his disease was liver cancer. He died on August 2, 1986 in Bethesda, Maryland, of complications from AIDS at the age of 59. According to Republican political consultant Roger Stone, for whom Cohn was a role model, Cohn’s “absolute goal was to die completely broke and owing millions to the IRS. He succeeded in that.”He is buried in Union Field Cemetery in Queens, New York.
Rusty Solomon reports on disbarred Roy Cohn is a great American tragedy.