Wednesday, June 22, 2016

 237. Roy Cohn, Attack-Dog Lawyer and AIDS Denier, plus Outing

(This post is a reprint of #137, published on July 27, 2014, long before most people could imagine Donald Trump as a Presidential candidate.  It is republished here because of the interest, sparked by an article in the New York Times, in Cohn as a friend and mentor of Trump.  By his own account, Peter Fraser was Cohn's lover for more than the last two years of Cohn's life. The Times article reports that Fraser returned to New Zealand, where he now works as a conservationist at the Auckland Zoo.)

      I first heard of him when, studying in France in 1953, it was reported that two twenty somethings, members of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s staff, had been sent to Europe to investigate waste and mismanagement in U.S. Army bases, embassies, and offices of the U.S. Information Service, and see if there was any – heaven forfend! -- Communist or left-leaning literature available there.  This was, after all, the early days of the Cold War, and the rabidly anti-Communist senator from Wisconsin stretched his sinister shadow as far as Western Europe.  The two peripatetic staff members were Roy Cohn and David Schine, though at the time their names barely impinged on my psyche.  Their 18-day whirlwind tour, highly publicized, earned them the label “junketeering gumshoes” from a disgruntled U.S. employee in Germany whom they accused of having once signed a Communist Party petition, a charge that later cost him his job.

     But this was mere prelude.  I returned that year to the U.S. and began graduate studies in French at Columbia, which brought me to New York.  By the summer of 1954 I was busy writing my master’s thesis, but not so preoccupied that I didn’t find time every evening to join a thong of students in the campus TV room watching the Army-McCarthy hearings.  The hearings had been provoked by Roy Cohn’s excessive demands on the Army to give special privileges to his friend David Schine, who had been drafted into the Army but, in Cohn’s opinion, merited nightly passes while in basic training, exemption from onerous kitchen duties, and respect such as few draftees ever received.  So oppressive had Cohn’s interference become, climaxed by a threat to “wreck the Army,” that Army Secretary Robert T. Stevens brought formal charges against McCarthy and Cohn.  Extensive Senate hearings followed, and it was the daily evening summary of those hearings that I and twenty million others watched obsessively.

     The hearings revealed to us and the public at large the heavyset McCarthy’s obnoxious manner, and Roy Cohn’s heavy-lidded eyes, deep tan, and knowing grin, and above all his aggressiveness; they were not people you would care to meet.  Climaxing the hearings was Army counsel Joseph Welch’s passionate response, when McCarthy questioned the loyalty of one of Welch’s aides: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?  Have you left no sense of decency?” -- a query that provoked applause from the gallery.  Indeed, it was a turning point in McCarthy’s career; from then on his support steadily eroded.  In December 1954 he was formally censured by the Senate on a number of grounds.

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McCarthy (left) and Cohn at the hearings.

     Among the students watching the hearings, and not just the gay contingent, it was commonly assumed that Cohn and Schine were lovers; how else could you explain Cohn’s fanatical insistence on special favors for his friend?  And how else explain certain innuendoes that spectators elsewhere may not have caught, as for instance when McCarthy asked Welch for a definition of “pixie,” a word that Welch had used casually in a question, and Welch replied that a pixie was a close relative of a fairy.  Or when Senator Flanders, Republican of Vermont, sauntered into the hearings one day to suggest that the relationships of those involved should be further explored. 

     The going Washington rumor of the time about McCarthy, as I knew indirectly from an uncle who was a PR man there, was that the senator had a babe stashed away in a hotel.  And since McCarthy had an abundance of enemies, savvy Washingtonians wondered why no one had leaked this to the press.  The explanation: everybody else probably had a babe stashed away also, and didn’t want to open that particular can of worms.  But there were other rumors, too, as I told the cousin who had passed this on to me: McCarthy, still a bachelor in his early forties, was gay.  But in 1953 he married a researcher in his office and four years later they adopted a baby girl.  His homosexuality was never established, but what also went unreported was his alcoholism, which contributed to his death in 1957.

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Cohn in 1964.  Did he ever smile?  Certainly not
in a courtroom.
     The hearings made Roy Cohn famous, but who was he?  He was born in 1927 in New York City to a nonobservant Jewish family, his father a judge with considerable political clout in the Democratic Party.  Raised in a Park Avenue apartment, he proved to be a bright student, attending local schools and then Columbia Law School, and was admitted to the bar as soon as he reached the age of 21. Appointed to the staff of the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, he impressed others as precocious, brilliant, and arrogant, qualities that would characterize his whole career.  He was soon making a name for himself prosecuting subversives, including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1951, and was transferred to Washington to serve as special assistant to the Attorney General.  In 1953 he went to work for Senator McCarthy, and got his friend David Schine, the son of a multimillionaire real estate mogul, a job as consultant; their 18-day junket to Europe soon followed.

     Cohn’s work with McCarthy ended in 1954, but his career had barely begun.  Returning to New York, he joined the New York law firm Saxe, Bacon & Bolan, brought it numerous high-paying clients, and moved into the East Side townhouse that housed the firm’s offices, which made for a minimal commute.  His professional and private life were so intermixed that his colleagues were not surprised to see his doting mother wandering about the office, as she often did.  An only child, he was close to her and, following his father’s death in 1959, moved into her seven-room Park Avenue apartment.  After she died in 1969 he moved into a 33-room townhouse at 39 East 68th Street (presumably the same one already housing his law firm’s offices), though he also had a house in Greenwich, Connecticut, and in the summer went to Provincetown.

     Combative by nature, he became known for his aggressive courtroom technique, intimidating prosecutors, flustering witnesses, and impressing jurors with his photographic memory, so that he rarely referred to notes.  “My scare value is high,” he once boasted.  “My area is controversy.  My tough front is my biggest asset.  I don’t write polite letters.  I don’t like to plea-bargain.  I like to fight.”  No, not a fellow you’d care to know, but maybe just the attorney you need, if you’re involved in serious litigation and have a lot to lose.  Esquire magazine called him “a legal executioner”; the National Law Journal, an “assault specialist.”  His clients over the years included a juicy mix: real estate mogul Donald Trump; Mafia bosses Tony Salerno, Carmine Galante, and John Gotti; the owners of the popular New York nightclub Studio 54; the New York Yankees; Cardinal Spellman; and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York.

     Short and light of weight, he was almost fragile in appearance (an impression well masked by his aggressive demeanor), with thinning hair and blue eyes often bloodshot from his late hours at fashionable discotheques. Socially active, he gave lavish parties where the guests included many celebrities.  All his life he had a penchant for the rich and powerful, and given his legal ability and political connections, they had a penchant for him.  Among his friends were President Ronald Reagan, Norman Mailer, Bianca Jagger, Barbara Walters, Rupert Murdock, William F. Buckley, Jr., William Safire, and numerous Democratic and Republican politicians at every level, from the obscure nether depths to the shining heights.  Who, indeed, didn’t he know?

     Not that he was free of troubles.  To keep his income tax to a minimum, he had his law firm pay him a modest salary of a mere $100,000 a year, while giving him all kinds of perks that wouldn’t be taxed: a rent-free apartment, partial payment of the rent on his Greenwich, Connecticut, home; a chauffeured Rolls Royce and other limousines; and his bills at chic restaurants – perks said to total a million dollars a year.  From 1973 on he paid no income tax at all.  But the IRS, no doubt mindful of his sumptuous life style, audited his tax returns for over twenty years and collected more than $300,000 in back taxes, a mere fraction of what he finally owed them. Their pursuit of him would continue even after his death.

     Cohn’s courtroom tactics were condemned by many in his profession, and three times – in 1964, 1969, and 1971 -- he was tried in federal courts on charges ranging from conspiracy to bribery to fraud, but was acquitted each time.  In 1976 a federal court determined that he had entered the hospital room of a dying client and, by misrepresenting the nature of the document, got him to sign a codicil to his will that would have made Cohn one of the man’s executors.  Cohn’s reaction to these incidents?  A smear: the authorities were out to “get” him.  And get him they finally did: on June 23, 1986, when he didn’t have long to live, he was disbarred by the unanimous decision of a five-judge panel of the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court for unethical and unprofessional conduct, including misappropriation of clients’ funds, lying on a bar application, and the 1976 matter of pressuring a client to amend his will.

     Cohn always claimed that his friendship with Schine involved nothing sexual, and some biographers have come to that conclusion.  But by the 1980s he was obviously in poor health.  A friend once asked him, “Roy, you don’t have AIDS, do you?”  To which Cohn replied, “Oh God, no!  If I had AIDS, I would have thrown myself out the window of the hospital.  I have liver cancer.  There would be no reason to stick around and live if I had AIDS.”  And that was his story to the end: liver cancer, not AIDS.

     But Roy Cohn was gay and he did have AIDS.  In 1984 a routine visit to his doctor had discovered malignant growths on his body.  His young lover Peter Fraser later said that Cohn cried only a tear or two and then dealt with the situation practically and began writing his memoir longhand on yellow legal pads.  Peter and a law partner of Cohn’s were the only ones who knew for sure that Cohn had AIDS, and for as long as he could, Cohn tried to live normally, which for him involved lunching, partying, water skiing, traveling, and of course doing deals in politics and business.  On December 31, 1985, he gave his traditional New Year’s Eve party in the second-floor foyer of his townhouse; among the hundred guests were Carmine DeSapio and Andy Warhol (a fascinating juxtaposition; see posts #135 and #108).  Cohn received them in a white dinner jacket and red bow tie with sequins, said he looked forward to seeing them all again next year.

     Being Cohn’s lover, however clandestinely, was fraught with adventure.  Raised on a farm in New Zealand, Peter Fraser had left there at age nineteen with only a pack on his back to see the world.  Blond and attractive with a sinewy body, he met Cohn at a party in Mexico and was immediately swept up into Cohn’s opulent life style: lavish parties with celebrity guests, visits to the rich and powerful, trips hither and yon to the most fashionable places; he never rode the New York subway until Cohn died.  Once Peter went to the White House as Cohn’s “office manager,” the same label used for his predecessors.  “Why don’t you come meet a friend of mine?” Cohn suggested.  As Cohn led him across the crowded room, Peter scuffed his shoe and the sole came off,  so he dragged his foot on the floor so he “wouldn’t go flop-flop.”  Then Cohn said, “I want you to meet the President and Mrs. Reagan.”  Peter reported that Reagan was very warm, probably thinking that this poor boy dragging his foot was handicapped. 

     On another occasion a New York socialite hosting a luncheon introduced Peter, to his astonishment, as Sir Peter Fraser.  The next day a society columnist mentioned, among the luncheon guests, Peter Fraser, the Prime Minister of New Zealand.  But when Americans, remembering the Army-McCarthy hearings, asked him how he could be associated with a man who did those awful things back in the 1950s, Peter, who was in his twenties, could reply honestly, “I don't know about any of that.”

     While almost nothing is known of Cardinal Spellman’s final days and death (post #136), Roy Cohn’s ending is well documented.  When diagnosed with AIDS, Cohn thought he had six months to live, but it turned out to be two years.  He was taking shots of Interferon, which sapped his energy and disoriented him; becoming aware of this, he panicked and then became depressed, since he had always prided himself on his intellect.  Troubled breathing and short-term memory loss followed, and he tried the experimental drug AZT, which many thought did more harm than good.  Rumors circulated about Roy Cohn’s having AIDS, about his dying.  

     The dementia intensified.  “The six senators who were here this afternoon,” he told Peter, “I’m going to talk to them, and you are all going to be sorry.”  Or he would accuse Peter of trying to kill him, and only after much persuasion became convinced that Peter was his friend.  When he got back from a stay in a hospital, telegrams came wishing him well, one of them from President Reagan.  Looking gaunt and wasted, he was interviewed by Mike Wallace on TV, denied being homosexual or having AIDS.  He flirted with the idea of suicide, tried one night to get his bottles of sleeping pills open, couldn’t cope with the childproof bottles, finally at Peter's insistence went back to bed. 

     When he invited other boyfriends to come for a last visit, Peter raged with jealousy. 

     “What’s he coming in for?” he would ask.

     “I’m dying, goddamit!” Cohn would shout.  “It may be the last time I see him.”

     “You said that the last four times!”

     When the New York State Bar Association began disbarment proceedings against him, he would go to the proceedings in his red convertible Cadillac, top down, and swagger into the closed hearing room.  But in June 1986, when a reporter phoned with the news that he had at last been disbarred, he announced, “I couldn’t care less,” then went to his room and cried, and wouldn’t eat unless Peter forced him.  His once fiercely resonant voice, the terror of witnesses, became a whisper, then fell silent.  He died in a hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, on August 2, 1986, at age 59; Peter was there, holding his hand.  The hospital announcement made it clear that he died not of cancer but AIDS.  In his coffin he wore a tie bearing President Reagan’s name, though the Reagans did not come to the memorial service held in October.  He was buried in Queens.  Though he left his property to Peter and a longtime law partner, the IRS froze his assets; he still owed them millions.

     Roy Cohn had many friends, many enemies.  The gay community condemned him for not telling the world he had AIDS and using his contacts to raise money to fight the disease.  In Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America (1991) he is portrayed as a closeted, power-hungry hypocrite who to preserve his reputation denies that he has AIDS, and as he is dying of it is haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, whose execution for espionage he had helped bring about.  Personally, having never faced him in a courtroom, I could overlook a lot, but I can’t forgive him using his lawyerly wiles for years to avoid paying income tax; this I find reprehensible. 

     Asked by a friend if he ever resented Cohn, Peter Fraser declared with tears in his eyes, “He was wonderful to me.”  I confess I am rather taken with Peter.  It was the most unlikely of circumstances, that a kid off a farm in New Zealand should become the lover of one of the most controversial – and many would say obnoxious – figures in twentieth-century American politics, and that he would be whirled off to Provincetown or Palm Beach or Monte Carlo, meet the President of the United States, and when the bad days came, stick through to the end. 

     But what then became of him?  A cousin of Cohn’s tells how Peter gave him a last look at the townhouse, now in need of repair.  On the fourth floor Cohn’s office was locked tight.  “The firm wants to keep me out,” Peter explained.  “They think I’m going to steal things.”  The firm was letting a friend stay in Cohn’s third-floor bedroom.  “I don’t even know who he is,” said Peter with disgust.  The Rolls Royce that Cohn had been chauffeured in was for sale; Peter was about to move all his belongings out.  After that I lose track of him.  Presumably he dropped back into the obscurity that Cohn had plucked him out of years before.  I wish him well.


The story of Roy Cohn, like that of Cardinal Spellman (post #136), raises the question of outing. Outing, a term first used in the 1980s, is the act of revealing the sexual orientation of a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered person without their consent.  After the Stonewall riots of 1969, champions of gay liberation began shouting, “Out of the closets, into the streets!” Encouraged by a growing social tolerance, more and more homosexuals began voluntarily revealing their sexual inclination, but many others held back. 

     In February 1989 several gay activists, angered by Senator Mark Hatfield’s support of antigay legislation proposed by Senator Jesse Helms, declared that Hatfield was gay; in spite of this, Hatfield won reelection in 1990.  Then in March 1990 gay journalist Michelangelo Signorile outed the recently deceased Malcolm Forbes, publisher of Forbes magzine; his column “Gossip Watch” in the gay publication OutWeek became famous – or infamous – for outing the rich and famous, and Signorile was either hailed as heroic or decried as revolting and infantile.  Obviously, right from the start outing had both supporters and detractors.

    In 2004 gay activist Michael Rogers launched a blog to out closeted gay politicians who actively opposed gay rights.  He began by outing Edward Schrock, a Republican congressman from Virginia, claiming that Schrock used a phone sex service to meet other men for sex.  Schrock didn’t deny the charge and did not seek reelection.  Rogers’s motivation: to punish Schrock for his hypocrisy in opposing gay marriage by voting for the Marriage Protection Act and signing as a cosponsor of the Federal Marriage Amendment. 

     In 2006 Rogers reported sexual liaisons between Idaho Senator Larry Craig and unnamed individuals in Union Station, Washington, D.C.  Craig denied the report, but nine months later Craig was arrested in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport for allegedly soliciting an undercover police agent for sex in a men’s restroom. Craig’s explanation that he simply had a “wide stance” was played for all it was worth by late-night TV comedians, and later he pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct and paid a fine.  His attorneys then filed a motion to withdraw the guilty plea, but the motion was denied.  After that he served out his term but did not run for reelection.

      Rogers has outed others as well, but the pattern is obvious and doesn’t bear repetition.  The practice has been both praised and blamed in homosexual as well as heterosexual circles.  Is outing ever justified, and if so, when?  My personal take:  The right to privacy should protect us all, except in very special circumstances.  But if a public figure, especially a politician, is conspicuously active in antigay causes, as for instance supporting antigay legislation, then I think, with care, that outing is justified.  But otherwise, outing a living person is reprehensible.  Why some people choose to remain closeted in this more tolerant age may seem baffling to others, but personally I consider it their privilege.  

  The book:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received two awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction, and first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards.  (For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.)  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  It does not contain the post about Roy Cohn, but includes many other colorful New Yorkers of past and present.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

     Coming soon: Construction (and destruction) in the city.  Dumpsters and debris, towering cranes, two horrible deaths, and what happened to the seven phone booths from the Roseland Ballroom?

     ©   2016   Clifford Browder

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