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Twisted Self: Roy Cohn was no Angel in America

Mon 13 Dec 2004 In: Features

Roy Cohn (1927-1986) was one of the chief protagonists in TVNZ's HBO dramatisation of Angels in America. His HIV-related death was depicted in last night's episode. What do we know about his life? Cohn was the grandson of a failed banker, who went under during the early days of the Great Depression. In New York City, Al Cohn, his father, found his own political progress stymied, and spent considerable time away from home. Roy Cohn developed a closer parental relationship with Dorothy, his mother. He lived with her until she died in 1967. Despite his later legal and political career, Cohn ironically avoided the draft at the end of the Second World War, although he did attend West Point Military Academy and Columbia University. In the late forties, he became an assistant US Attorney and came to public notice after pursuit and prosecution of counterfeiters. In the early fifties, he was instrumental in the prosecution, conviction and execution of the Rosenbergs, who had passed on nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. Although Jewish, and a closeted gay man, he routinely attacked liberal and leftist Jews, as well as other gay men, and gay rights, during his thirty-year political career. In 1952, he became a protege of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and persisted in prosecution of noted gay cultural figures like Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, amongst others. Two years later, McCarthy's excesses cost him Establishment Republican support, and Cohn made an enemy of one Robert Kennedy. During the next thirty years, Cohn didn't shirk from hounding other gay men if they were caught in police entrapment campaigns or as a consequence of paranoia about national security. Amongst those whose careers were destroyed was Sam Reber, a US State Department staffer, and Cohn did nothing to stop McCarthy sacking another gay staffer after he'd been apprehended through entrapment. According to Nicholas von Hoffman, Cohn's biographer, there had been diminished prosecutions for similar offenses during the forties, due to the shortage of skilled personnel that could assist the war effort. In the fifties, Cohn collaborated in pursuit, apprehension and sacking of other gay men, regardless of their political affiliation. After McCarthy discredited himself, Cohn returned to his native New York and built a legal career for himself. Paradoxically, he established close bonds with the US Catholic hierarchy, especially the closeted gay Cardinal Francis Spellman. In criminal trials, he intimidated witnesses and perverted the course of justice to protect friends and cronies. Moreover, he protected organised crime figures from apprehension during his subsequent career. Cohn wore an abrasive macho exterior, although his legal, criminal, real estate, media and entertainment industry clients and allies weren't fooled. He ignored anti-Semitism amongst fellow conservatives, and did try to protect fellow right-wing closeted gay men, like FBI Director J.Edgar Hoover, when the latter fell from grace in the late sixties. After Dora died, Cohn became more involved with the nascent East Coast gay social scene of the seventies, especially at the New England resort community of Provincetown. He led a fast-lane lifestyle and one friend, Russell Eldridge, secured one-night stands for him. At the same time, Cohn established an open relationship with a New Zealander, Peter Fraser. Tony Kushner got most of his depiction of Cohn's final days right when he came to write Angels in America. Cohn was a closeted conservative hedonist and co-owned New York's Studio 54. He co-owned it with Steve Rubell, and served as Rubell's defence counsel when the latter was prosecuted for tax evasion. In return, Rubell held Cohn's birthday parties there. Despite his gay social and sexual connections, Cohn was no friend to organised gay rights initiatives. In 1980, he colluded with the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, against a civic anti-discrimination ordinance. As with Rubell and Hoover, Cohn could support friends and ideological soulmates in need, like Russell Eldridge when the latter became ill. He arranged shelter and medical career for his dying friend, although he denied that Eldridge was succumbing to AIDS. However, it seems that Kushner took dramatic license with the depiction of Cohn's final days as well. Fraser was with him at the end of his life, perhaps due to his ignorance of the domestic significance of his partner's life. He cared for his lover as Cohn gradually lost his battle against opportunist infections that riddled his declining body. It reflects well on Ronald and Nancy Reagan that they expressed concern and compassion as their long-time friend lost his battle for survival, although they didn't attend his funeral after the end. Yes, he was an unrepentant racist. Yes, he did jump the queue to secure access to AZT during clinical trials. Yes, he did lose recollection of his identity and past as dementia took hold. Cohn wasn't a sympathetic character, but even he didn't deserve to die that way. At the same time, he damaged the lives of countless gay men during the McCarthy era and drove some to suicide. Like Ernest Rohm and Pim Fortuyn, his is one of the darker chapters in the history of our international community. Recommended Reading: Nicholas von Hoffman, Citizen Cohn: The Life and Times of Roy Cohn: Doubleday: New York: 1988. Craig Young - 13th December 2004    

Credit: Craig Young

First published: Monday, 13th December 2004 - 12:00pm

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