February 20, 1927, is the birthdate of Roy Cohn, the attorney who became a celebrity in his mid-20s assisting Senator Joseph McCarthy in his quest to root out Communists from American public life.
Later, in his private legal practice in his native New York, he was famed and widely scorned for his aggressive, sometimes unethical tactics, his hedonistic lifestyle, and eventually from his death from AIDs at age 59, though he denied the source of his illness until the bitter end.
Roy Marcus Cohn was born in New York, the only child of Albert C. Cohn, a judge in the appellate division of the New York State Supreme Court, and the former Dora Marcus. He was educated in private prep schools, and by age 20, had completed both college and law school at Columbia University. He had to wait until his 21st birthday before being admitted to the bar.
Cohn’s first job was as assistant to U.S. Attorney Irving Saypol, in which he distinguished himself in preparing the prosecution against alleged Communists, including, most prominently, the successful prosecution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Jewish couple accused and eventually executed, in 1953, on grounds of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. It was Cohn who famously examined David Greengrass, Ethel’s brother, who implicated her in the espionage ring – a charge he admitted only in 2001 was a lie to protect his own family.
Cohn’s work with Saypol brought him to the attention of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, of Wisconsin, who hired him in 1953 as his chief counsel on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. (Robert F. Kennedy had also been vying for the position, and his loss to Cohn contributed to a lifetime bitter hatred between the men.)
Thanks to the claim by Cohn and McCarthy that homosexuals working for the government were susceptible to blackmail by the Soviet Union, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed an executive order banning the employ of gays in federal positions.
Cohn was forced to resign from the McCarthy committee in 1954, after the U.S. Army secretary accused Cohn of threatening to “wreck the army” if it didn’t give his close friend and former colleague G. David Schine cushy, non-combat duty after he was drafted, in November 1953. The senator’s influence began to wane thereafter.
His detractors thought Cohn would disappear from public view after leaving Washington, but he went on to become a highly successful Manhattan attorney, whose friends and clients included many prominent cultural, political and business figures. He was highly skilled in the courtroom and fought aggressively for his clients. And though he accumulated great wealth, he took a relatively small salary for himself, while taking expenses of up to $1 million annually. For 20 years running, he was audited by the Internal Revenue Service, and when he died, he had, according to one friend, fulfilled his dream, of being “completely broke and owing millions to the IRS.”
Cohn became ill what with was eventually diagnosed as AIDS in 1984, and underwent experimental treatment at the National Institutes of Health; he claimed publicly to be suffering from liver cancer. A little over a month before his death, a panel of the State Supreme Court, considering a slew of charges against him, decided to disbar Cohn. He claimed however that his losing his license could be attributed to the fact that “the establishment bar hates my guts.”
Roy Cohn died on August 2, 1986, at the age of 59. Although he had gone to great lengths to keep his gay lifestyle and his AIDs a secret from the public, his depiction in Tony Kushner’s 1993 play “Angels in America” (presented in a TV miniseries in 2003) made these facts common knowledge.