It wasn’t so long ago that the once-fearsome lawyer Roy Cohn and his infamous career seemed destined to be no more than a colorful footnote to history. Cohn was a gaudy character, for sure — a hustler, a fixer, and an amoral hypocrite of incredible drive — whose life as a closeted man ended in tragic comeuppance when he died of AIDS in 1986, insisting to the last that he couldn’t possibly be dying of that gay disease. Tony Kushner wrote a vivid version of him into Angels in America, and that might have been the last word on Cohn if not for the fact that, in midlife, he had met and started giving legal and how-to-get-away-with-it life advice to a then-young Donald Trump, helping mold him into the man who became president.
This year, two ambitious Roy Cohn documentaries seek to explain this troubling figure. Matt Tyrnauer’s Where’s My Roy Cohn? came about while the director was making a documentary on Studio 54, where Cohn not only spent his off-hours hobnobbing amid its disco debauch but also served as the legendary nightclub’s preening attack lawyer. A week after the release of Tyrnauer’s Cohn doc, Ivy Meeropol’s Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn has its world premiere at the New York Film Festival (it will air on HBO starting June 20th). Meeropol’s grandparents were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, whom a patriotically zealous young Cohn, right out of law school, helped send to the electric chair for spying for the Russians. (In 2004, she made a documentary about her family, Heir to an Execution.) But curiously, hers is somewhat more generous than Tyrnauer’s film in depicting Cohn’s transactional humanity, including the brazen orchestration of his gayness, especially later in his life in Provincetown, where he was the closest to being out that he had ever been able to be (the movie features a series of never-before-seen personal photos of Cohn, one of which is above).
Even Meeropol’s title is a bit poetically humanizing: It is what was written on Cohn’s panel of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, unfurled in 1987 to eulogize those who’d succumbed to the disease. But the director admits that for much of her life, she really didn’t know anything about Cohn besides his helping to do great harm to her family. When I met up with her at Snack Taverna in the West Village, near where she was finishing the final edits on the film, she made it clear that her family’s story wasn’t the lens through which she wanted to show Cohn. [Editor’s note: This story was first published in 2019. We’re republishing it today timed to the documentary’s HBO premiere date.]
Why did you decide to make this film?
This story has been percolating with me since 1988, when my father and I stumbled on Roy Cohn’s panel on the AIDS quilt. Neither of us knew that he was gay or that he had died of AIDS. I only knew him as a name, as an evil specter from the [Rosenbergs’] trial. He was a fascinating figure, and for many years there’d been no real documentary treatment of him. But I actually thought, Somebody else can do that. I don’t have to be the Rosenbergs’ granddaughter all the time in my work.
Do you know who made that panel?
We don’t. We tried to find them. It’s an anonymous person, but we have a letter that they wrote about why they wanted people to know who Cohn was. I’m hoping maybe when the film comes out that this person will come forward. We’ve borrowed the title because, at the moment, we both had this reaction like, Good, the bastard. But then, simultaneously, Oh, the poor bastard.
That is the feeling of the film.
I’m glad you felt that way. That is what I was grappling with. Because it’s not so simple. He’s not just evil. Well, he is evil, but that’s not what’s interesting to me. There was something about the fact that this is a story that’s resonating again now that made it important to tell. Angels in America was coming back to New York; Trump had been elected. I knew by then that Cohn had been his mentor, his lawyer, his good friend. I don’t believe he created Trump. I think that’s overstated. But you can pinpoint where Trump started to get the idea that he could be president, and Cohn had a lot to do with it.
He touches on so many aspects of our history. He started with the Rosenberg case, so that’s my entry point. Then he went on to be [Senator Joseph] McCarthy’s right-hand man, and then, and then, and then … But then he goes to Provincetown, where he lives more openly and happily. I find that poignant, that he could go there and be that way. That was a part of his life I wanted to bring out. I love Provincetown; I know a lot of people there. Nicholas von Hoffman wrote a biography of Cohn many years ago, called Citizen Cohn, which became an HBO film with James Woods playing him. That book opens with Cohn in Provincetown.
I thought, Oh wow.
To access people who knew Cohn, you had to navigate a kind of Establishment that would automatically be dismissive of you. How did you handle that?
Many of these people would not normally want to talk to me because they would assume that I’m coming at this with an agenda, that I’m just going to slam Cohn and it’s going to be a one-note thing. But I told them, “I’m not interested in that. I want to hear your stories of Cohn.”
There’s an incredible treasure trove of his personal materials in the film.
It’s his personal photo collection. They show how happy he was there. It’s him with all these young men, smiling and shirtless and in Provincetown, and beautiful Polaroids on the boat and family photos of him as a baby. There’s this black-and-white one that I love. There’s three men next to him, all looking in the same direction. It’s like he’s in his element. As Nathan Lane says in the film, Roy grew up in a time when he couldn’t be open — and if he had been, he’d have been incredibly brave, and he clearly wasn’t. I think it turned him into a malevolent force. The hypocrisy is one of the worst things — that he would support Reagan while he’s dying of AIDS and Reagan’s not doing anything except helping him get access to early trials of AZT.
One of my favorite parts of the film is when this former male prostitute turned gym owner decides to wage war on Cohn by creating a magazine called Now East, all about how he’s gay.
Isn’t that incredible? That story! [Journalist] Peter Manso had a box of materials that I started going through. I actually have footage of Peter going through the magazine going, “Oh my God!” Laughing his head off. It’s hilarious. And so inventive. One thing they did was create a fake New York Times insert — like another section that looked exactly like the New York Times. It was all about how Cohn’s gay and Cohn’s this and Cohn’s that. They inserted it into the Sunday papers all over the city. Like, in the middle of the night, when the papers were dropped off at newsstands, someone went around and stuffed these in so that people woke up to their Sunday paper and there was a fake insert that outed Cohn. We didn’t even put in half of what these guys were doing to harass him.
John Waters steals the show, as usual.
He’s just such a pleasure to interview. I was kind of playing with him, too. He was talking about everyone doing cocaine and Roy doing cocaine, and then I said, quietly, “Did you ever do cocaine with him?” And that’s when he goes, “I wouldn’t have my nostril on the same straw as that pig.”
And then Alan Dershowitz. It’s almost too perfect that he and Cohn worked together and were so close.
I had read an article where Dershowitz talks about Cohn having told him about my grandparents’ trial and that Cohn had said he’d framed guilty people. So of course I wanted to know Dershowitz’s take on that. And it turned out to be an incredible interview. I can find hundreds of left-wingers who will tell us that, but to have a right-winger like him telling me, telling us, telling the audience, telling the world, that Cohn fixed the case … And Dershowitz himself thinks it’s one of the greatest miscarriages of justice ever.
Why do you think Cohn told him that?
He wanted Dershowitz to like him, to understand and respect him. And he wanted New York Jews in particular to understand why he did this. “We knew they were guilty; that’s why we had to execute them.” He was concerned about his reputation in the Jewish community. It was important to distinguish yourself from the so-called bad Jews. The good Jews versus the bad Jews. Which is why my grandparents’ trial was stacked with a Jewish judge and a Jewish prosecution team, including Cohn.
It’s one of the interesting things about living in this era of Trump: These formulations of identity and place within American culture are being taken apart again. And you’re sort of like, “Oh right, this is where that comes from.”
For many people, we thought this was the past. We really thought we were in the clear. And now we’ve been with Trump long enough to know that’s not true.
That’s another quality Cohn shares with the people who now surround Trump. He’s aware of what’s happening to other people and says, “It’s not going to happen to me. I’m going to make sure the system works for me.” He tried to game the system. I guess the fact that his own uncle, who ran a bank which collapsed during the Great Depression, and was sent to prison, was a warning for what could go wrong.
I have that exchange with Roy’s cousin David Marcus, where I say, “This is crazy. I’m sitting here talking to you, and Roy Cohn sent my grandparents to Sing Sing,” and Dave Marcus’s grandfather, Roy’s uncle, was in Sing Sing. Uncle Bernie. I find that story pretty amazing because he was the only Jewish banker who ended up there. Of all the savings-and-loan disasters, he was the only one who got sent away. It was a Jewish community bank.
Marcus actually says, “Well, every family has its Roy Cohn.”
Yeah, and his mom says, “I hope not. The world would be a terrible place if that happened.”
Where’s My Roy Cohn? opens September 20; Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn is on HBO.
*This article appears in the September 16, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!