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King Cohn | The Nation

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King Cohn

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Is Sidney Zion's book on Cohn the ultimate sellout? Zion, a former New York Times reporter, admits that Cohn did many favors for him, including helping him expedite a liquor license for a saloon Zion was buying, and he admits that Cohn was "the best source I had" for news tips. In return, says Zion, he gave Cohn "advice" on how to handle the people at The Times. As for other things Zion did for Cohn, he says vaguely, "He never asked me to do anything I wouldn't have done for him anyway." Which, given the fact that Zion refers to Cohn as "old buddy," is not very reassuring. For me, the whole Cohn-Zion relationship seems such a cozy swap-off that I would feel foolish indeed to bet on the accuracy of anything in Zion's book--either the so-called autobiographical part, which allegedly was dictated by Cohn in the closing period of his life when his mind was beginning to wander, or the defensive commentary of Zion. There are times when I suspect that Zion is using Cohn's "autobiography" to take care of some of his own vendettas. In any event, one should be very slow to trust anyone who--after conceding that Cohn had trashed the Bill of Rights, was a "rogue," a "legal executioner" and a "notorious bastard"--excuses his close friendship with Cohn by quoting that excruciating cliche of H. L. Mencken's: "What a dull world it would be for us honest men if it weren't for its sinners."

Citizen Cohn
By Nicholas von Hoffman
Doubleday
483 pp.
$19.95.

The Autobiography of Roy Cohn,
By Sidney Zion
Lyle Stuart
284 pp.
$18.95.

Let us look more closely at this cuddly fellow.

The biggest problem in Roy Cohn's life was being a Jew. He wanted to be a Jew, but at the same time he was ashamed of being a Jew.

Typically for Cohn, the pleasure of being a Jew was that it opened many avenues to be exploited and manipulated. (His father, Al, a respected judge--apparently no small accomplishment in New York--and political crew boss, first opened many of these avenues for him.) Cohn was skilled at tapping the fatherly instincts of older Jews. Hey, what a smart boy! And how mannerly! As a sapling attorney he courted fellows like Judge Jerome Frank, who came to despise Cohn, and Judge Irving Kaufman (more on him later). All his life, Cohn particularly sucked up to Jewish journalists, because he practiced law through headlines. He became a tout and gossip procurer for Walter Winchell, who returned the favor by giving Cohn his first national notoriety, and he was very close to the once-powerful columnist George Sokolsky, in whom Cohn saw a second father, and Richard Berlin, head of the Hearst newspaper conglomerate. Cohn was virtually a member of the newspapering Newhouse family; throughout his adult life he was in daily contact with Si Newhouse, and on one occasion old Samuel Newhouse gave Cohn a half-million bucks, free and clear, to get him out of a jam. And, as already mentioned, The Times in the Abe Rosenthal era was an entirely friendly dumping ground for Cohn's politically murderous gossip (such as the unproven rumor that Hamilton Jordan had partaken of cocaine at Studio 54).

On the other hand, Roy Cohn seems never to have come to terms with being a Jew. "Roy never tried to deny his Jewish heritage," writes von Hoffman, "yet at the same time it seemed as though he sometimes sought out people who thought less of him for having it." Many of his closest allies, people with whom he went far out of his way to collude in wickedness--J. Edgar Hoover, numerous congressmen and senators--did not like Jews. Cohn's parties frequently were heavy with people who didn't like Jews. Cohn gave some of von Hoffman's interviewees the feeling that he enjoyed being called a kike, and he frequently used the term himself. A New York Post gossip columnist recalls that "he could be like many Jews that I've known. He could be terribly anti-Semitic...Roy was always calling people kikes--you know, terrible Jewish epithets-- 'Typical kike remark,' he'd say; 'kike' this or that about money, a favorite word of his." Cohn had no closer friend or more loyal supporter than Si Newhouse, but it is said that Cohn, behind his back, called him "Jewhouse."

One might fairly assume that Cohn hated himself for being a Jew and spent a great deal of his life tormenting Jews to show that, down deep, he could be just as anti-Semitic as the most bigoted WASP. One must bear in mind that it took some doing in Cohn's early adulthood to achieve that equality, for it was an, era when few respectable clubs accepted Jewish members and when most respectable private universities had Jewish quotas. What's more, there was, at least when Cohn was very young, still a sharp social distinction between German Jews and Russian Jews, the former considered much spiffier, the latter being Cohn's lineage (though Roy's mother pretended otherwise). This Jewish schism was no laughing matter. Indeed, the German Jewish banking establishment (the Loebs, the Kuhns, the Lehmans), von Hoffman tells us, teamed up with the Anglo-Saxon-controlled New York Clearing House to destroy Roy's much-beloved uncle Bernie, once a powerful banker who spent two years in Sing Sing. Roy Cohn never forgot the people who caused this family tragedy, and he never forgave. But he also learned from it what he considered a vital lesson: that it wasn't smart to be too different, too Jewish. While he made a career of insulting and ridiculing the WASP-defined ruling class, he worked ceaselessly to become a part of it, accepted by it, admired by it. He wanted nothing to do with losers, particularly Jewish losers, which may account for his having never been known to mention the Holocaust.

These were not rare sentiments. Many Jews felt just as he did, totally willing to exploit their Jewishness and at the same time ashamed of it, angry because they were prisoners of it.

In Cohn's life, this resulted in grotesque ironies. Toward the end of his brief fling as Senator Joseph McCarthy's high executioner, when other senators were pressing McCarthy to fire him, McCarthy warned them on orders from Cohn, who many believe controlled McCarthy far more than McCarthy controlled him, that if he were forced to fire Cohn it would be an obvious act of antiSemitism "and Winchell and Sokolsky would have plenty to say about that."

Cohn's using the "anti-Semitic" threat took balls indeed, seeing as how he had been for several years the foremost example in America of what he called the great anti-Semitic tradition of putting "a Jew...to catch a Jew." Cohn helped "catch" many Jews, politically and socially. And on at least one occasion he not only helped catch Jews but kill them as well.

This, of course, was in the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg espionage trial. On the record, Cohn, as an Assistant US Attorney, was what a later American Bar Association report called "the third-ranking member of the prosecution staff." In fact, as von Hoffman correctly insists and as the "Cohn" of Sidney Zion's book boasts, he helped persuade presiding Judge Irving Kaufman (in illegal ex parte discussions) that the death penalty was the right penalty. Von Hoffman points out that the bar association subcommittee (whose most important member was Simon Rifkind, a chap "quite close to Roy") later exonerated both men of carrying on in such an unfair fashion. But Zion quotes Cohn as saying that while he had no influence on Kaufman's sentencing Julius to the chair--after all, quoth Zion's Cohn, "Kaufman told me before the trial started that he was going to sentence Julius Rosenberg to death"--he did perhaps persuade Kaufman to fry Ethel. Kaufman, says Zion's Cohn, "was concerned about a possible public opinion backlash if he sentenced a woman to the electric chair, particularly a mother with two young children." Cohn continues:

Irving Kaufman has said that he sought divine guidance in his synagogue before deciding upon the sentences. I can't confirm or deny this. So far as I know, the closest he got to prayer was the phone booth next to the Park Avenue Synagogue. He called from that booth to a phone I used, behind the bench in the courtroom, to ask my advice on whether he ought to give the death penalty to Ethel Rosenberg. We often communicated during the Rosenberg case in this manner.

Cohn advised him to shoot the juice to her because "she's worse than Julius. she was the mastermind of this conspiracy."

Having helped dispose of the Rosenbergs, Cohn responded to his destiny by moving temporarily to what he called the "capital of cutthroats," Washington, where he got the job with McCarthy's committee that Bobby Kennedy had sorely wanted and that he hated Cohn for beating him out of. (And, being the true son of his father, Bobby probably hated Cohn for being a Jew.) Cohn's vigorous and sometimes crazed part in the Communist witchhunts of the era had nothing to do with patriotism. As a patriot, he can be measured by the fact that he "slithered out of the armed service," to use von Hoffman's phrase, in both World War II and the Korean War in a very crafty way. A congressman was pressured into appointing him to West Point--not once, but three times; each time Cohn failed the West Point exam, but he could not be drafted as long as he was trying to get in, so he managed to delay long enough to see the end of World War II from the safe perch of Columbia Law School. And when the draft was revived in the Korean War, Cohn again successfully avoided service by joining the National Guard.

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