In his excellent and timely new documentary “Where’s My Roy Cohn,” out filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer creates a vivid portrait of the poisonous lawyer and New York power broker Roy Cohn, whom Tyrnauer describes as “evil but indisputably brilliant” and an “American Machiavelli.”
As Tyrnauer conclusively demonstrates, the closeted lawyer (1927-1986) was a central figure in a network of mentorships and relationships that shaped American right-wing politics from the 1950s to the present. The ambitious Cohn graduated from law school at age 20 (even though he couldn’t take the bar exam until he was 21) and through family connections landed a job in the office of the United States Attorney in Manhattan.
He was involved in several well-publicized trials of accused Soviet operatives but rose to national prominence during the infamous trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were accused of spying for the Soviet Union. Historians still disagree on their guilt, but Cohn bragged that his illegal communications with the judge led to their execution.
Cohn came to the attention of two powerful men who became his mentors. The first was journalist Walter Winchell whom Tyrnauer describes “as the Fox News of the analog era.” Tyrnauer explains that he “was an extremely powerful right-wing force in the world of news and information. He had the highest-rated radio shows of the time and was a syndicated newspaper columnist. He was a household name with a demagogic anti-Communist agenda.”
Cohn’s other powerful mentor was the closeted director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. According to Tyrnauer, Hoover had a symbiotic relationship with Winchell. “They used each other to spread their poison,” he says. He also points out that Hoover introduced Cohn to Senator Joseph McCarthy. With Cohn at his side, McCarthy ran a series of Congressional hearings that ruined the careers of hundreds of people who were accused of being Communists or homosexuals.
One of the most fascinating sequences in the documentary deals with the next phase of Cohn’s turbulent career, the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, which Tyrnauer delightfully presents as an unrequited queer love story. Cohn befriended the straight G. David Schine, an anti-Communist propagandist. When Schine was drafted, Cohn lobbied to get him special privileges; when the Army refused, the Cohn “threatened to “wreck the Army.”
The closeted Cohn was openly mocked during the hearings, which came to an end when the Army’s attorney Joseph Welch finally asked McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”
McCarthy retired in disgrace, but Cohn returned to Manhattan to become a fixture in the glittering New York social whirl. His clients included the New York Yankees baseball team and their controversial owner George Steinbrenner; media mogul Robert Murdoch, the founder of Fox News; Aristotle Onassis; the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York; and, members of several prominent Mafia families. As Tyrnauer notes, “Cohn was orbiting anywhere there was power or money. He was a thoroughly transactional political creature.”
Cohn also worked behind the scenes to smooth the way for the presidency of Ronald Reagan, especially through his friendship with Nancy Reagan.
“Cohn was a registered Democrat but identified with right-wing Republicans and actively undermined liberal Democrats,” Tyrnauer says. “Nancy Reagan had a very hypocritical relationship with many gay men, all of whom were in the closet. She used that network of right-wing gay power to infiltrate the imperial drawing rooms of moneyed New York and Washington. Cohn was a conduit to a lot of big-ticket political donors.”
Cohn was also the lawyer for the owners of the fabulous Studio 54, as well as a frequent visitor to the club. Tyrnauer actually got the idea for making a movie about Roy Cohn while he was making his documentary about the famous A-list night spot. He remembers, “I kept seeing all this archival forage of Roy Cohn and I kept thinking this is such a great character for a film. He’s on camera all the time because he was basically a media whore, a self-promoter who loved the cameras. All this footage of him fairly leapt off the screen.”
Despite Tyrnauer’s interest in Cohn, the filmmaker admits the film would not have gotten made without the unexpected 2016 election of Cohn’s protégé, Donald J. Trump. Before the election, Cohn would have been a footnote in American history and a character in Tony Kushner’s celebrated “Angels in America.” After the election, Cohn became a force of history.
“That’s why I made this movie,” Tyrnauer says. “Everyone needs to know who this person is, how the dots connect.
As the movie demonstrates, it was Cohn who taught Trump about the power of “The Big Lie” and who tutored him in lessons like “Never admit you’re wrong.”
Tyrnauer, by the way, is a big fan of Kushner. When it comes to Roy Cohn, “Kushner gets it all right,” he says. “’Angels in America’ is an immortal and transcendent piece of art. His use of Roy Cohn is just breath-taking.”
“I thought that Trump would lose and that Roy Cohn would best be remembered as a character in that play. Unfortunately, because he created a President from beyond the grave, Cohn is still impacting the current day,” Tyrnauer says.