“This is my grandfather Julius Rosenberg, and this is Julius and Ethel Rosenberg together,” says a blonde child in pigtails, pointing to family pictures in a home movie from the 1970s at the beginning of the new documentary Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn. “My father and my uncle were around 10 and 6 when [their parents] were electrocuted.” The young girl is Ivy Meeropol, the film’s director; its subject, Roy Cohn, was a prosecuting attorney in the Rosenberg trial.
Meeropol grew up with the story of the Rosenbergs, who were tried for espionage in 1951 and executed in 1953 for allegedly passing atomic weapons secrets to the Soviet Union. The Rosenbergs’ children, Michael and Robert Meeropol (who took the last name of their adoptive parents), long held that the Rosenbergs were victims of the Red Scare and McCarthyism. Though in 2008, it was revealed by Morton Sobell, a contemporary of Julius Rosenberg at City College and co-defendant, that Julius was indeed a Soviet spy and he “stole nonatomic military and industrial secrets,” according to The New York Times.
As for Ivy, Michael Meeropol’s daughter, she doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t aware of this part of her family history, and she found herself wanting to know more about her grandparents, as something more than just political martyrs. Her first film, Heir to an Execution (2004), deals with this head-on as it tells a sensitive account of their life and death. Now, with Bully. Coward. Victim., Meeropol aspires to tell a more complicated and nuanced story about Roy Cohn as well.
Cohn was only 24 when he helped send the Rosenbergs to the electric chair. He came from a Jewish family of proud Democrats, yet he soon became Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel, hunting down and prosecuting American communists. But Cohn’s career in Washington, D.C., was short-lived: After his friend G. David Schine (who was rumored to be his romantic partner) was drafted into the Army, Cohn went out of his way to procure special treatment for him, which became the subject of a congressional investigation. Cohn resigned following the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954 and opened a private law practice in New York, where he soon began representing a wide variety of the wealthiest, most powerful individuals and institutions in the city—among them, mafiosi Tony Salerno and John Gotti, the owners of Studio 54, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, Rupert Murdoch, and Donald Trump.
To get a sense of who Cohn was as a person, Meeropol interviewed dozens of his former friends and associates as well as journalists and activists, many of whom refer to him as “evil.” The most fascinating parts of Meeropol’s film, though, reveal not how others saw Cohn but rather how Cohn saw himself, as exemplified in archival interviews, particularly a series of taped conversations between him and journalist Peter Manso in the 1980s. In addition to the tapes, Manso kept a trove of documents on Cohn, from mountains of unpaid bills to records of money laundering and tax evasion—much of which he discovers for the first time in Meeropol’s film, as he goes through boxes upon boxes of files he’d never had time to examine before.
After making a name for himself in Manhattan as a fixer, Cohn would spend his summers in Provincetown, Mass., a prominent vacation spot for the LGBTQ community, while publicly insisting on his heterosexuality and denouncing gay rights. When he was diagnosed with AIDS in the 1980s, Cohn maintained that it was liver cancer, continuing his dalliances while receiving experimental treatments of AZT at the National Institutes of Health. Cohn was disbarred in 1986 for unethical conduct. He died later that year.
Ivy Meeropol remembers visiting the AIDS Quilt on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 1987. The first panel she saw was for Cohn. On it were the words “Bully. Coward. Victim.”
I interviewed Meeropol earlier this year about her new film, available now on HBO. Below is a transcript of our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.
It was really important for me to have someone like Dershowitz saying the things he said about Cohn. I think it deepens the story and allows for the complications. Here we have Dershowitz, who’s out there supporting Donald Trump but who’s also willing to say that he thinks the Rosenberg trial was one of the greatest miscarriages of justice ever in this country. And Cohn was a big part of why it was such an injustice.
EG: At one point, Dershowitz says, “Every era has a Roy Cohn, an opportunist, somebody who will stretch the law and ethics to make the ends justify the means.” What did you make of this comment?
IM: Very true. And it just got worse with Trump’s impeachment trial. Dershowitz’s behavior was straight out of the Roy Cohn playbook. That said, I knew going into this that if I wanted to tell an in-depth story of Cohn, I was going to have to deal with a lot of Cohn-like characters, like his friend and gossip columnist Cindy Adams.
EG: Speaking of Cohn-like characters, let’s talk about Trump. It was his election that inspired you to make this film in the first place, right?
IM: I had thought for a long time that Cohn would make a great subject for a documentary. He is just so fascinating; you can look at American history from the late 1940s until he died, and he was part of so many major periods. And at the center of them: the Rosenberg trial, McCarthyism, the AIDS crisis.
The morning after Trump was elected, I was devastated. Knowing what little I did at the time about Cohn as his mentor, I knew enough to think to myself, “Oh my God, it’s like Roy Cohn is moving into the White House.” Trump learned a lot from Cohn. Trump was connected to the mob through Cohn. But I couldn’t have envisioned how bad the Trump administration has been in every possible way. Trump has blood on his hands.
EG: What insight into Cohn’s worldview did you get from Peter Manso’s interviews with him?
IM: I think he really thought of himself as a man on an important mission and that anybody who didn’t believe that the Soviet Union was a threat was living in a dream world. This was a revelation for me, because I had grown up thinking that someone like Cohn just used anticommunist hysteria to his benefit. I don’t think those are mutually exclusive, but Cohn was a true believer when it came to the dangers of the Soviet Union. He would be spinning in his grave to think that the Trump administration is so friendly with the Russian government.
Cohn was also a huge name-dropper, and he loved being in the press, being a celebrity himself. I think he cultivated a lot of friendships because it was like a favor bank. He collected people from so many parts of society—especially people in the mob, who made him feel protected so he could act with some impunity. He was so brazen; he skirted the law so many times.
EG: It struck me that when Cohn talked about one of his clients, the mobster Tony Salerno, he called him “a warm, decent human being.” Do you think he really believed that?
IM: He probably did. I don’t want to psychoanalyze him too much, but I think Cohn lived such a dual life himself that he liked people who similarly had their own double life—like Salerno, a “lovable mobster” who takes such good care of his family and the people in his neighborhood or the guys he grew up with, but will kill you in a heartbeat.
EG: Cohn started out as a Democrat, then he kind of turned Republican. But he wasn’t really partisan—he just wanted power.
IM: For Cohn, even when he was older and looking back, he would say, “I’m still a Democrat.” I think it was a way of him being above the fray somehow. He was conservative, and I think it had a lot to do with the Cold War, and as he says in the film, he was also against all kinds of civil rights: for gay people, women, and African Americans.
I try to imagine him in Provincetown. He loved hanging out with people like Norman Mailer, who was a self-professed progressive. Cohn could probably say “I’m still a Democrat” as a way to insert himself into that world, so he could have it both ways. He could be hanging out with super right-wingers like Cardinal Spellman and then be taken seriously by someone like Mailer. Being so fluid, being a changeling, served him in the way that he moved through so many different worlds. For him, I think that was part of being a gay Jew who didn’t like being a member of either of those groups.
EG: What is the role of anti-Semitism in everything—your grandparents’ fate, Roy Cohn’s life, and the era at large?
IM: Anti-Semitism played a big role in my grandparents’ trial. It’s partly why Cohn was even there as an assistant prosecutor. The judge was Jewish, the prosecution team was Jewish, and that was very calculated. There was a big divide in the country at that time between the “good Jews” and the “bad Jews.” The so-called good Jews were the ones who were not socialists, communists, or union people; they were people like Roy Cohn, who felt that he could divert that rampant anti-Semitism away from himself if he stood with all the people who were condemning these communist Jews. And I’m not just talking about the Rosenbergs but many others, too. I feel like he treated being Jewish in a similar way that he treated being gay. He used it when he needed to, but he also downplayed and hid it. I know when he talked to people like Alan Dershowitz, he was proud to be Jewish. But when he was hanging out with these mobster clients or Donald Trump, I don’t know whether he resented being their Jewish lawyer, you know?
I think about him as a young man in Washington, D.C., fresh off the Rosenberg trial, where he was so celebrated. And then he got the job working for Senator McCarthy. I picture him as a little bit clueless. When he was traipsing around Europe with G. David Schine, he looked giddy and happy, fooling around and having a good time. Washington at the time was so homophobic and so anti-Semitic, he had to be careful. But he was reckless. He got in trouble and brought down McCarthy with him. I think that changed him. He realized that he’d better be more careful, protect himself, build this bulwark of connections to make him almost invincible.
When Cohn first left Washington after the Army-McCarthy hearings with his tail between his legs, it was absolutely devastating for him, because he saw himself in Washington. He was on his way to having a great political career. He didn’t want to be Senator McCarthy but to continue to whisper in McCarthy’s ear—or whoever else he could work for, moving on up. You see that when he comes back around later, behind the scenes with the Reagan administration.
EG: How do you think Cohn was affected by the homophobic and anti-Semitic environment of Washington, D.C.?
IM: Do you know the story of Lester Hunt? He was a senator from Wyoming. Around the time that Cohn was in Washington, Hunt was a very popular Democrat. The Republicans, including McCarthy, were always trying to figure out how to get him out of the way, because he was powerful, beloved, and very progressive. At one point, Hunt’s son was arrested for propositioning a male undercover police officer for sex, and this was discovered by McCarthy and some other senators. They confronted Hunt, saying they’d go public with this story if Hunt didn’t pull out of his race for reelection. Hunt tried to stay strong and fight back, but they threatened again, and rather than face that kind of humiliation and the humiliation of his son, Hunt committed suicide.
This was the environment that Cohn was living and working in, probably desperately wishing he wasn’t gay. But at the same time, he was brought up to be extremely confident and arrogant, an entitled young man. So there’s that juxtaposition. That’s the core of Cohn’s story, or at least the one that I was trying to bring out. And that’s why I stand by the title Bully. Coward. Victim. We’re not forgiving Cohn by recognizing that he was a victim. If he had been allowed to be who he was, maybe he wouldn’t have ended up as this horrible person.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article stated that since the 1970s the Meeropol brothers have sought acknowledgement from the US government that their parents were innocent of espionage. In 2008, it was reported that Julius had stolen “nonatomic military and industrial secrets” for the Soviet government and the brothers no longer are pursuing the US government’s acknowledgement that their father was innocent of espionage.