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."