My new film, Where’s My Roy Cohn?, which opens in theaters this weekend, is about the American lawyer who first shot to national prominence with his role as Senator Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel during the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. He developed a reputation for ruthlessness and corruption, from his early influence in the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg trial to his later client roster, which included several Mafia dons, as well as Donald Trump. Cohn died in 1986 from complications of AIDS (a fact, among countless others, that he always vehemently denied—along with his homosexuality). Here are 10 of the most interesting things I learned about this most dark prince of power brokering, while directing Where’s My Roy Cohn? …
Roy Cohn’s Family Was Really Rich
Roy Cohn came from an upper-class Eastern European Jewish immigrant family. Among the companies his family controlled were the Bank of the United States, Phillips–Van Heusen shirts, Lionel Trains, and Q-Tips. His mother’s side of the family, the Marcuses, were his moneyed relatives, and his uncle Bernie Marcus was president of the Bank of the United States. In the aftermath of the 1929 banking crisis, Cohn’s uncle Bernie was the only bank president to get a prison sentence. This brought great shame to the family and, it is thought, put a chip on the shoulder of Cohn’s mother, Dora Marcus Cohn, and Cohn himself. Cohn-family members believe that avenging the injustice done to uncle Bernie might have been one of Cohn’s motivations for winning at all costs.
Sing Sing Has a Special Significance in Cohn’s Story
Bernie Marcus was imprisoned at Sing Sing, and Roy and his parents frequently visited him there. Cohn, in one of his memoirs, recalls having picnics outside the prison walls as a young man. Only a little more than a decade later, Cohn, as a 24-year-old prosecutor of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, was instrumental in the couple’s conviction, which led to their imprisonment—in Sing Sing. It was at Sing Sing that the controversial execution of the Rosenbergs took place in the electric chair. Cohn has long been assailed for pushing for Ethel Rosenberg’s electrocution, even though there was never any definitive evidence that she herself was guilty of espionage.
Roger Stone Says Cohn Had No Remorse
Roger Stone, who was Roy Cohn’s protégé, and perhaps his second-most-infamous pupil after Donald Trump, agreed to be interviewed for the film. In reviewing Cohn’s remarkably treacherous and unempathetic career milestones, I kept returning to the execrable fact that he had assured the execution of an innocent woman. I asked Stone whether Cohn ever felt any remorse for this deed. He said to me that it was quite the opposite, adding that Cohn told him, “If I could have pulled the switch, I’d have done it myself.”
There Aren’t a Lot of Photos of Park Avenue Synagogue
A footnote to the Rosenberg story involves the judge in the case, Irving Kaufman, whom Roy Cohn had wrapped around his little finger. On the eve of the Rosenberg’s sentencing, Kaufman went to Park Avenue Synagogue to pray for guidance. Apparently not receiving enough guidance inside, Kaufman exited the synagogue and called Roy Cohn from a phone booth on the sidewalk. Cohn, it is said, told Kaufman to send Ethel to the electric chair. In searching for good photos of the synagogue from the period, we came up with few options. As it happens, the rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue was a high-school classmate of mine, Elliot Cosgrove. I exploited this connection, asking Elliot if he could search the synagogue’s archives for photos of the exterior from the late 1940s and—Eureka!—he found a very good one, which appears in the film.
The Most Outlandish Cohn Stories Proved to Be True
I interviewed three members of Roy Cohn’s extended family, and they all confirmed one of the most crazy stories I had ever heard about my subject. At a Passover Seder in the 1950s, the Cohn-family maid dropped dead before dinner was served. Dora Marcus Cohn, Roy’s mother, arranged for the maid’s body to be hidden under a kitchen serving table, and swore the rest of the staff to secrecy, also neglecting to tell her guests that anything unusual had happened. A cousin, Gary Marcus, who, as the youngest male present at the Seder, asked the four questions of Passover, told me that when he asked the first question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?,” Dora blurted out, “Because the maid is dead in the kitchen!”
Dora Marcus Cohn Was a Handful
Another of Roy’s cousins revealed that Dora, when Roy was a child, became obsessed with her son’s undescended testicle. Dora was not only personally concerned, but was extremely public with the information, possibly humiliating her son in the course of discussing out loud what should have been a private matter. A family member speculates that this may have scarred the young Roy and led to his unusual and very troubled psychological profile as an adult.
There Were Secret Photos
At a certain point during production, I began to hear rumors of a never-before-seen archive of Roy Cohn’s personal photos. This archive turned out to be real and was in the private collection of an artist who wished to remain anonymous, but allowed for the use of the photographs in the film. Many of the photos showed Cohn with handsome young men, who were often shirtless. These images are surely ones that a deeply closeted Cohn would never have wanted to see the light of day. They present startling evidence of a double life lived by a very conflicted individual.
A Fetish for Frogs
Roy Cohn was obsessed with frogs and kept a menagerie of frog plushies as well as figurines and frog dolls in his bedroom. Visitors to his home used to remark that the frog collection could have used a good dusting. Housekeeping apparently was not Cohn’s strong suit.
Everybody Has a Price
I was keen to interview a man who was known to have had an important relationship with Cohn near the end of Cohn’s life. I was very pleased when this individual replied to my e-mails asking for his cooperation in the making of the film. In the end, he asked for one million dollars to tell his story, a request which was unfulfillable for any number of reasons, among them matters of journalistic ethics.
An Unlikely Triangle
Though Cohn remained in the closet until his dying day, he was a frequent and rather overt utilizer of the services of male prostitutes. As I began to research aspects of his private life, I found that a shadowy male prostitution ring dating from the 1950s and 60s was occasionally alluded to. Not much about it could be discovered except that it involved a “triangle circuit” consisting of New York City, Washington, D.C., and Galveston, Texas. It was thought that the Galveston hub might have been because that city was the home base of one of Cohn’s shadier associates, the man Texas Monthly once referred to as “the sleaziest man in Texas,” Shearn Moody Jr.
Matt Tyrnauer’s films include Valentino: The Last Emperor, Studio 54, Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, and Citizen Jane: Battle for the City. His latest, Where’s My Roy Cohn?, is in selected theaters now