Roy Marcus Cohn (1927-1986) was and is a truly among the most unsympathetic and despicable men in our American history. As Joseph McCarthy’s chief aide, Cohn led a hate-fueled war against Communism in the 1950s, often without any rationale. As an advisor to Judge Kaufman in the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Cohn was crucial in getting the Rosenbergs a death sentence, achieved without any solid evidence.
In addition to Communist scare machinations, Cohn went on to work with McCarthy on the persecution of gay officials in the government, even though Cohn himself was gay. If that was not enough, Cohn was implicated in financial impropriety, mishandling of client funds, witness tampering and tax evasion.
One wonders how he slept at night.
The film “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” directed by Matt Tyrnauer partially answers this question.
As a homely closeted young man in the late 40s, Cohn was riddled by self-loathing. He could not find peace or satisfaction in conventional routines (by his own admission) so Cohn chose to channel his energy into law, wealth and politics, a sphere where appearances meant everything and moral fortitude counted for little. By aligning himself with gangsters and wealthy people of influence, Cohn became a master of manipulation.
With his cold frozen-fish eyes and a scar just slightly off the center of his nose, one could feel the contempt Cohn had for anyone he deemed an “enemy”’ In feeling this way, Roy Cohn had no empathy or scruples. For Cohn, the only element as an attorney and as a person was winning and winning big.
In the documentary, we hear from David Marcus, Cohn’s cousin who is somewhat mystified by his notorious relative, but says that after hours in his bedroom, one saw a “different” Roy Cohn: he liked young Nordic men, (the less sophisticated all the better, Cohn liked control) and valium. It seemed the only way he could unwind from the stress of cases and his own blighting lawsuits.
Cohn lived for the thrill of danger and the unexpected.
The film follows his progress from a teen enamored with debate, to a man driven by self-righteousness, to his one serious infatuation / romance with G. David Schine, a McCarthy aide who resembled film star Tab Hunter.
Though the documentary focuses on this professionally malicious and unsavory person, it does so with verve and potency. Like an amoral character out of Wilde or Highsmith, Tyrnauer highlights Cohn’s dark magic and his ability to float through moneyed realms with an ingratiating, yet slanted smile.
Cohn paved the way for Nixon, Reagan and the shiny demagoguery of Murdoch’s Fox News.
Cohn, the original “orange man” met a young Donald Trump who became his protégé. One sees Trump as Roy Cohn’s Frankenstein creation: super enraged, extra-vindictive and ultra-orange, specially engineered to wreak havoc upon due process, respect and empathetic values.
Although the man met a sad end in 1986 at the age of 58, Cohn could well have redeemed himself by coming out and speaking pro-actively about AIDS but he chose not to do so at the time of his passing.
Like the last image in a horror film, the most unnerving and terrible aspect of Matt Tyrnauer’s excellent film is that Roy Cohn lives on in death and his public poison still holds, making our country petty, polarizing, and for many, a stubborn shade of orange.
Write Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org