Roy Cohn was one of the most loathsome characters in American history, so why did he have so many influential friends?
Briefly, in the nastiest of times, Roy Cohn did certain things that made him worthy of a historical footnote. In the eighteen months he served as Senator Joseph McCarthy's chief counsel, he contributed in some degree to the establishment of what Nicholas von Hoffman calls our ongoing era of two dreadful isms: loyaltyism and securityism.
But, though Cohn was one of the brashest and most easily hated, he was only one of numerous creators of the isms, and his role has probably been greatly overrated simply because he was so adept at publicizing himself.
In any event, the importance of Roy Cohn's life after that "short, wild ride" in Washington thirty-five years ago was of no significance at all. Except as it illuminated, and still illuminates, the society that fawned over him and allowed him to flourish. In that respect, but only in that respect, it was of enormous significance.
Von Hoffman reminds us that Cohn "lived in a matrix of crime and unethical conduct," "derived a significant part of his income from illegal or unethical schemes and conspiracies," and thrived "cheek by jowl with so many men of sharp practice and dim luster in business and politics" that Cohn's pal Joey Adams, the comedian, would say of Cohn's dinner parties, "If you're indicted you're invited."
But important unindicted people were invited, too. And they went. Large slices of the upper crust of New York and Washington snuggled up to him, laughed and entertained one another with stories about his crimes as though they were choice insiders' jokes, and wrestled for the privilege of partying with Cohn and his crooked and perverse friends. Why choose his company? The sleaze of Roy Cohn was no secret. Why ignore it? Why excuse it? The only important questions forced on us by these books have nothing to do with Roy Cohn, but everything to do with judges and lawyers and publishers and writers and TV stars and politicians and developers–the wealthy and the powerful people who for many years ate Roy Cohn's shit with a grin.
An example. Cohn was attorney for Studio 54, which von Hoffman identifies as "perhaps the most glamorous, fashion-setting nightclub to popularize drug use among white-collar people." Cocaine was its mother's milk. "That the establishment was run on lines contravening half the laws in the statute book made it not one whit less popular." For special celebrities, the wildest parties were held in the basement, where, along with high society's homosexuals, transsexuals and transvestites, one could find many illustrious souls who were there for the kick of watching and smelling. It was in Studio 54's catacombs, writes von Hoffman, that Cohn held some of his biggest birthday bangs, attended on at least one occasion by "the important officials of the Democratic, Republican, and Conservative parties, most of the city's major elected officials, a number of congressmen, the Chief Judge of the United States District Court and Roy's usuals, comedian Joey Adams, columnist William Safire, Donald Trump, Si Newhouse, Sidney Zion, and doubtless many another that the excluded Voice reporters did not pick up on standing outside in the street."
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That Time Bernie Sanders Told America: “I Am Proud to Say That Henry Kissinger Is Not My Friend”
That Time Bernie Sanders Told America: “I Am Proud to Say That Henry Kissinger Is Not My Friend”
Henry Kissinger, War Criminal—Still at Large at 100
Henry Kissinger, War Criminal—Still at Large at 100
Why were those people there, sucking up to Cohn?
And what were people like Geraldine Ferraro and Alan Dershowitz ("who was a somewhat well-disposed acquaintance of Roy's") doing at other Cohn parties and showing up as character witnesses when he was about to be disbarred?
And aren't liberals a bit troubled when they read that one of their old standard-bearers, Murray Kempton, had "a contemptuous affection for Roy"? What is contemptuous affection? Is that what liberals feel who are too gutless to hate?
Is it possible that the New York legal community is as riddled with corruption as even the surface evidence in these books indicates? To be sure, Cohn was ultimately disbarred for lying, for stealing insurance money received after the burning of a yacht on which a crew member died (murder?), for trying to cheat a client out of $100,000, and for forging a signature–but the bar's blustery pretense of morality did not come until Cohn was so sick he could never have practiced law again anyhow. Where were the pious attorneys when he was riding high? It wasn't that they were ignorant of his shenanigans. Von Hoffman says that "some of the most important and influential practitioners of law in the United States had an idea of what kind of lawyer Roy was years before he was expelled from his profession"; indeed, more than an "idea." Cohn was famous among lawyers for winning cases by "delays, evasions, lies, and fixes," and by some he was "considered the brains behind whole networks of thieving public officials."
It's because they provoke, endlessly, questions about supposedly decent people–not because they give an elaborate resume of Cohn–that these two books are important social documents.
And always there are troubling questions about the press. Why was it– if von Hoffman knows what he's talking about–that, at the very height of Cohn's criminal career, only one newspaper of general circulation, the New York Daily News, communicated to the subway straphangers that "the glamor lawyer was a crook"? Besides the News, only The Village Voice and The American Lawyer told the truth about Cohn. At the same time, The New York Times, the most prestigious of the print media, continued to put Roy in its news columns in a most favorable light, while CBS News, then the most prestigious of the broadcasting media, did a laudatory 60 Minutes piece." Sometimes lawyers settled cases with Cohn not because they couldn't whip him in court but because they feared that Cohn would smear them and their clients through easy manipulation of the press. As one lawyer told Steven Brill, publisher of The American Lawyer:
We weren't buying off the lawsuit. We were buying off Roy Cohn. It's Cohn we were interested in, and what he said he could do to us in the press…He can get a headline in The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times icking up a phone….These papers printed uncritical, big headline accounts of Cohn's charges.
Someday William Safire, a very old and very close friend of Roy Cohn, may be so kind as to entertain us in his New York Times Magazine column, "On Language," with a discussion of "press ethics," complete with illustrations of its oxymoronic qualities drawn from the press's relations with Cohn. He might even want to tell us, for example, what he thinks "sellout" means, in reference to the work of gossip columnists and political columnists.
When these columnists–people like Liz Smith and Safire himself– become conduits for the self-serving dirt supplied by a fellow like Cohn, and then give him the kind of publicity that he can change into power and money, is that selling out? Is it the same as giving and accepting a bribe?
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."
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.
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."
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.)
How could he avoid self-hatred? He betrayed his moralistic Jewish inheritance, betrayed his political party (he never quit claiming to be a Democrat), tricked his friends, defrauded his law partners, cheated his clients, treated his profession like a whorehouse. It was only natural, and doubtless subconsciously to him seemed absolutely just, that as punishment he destroy his own reputation and his body.
As everyone knows, Cohn, "the bestk-nown non-showbusiness homosexual in the country," died of AIDS.
When he was young, he dated girls. He claimed to have been engaged to Barbara Walters at one time. They were friends for many years, but he had few other women friends. Some who knew him well say he hated women.
Just how long he was a homosexual is not clear. Zion says a doctor told him that Cohn had been having sex with men since he was 15. Von Hoffman cites a reporter who remembers seeing Cohn in the homosexual bars around Washington when Cohn was in his mid-20s. But others say they knew– because they shared hotel rooms with him–that Cohn engaged in straight sex as a young man. Always with prostitutes. Not nice girls. And even with the prostitutes, one of his old pals says, "He seemed to be one of those people who was just weird about sex the way he was weird about everything else."
Von Hoffman indicates that Cohn really came out of the closet when his mother died. Others have said the same. It isn't surprising that they link the twists and turns of his sex life to his mother, an extremely dominating woman. She and Roy were so close it was rumored he used to date her. In any event, by the 1970s Cohn found his relaxation in places that were, as a lover reported, "wall-to-wall anywhere from sixteen-year-olds to thirty-year-old body builders who'd be wearing dungarees with a surface tension of sixty pounds per square inch. We're talking about guys with huge musculature packed into T-shirts with stuffed crotches [sic], bikini briefs stuffed with Kleenex–a 'big box' is what it's called."
Cohn was a particularly nasty homosexual. He was often a favored guest at the ranch of multimillionaire Shearn Moody, who readily provided, we learn, "many little boys of the night" to guests who desired them. The story is that one night Cohn desired a boy who turned out to have warts on his penis, but Cohn said, "Oh well, I don't care." And the first thing you know, Cohn had "venereal warts on his anus."
Cohn's appetite for sex was hearty, to say the least. One of his longtime lovers told von Hoffman, "The joke was five a night at a hundred a pop. Roy was incredibly promiscuous." Another said, "Roy had to have sex every night, and no matter what the cost…he would have someone there. If it wasn't me, it was Peter, Dirk, a guy named Bill who did porno movies….no matter what, he had to have it every night. And then he would beat off afterward to pornography…I think for all the times he liked to be on the top so much, he loved being on the bottom."
Cohn was rumored to have humped, or been humped by, Schine, his colleague of the McCarthy days, but von Hoffman says there is no evidence of such a relationship. Ditto the rumors that he humped, or was humped by, his dirt-supplying pal J. Edgar Hoover. Ditto the rumors that he humped, or was humped by, Cardinal Spellman (who reputedly was hot for choir boys) all very, very close friends of Cohn, to be sure, but by von Hoffman's reckoning they serviced one another only in political ways.
What of Cohn's rumored relationship with homosexuals around Reagan?
When Roy's name comes up among straight people with an inside knowledge of Washington politics, particularly Democrats, there is speculating about him and the "lavender Mafia," which is the group of closet homosexuals in important positions in the Reagan administration. Whether a "ring" of such men, bound together by power, politics, and sexual preference, exists depends as much on semantics as observed behavior. However the ring question is resolved, one of Roy's paths of access to the Reagan administration, but only one of several, was his connection with certain homosexual men near the White House.
This seems to be a line of investigation that von Hoffman was too lazy to pursue. Roughly how many men does he mean? How close to the White House do these rumors take us? How high do they go? (He does mention one "important operative in the Reagan camp," whatever that means.) Von Hoffman leaves these questions alone.
Typically disloyal, Cohn gave no support to homosexuals who were trying to win public acceptance. He called them "fags," did all he could to make their lives miserable, lectured against them, berated politicians for any display of tolerance toward homosexuals and urged laws to restrict their freedom. To his death he denied that he was homosexual, but the Dorian Gray scene of his lying of AIDS said it all: "Roy…lay in bed, unheeding, his flesh cracking open, sores on his body, his faculties waning" and with a one-inch "slit-like wound above [his] anus."
It's said that the one true love in Roy Cohn's life was his spaniel, Charlie Brown.