Roy Cohn (1927-1986) was someone I had known about for many years for the notoriety he achieved as the young lawyer who served as the chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy during the early 1950s at the height of the anti-Communist hysteria in the U.S. A hysteria upon which McCarthy rode to fame (infamy), destroying the lives and careers of many innocent people in the process. McCarthy went on to overreach himself through the Army/McCarthy hearings in the spring of 1954 and was discredited. Consequently, McCarthy was censured by his Senate colleagues, took increasingly to drink, and died an alcoholic in 1957. I was not disposed to like Roy Cohn.
Yet recently Cohn came increasingly to mind because of his later association as a mentor to the present occupant of the White House when he was an up-and-coming real estate mogul in New York during the 1970s and 1980s. I searched around for a biography that would give me a more comprehensive understanding of who this man was and how and why he was able to exert the influence he had. Well, "CITIZEN COHN" fit the bill. The author interviewed scores of Cohn's associates, family members & relatives, acquaintances, as well as those people he cheated in various court cases in which he agreed to represent them. This was a book whose contents I had to slowly ingest as it took me from Roy Cohn's final days as he was dying from AIDS to his early life growing up in the Bronx, his rise as a young attorney in New York and then Washington (where he sustained a temporary setback following McCarthy's fall into disgrace in 1954), and his subsequent development into crafty lawyer, power broker, schmoozer with the rich & powerful in the law and government, and socialite.
It seems that there was nothing Roy Cohn wasn’t willing to do to help a client win a lawsuit or court case. His friendship with J. Edgar Hoover he used to help destroy people’s careers. And yet to those people he helped and befriended, Cohn was highly regarded. I have the impression that Cohn enjoyed the drama of the life he led and used money as a vehicle to advance what he believed in. He was not someone who was so much interested in amassing money and wealth as in exercising power and influence to shape events and wreck vengeance on his enemies (e.g. Robert Kennedy and Robert Morgenthau, a former Federal attorney for the Southern District of New York and later District Attorney for New York County) or anyone he deemed a threat to the interests he defended. Indeed, as was pointed out in the book, "[Cohn] was not driven to corruption for money. Roy joined the bar when the law business was exploding, when lawyers were beginning to amass fortunes comparable to industrialists and financiers; the way was open for him to make his millions honestly, ethically, legally as of course, he often did.
"But his crimes yielded Roy more than profit; they were the zesty acts from which he seemed to get the maximum zing by giving a few friends, a few lovers, a peek; they were a defiance, a taunt to the men and women who stood for rules, conventions, maxims which tortured, twisted, and confused him. There were elements of anger and disorder and bewilderment in Roy's crimes."
Now that I know much more about Roy Cohn than I did before reading "CITIZEN COHN", my opinion of him is unchanged. He proved to be as awful as I had previously believed him to be, based on what I had heard about him on TV from people who had dealings with him. Yet, I have been made aware of how complex a person Cohn was, both in his professional and personal lives. He was brilliant in many ways and had a capacity for kindness and generosity to people whose relationships he valued, and who in turn became his friends. But what talents he had, he avidly used for manipulating the justice system in protecting his clients (some of whom were prominent leaders in the New York mafia) and cheating honest people who sought his counsel. I don't think Hollywood could have crafted a better story than the life of Roy Cohn.