King Cohn | The Nation


King Cohn

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If patriotism did not drive him to Washington, what did? He says he went to "cure my inferiority complex." Since he had never as a lawyer shown the feeling, be must have meant something stemming from his Jewishness. He was ashamed that Jews were getting something of a reputation as far-lefters. "Not all Jews are Communists," he said in the McCarthy days, "but most Communists are Jews." Like his mentor columnist Sokolsky, whose sympathy for Jews was so limited that he had "what von Hoffman calls an "apparent willingness to accommodate himself to European fascism," Cohn was very worried "lest the non-Jewish public get the idea that Jews loved Moscow more than America." The McCarthy committee's shoveling into the affairs of the Army at Fort Monmouth was particularly fruitful in this regard, so much so that Jewish groups complained that "most of the witnesses at the hearings were Jewish" and "most of the scientists suspended at Fort Monmouth were also."

Citizen Cohn
By Nicholas von Hoffman
483 pp.

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

Significantly, the most important actions taken by Cohn in Washington were self-destructive. He destroyed forever all chances for real acceptance by either the Jewish or WASP upper class. And he destroyed his alter ego, McCarthy.

He did the first by forcing two favorites of the WASPish old-school-tie Foreign Service to resign. He ruined one career by threatening--plenty ironic, considering Cohn's later recreational preferences--to expose an old homosexual affair, and he ruined the other career by threatening to expose an old secret marriage. He did this to avenge the way the Foreign Service had made him and his colleague G. David Schine look so ridiculous in their book-burning tour of Europe--a tour which Cohn would years later admit was "a colossal mistake." Adds von Hoffman, "how big a colossal mistake he probably never understood."

He had gone out in the world and done things to men, non-Communist, non-criminal men, which would never be forgiven. The trip had changed the course of his life; this was not a question of a Democratic boy going to work for a Republican senator; this was welding himself to a political faction that people from his background despised. Publicly, there was no way back for Roy.

To the establishment, Cohn "had stamped himself a varlet. Roy had to sneer at Harvard, Yale, and the Union League Club; that world was [now] closed to him forever."

As for McCarthy, drunken and malleable and dumb, Cohn destroyed him by forcing him to hound and hound the Army to give Schine favored treatment in boot camp, a pursuit that was tactically insane and ultimately led to the hearings that ruined McCarthy and of course ended Cohn's Washington career. The anti-Army crusade was so bizarre as to make one almost believe Cohn willed his own defeat.

Cohn returned to New York City and went into the practice of law at a level where most payments were under the table. Here again, Cohn was turning inside out the Jewishness of his early training and environment. Thanks to a judge who was a friend of Cohn's father, he was taken into a solid and reputable law firm (Saxe, Bacon & O'Shea, later Saxe, Bacon & Bolan) in 1957, and he managed within a dozen years to destroy its reputation by both sloppy lawyering and shady lawyering. It became known as the law firm that bought off judges, suborned witnesses and won cases through trickery and political pressure. "The acts Roy was committing," writes von Hoffman, "were the antithesis of what he had learned from men like Jerome Frank; they were an affront to the rock-sure morality of the conscientious Jewish professional and business men of his growing up."

"By early 1963," von Hoffman goes on, "Roy had won himself a reputation, among reporters and editors willing to believe the worst if given a little evidence to hang it on, as a sleazy man of affairs." This is one of the several times that von Hoffman shows a strange contempt for Cohn's critics. What's with him? What does he mean by "a little evidence"? Von Hoffman lists mountains of evidence: looting enterprises by collecting excessive fees; asking other lawyers around his firm to sign false affidavits (and telling one who wouldn't, "I can't afford your Harvard ethics"); asking clients for money to bribe the judge and then pocketing the bribe money; or not telling clients he was going to bribe judges, and doing it. His money was spread widely. "If fixing the clerks wouldn't accomplish his goals," says von Hoffman, "Roy would tamper with witnesses." There were strong suspicions that he sometimes defrauded his own law partners. On at least one occasion he allowed top Mafia bosses to hold their meeting in his office so that, if wiretapped, what they said could not be used against them in court because of the lawyer-client relationship--a relationship with the Mafia, it should be added, that was much too extensive and friendly and covered too many years to be in any way innocent. (Indeed, if Zion's Cohn is to be believed--always a big if--he got Irving Saypol, the prosecutor in the Rosenberg case, appointed US Attorney through the good offices of Frank Costello, it being the case, says Cohn, that "the mob had for years decided the appointment of the US attorney.")

Cohn's most despicable crime as a lawyer, the professional crime for which there is no forgiveness, was defrauding his clients. He did it in myriad ways. Sometimes he would take their money, promise his personal help and turn the case over to the most unpracticed members of the firm, young men who had never even been in court; occasionally he dumped cases on law students who were just hanging around. Sometimes Cohn would take a client's money and turn up in court so poorly prepared that it was inevitable the client would go to jail. Indeed, he seldom made formal preparations for a trial but instead relied on what one close associate called his talents as an "intimidator and bluffer and bullshit artist." Sometimes he would take a client's money and give no representation at all, none: pure swindle.

There was, in fact, nothing so unprofessional, so unethical, that he would not do it to a client. Perhaps his most memorable trick was to turn rat, stool pigeon, on one client in an effort to save another. Von Hoffman writes:

One disco owner, a client of Roy's who had been paying Roy to bribe New York City officials to get a zoning variance, had confidential lawyer-client tax information turned over to the government to rescue the owners of Studio 54 from impending incarceration. It didn't work, but the man, who went to the penitentiary himself, might have taken Roy with him had he learned of his attorney's treason soon enough.

And of course Cohn constantly--constantly--leaked stuff to the press about his clients to get publicity for himself. It was this total disloyalty that made some observers wonder what Safire and Zion and others in Cohn's retinue were talking about when they spoke of his loyalty. Steven Brill, of The American Lawyer, told von Hoffman, "He was the most disloyal person to clients imaginable...I really want to know why Bill Safire likes him so much. Loyalty? Dogs have loyalty. He was never loyal to clients."

Cohn was notorious as a deadbeat. Except for what he owed homosexual prostitutes, he never paid his bills. Creditors could always sue him, of course, but "suing Roy could be a costly waste of time. The lawyers' fees might soon equal the size of the debt and the case would not go to trial, particularly in New York City where Roy had one or perhaps two judges, who must have been on his pad, because they would grant any postponement, any preliminary motion he asked for." Occasionally a creditor would win a suit, but they virtually never collected because he had nothing they could attach (as the IRS discovered; he went to his grave owing it $7 million). He rented or leased everything. He had no bank account. He wasn't paid for his legal work but got phony "loans" or lived on a kind of millionaire's barter system. Very often he paid his own staff with bad checks. Indeed, Cohn could have been prosecuted for fraud because of the pattern of his non-payments.

His life was spent in a cocoon of filth and disrepair. "The expression used to describe Roy's abodes time and time again was 'shit house,' " writes von Hoffman. His bedroom was decorated with frogs: frog drawings, frog paintings, frog decals, frog patterns on sheets, on nightshirts, on wallpaper, froggies everywhere; it was a room "bulging with stuffed animals, in this enormous turn-of-the-century townhouse, the plaster cracking, the paint all but gone from the walls, leaks squirting, and drafts finding their way through the ill-attended cracks."

His table manners were notoriously foul. He would eat from other people's plates, using his fingers, dipping his fingers into their gravy. He craved sweets but feared getting fat, so, as one boyfriend recalled, "In these fancy restaurants he'd order the yummy desserts, eat them and then spit them out into a napkin."

Was this the dapper lawyer whose name endlessly splotched the gossip columns of New York, the celebrated man-about-town fixer who threw parties at Studio 54 that mayors and congressmen and Harvard lawyers fought to be invited to? The same. If you see a split, splintered, shattered personality here, you're right. There was a deep streak of madness in Cohn, perhaps inherited from his mother's side. His maternal grandmother was deranged. One of his mother's brothers was "either mentally retarded or brain-damaged." Some members of the Cohn family thought Roy's mother should have been institutionalized. Everyone agreed she was extremely neurotic at the very least.

But the madness, I think, was also generated by self-hatred. (As a reward for wading through these two biographical bogs, I am surely entitled to indulge in a bit of amateur psychoanalysis.)

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