One of the greatest villains of the 20th Century, Roy Marcus Cohn (1927-1986) is fixed in popular memory thanks to Tony Kushner’s epic drama “Angels in America,” which depicts the final days of the political operative, Mafia lawyer and all-purpose “fixer” for the rich and infamous as he died of AIDS. Actors as noteworthy as Al Pacino and Nathan Lane have played Roy on stage and screen.
But as Matt Tynauer’s new documentary “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” reveals, no one played Roy as well as Roy himself.
Assembled with great care from extant footage of Cohn and his cronies and new interviews — an especially interesting one being with an ex-boyfriend of Cohn’s who found him fun — this is a startlingly in-depth study of a closeted gay man, who lived wild and free when the closet was the rule.
He had, however, no intention of extending the freedom he made for himself to others. In fact, quite the contrary.
Cohn worked long and hard at making things worse for other gays, most memorably with the help of his equally closeted front man Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
Together they launched what became known as the “Lavender Scare” — a reign of terror that stretched across the nation from Washington, D.C. to Broadway, Hollywood and anywhere else the LGBT community might find shelter. Being the mastermind of this jihad, Cohn is the model for self-hating gays who persist even in this post-Stonewall and post-Obergefell era. And through Cohn, Tynauer shows how this self-loathing operates when it’s working at full throttle.
Tynauer, whose films include “Valentino: The Last Emperor” and “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood,” discovered Roy Cohn via the making of his last documentary “Studio 54.”
Cohn was the lawyer for that fabled celebrity mosh-pit. He was there constantly to hang out with the swells and have sex with the waiters, busboys and high-end hustlers who were its featured attraction for the rich and closeted.
There was, however, little he could do for its tax-avoiding owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, for by the time they came to grief Cohn’s fortunes had fallen so low he was being disbarred.
Cohn first made a name for himself as the U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor in the espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the American Communists who supposedly “Gave The Bomb to the Russians” as the New York tabloid press would have it.
As Tynauer shows what Julius Rosenberg and his brother-in-law David Greenglass were dealing with were minor bits of information the Russians had. For cooperating with Cohn, Greenglass was given a stretch in prison.
He died in 2014.
One of the highlights of the film are heretofore unseen shots of demonstrators in the streets of New York protesting the Rosenberg execution and sobbing and falling apart on hearing it has taken place. Ethel Rosenberg simply typed the notes her husband gave her.
But Cohn was intent on not simply linking her to her husband and brother’s crime but going so far as to claim she was the mastermind.
Tynauer’s film shows Roy declaring on camera that he would have loved to have pulled the switch that executed Ethel himself. Outside of Adolf Eichmann’s trial, I daresay nothing this individually monstrous has been seen on screen before.
Without making too fine a point of it, Tynauer suggests what may have been behind Roy’s rage at Ethel was his own mother. As the film shows Dora Marcus was widely referred to as the “ugliest woman in New York.”
Her marriage to New York State Supreme Court Justice Robert E. Cohn was an “arrangement’ in which the wealthy Dora virtually “bought” him to become a “Sadie Sadie Married Lady” (as the song from “Funny Girl” put it) and have a child.
Roy was the apple of his mother’s eye. But he was a rotten apple to the core: thanks in no small part to her efforts to “fix” his nose in a botched operation resulting in a large hideous scar across it. Cohn’s own attempts at augmenting his looks with plastic surgery were equally egregious. But power and “clout” can often trump beauty, and hide potential scandal.
Cohn made quite a spectacle of himself when he and his then-boyfriend, hotel chain heir G. David Schine (as handsome as Cohn was ugly) began their affair.
In 1952, Schine published a six-page anti-Communist pamphlet called Definition of Communism, and had a copy placed in every room of his family’s chain of hotels. Brought to Cohn’s attention the pamphlet and its author became central to his life as they began a tour of U.S. military bases in Europe to distribute it and hold forth on the dangers of “Communist Infiltration.”
This tour became so well-known that William Burroughs satirized it in “Naked Lunch” with Cohn and Schine portrayed as “Mr. Bradley and Mr. Martin.” Gore Vidal, who needless to say was onto the whole thing opined that in Washington, “We used to sing ‘Come Cohn or Come Schine.'”
What happened after this wasn’t made into a musical, though Jerry Herman would do well to take a crack at it. For Cohn’s efforts to have the U.S. military grant his boyfriend special treatment resulted in what became known as “The Army-McCarthy Hearings” — the first major live TV spectacle.
Cohn had McCarthy “investigate” the U.S. military for “Communist subversives.” Trying to show Schine’s importance he offered as “evidence” a cropped photo of the private standing near some high-ranking officers.
When the Army’s lawyer Joseph Welch showed the photo (in which Schine was a bystander of no importance) McCarthy hemmed, hawed and professed ignorance as to how this could have happened.
“Well who do you think did this,” Welch asked, “a pixie?” McCarthy then declared no knowledge of what a pixie might be. “Well it has been my impression that pixie is a close relative of a fairy,” said Welch, in the diss of all-time, nailing Cohn as McCarthy’s “pixie.” McCarthy’s reign was almost instantly over. Cohn, however, continued.
As a Mafia lawyer he was responsible for overseeing the mob’s swankiest 50’s-era club The Latin Quarter and its boss Loy Walters. Lou’s daughter was Barbara Walters. The telejournalist, now retired and reportedly in ill health, passed on speaking to Tynauer.
But for many years she was Roy Cohn’s “beard” and even, the film notes, harbored hope of one day marrying him. That was not to be.
But in a last burst of notoriousness Cohn came to the aid of New York real estate shark Donald Trump, helping him reach a “settlement” when the inveterate racist was charged with discrimination in refusing to rent his properties to African Americans.
Cohn helped smooth the way for the man who is now president of the United States.
But Trump being Trump he dropped Roy Cohn when he learned of the latter’s AIDS diagnosis.
The film’s title comes from Trump’s need of always having a Roy Cohn like adviser in his life, and he may well have found one in Stephen Miller. Miller doesn’t figure in Tynauer’s film on Roy Cohn. But he’s a prime candidate for a Tynauer epic of his own.
Meanwhile, we have this film to offer enlightenment and a quasi sort of “entertainment.” For while Roy Cohn couldn’t make ugliness beautiful he did manage to make it unforgettable.