Roy Cohn is best known for being the right-hand man to Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
NEW YORK, N.Y. — On June 19, Home Box Office (HBO) will release an informative well-crafted documentary film entitled Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn, directed by Ivy Meeropol.
Another interesting movie, Where’s My Roy Cohn?, released in 2019 and directed by Matt Tyrnauer, is streaming on Amazon Prime and Hulu.
Roy Cohn (1927-1986) is best known for being the right-hand man to Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R.-Wisc.) during the Red Scare of the mid-20th century, but he also had a long career as a New York-based attorney serving an array of clients, many of them lacking in morality and steeped in corruption and dishonesty that mirrored Cohn’s own behavior.
There is some overlapping of factual information by these films, but I want to urge readers of The Rag Blog — no matter how much you already know about the despicable Cohn — to view both of these documentaries. The details are fascinating, and even if you feel disgust as you watch the weasel-like Cohn on the screen, you’ll appreciate the insights into the dark side of this fellow human, because there are others like him, most notably Donald Trump. Neither film pretends to be “objective” and we don’t hear from anyone in either film who truly liked Cohn or thinks he was a great man.
Both Meeropol and Tyrnauer are competent and experienced writers and journalists, but if you choose to see only one movie, I’d recommend Bully. Coward. Victim, for two reasons. First, because the personal aspect of its creation is significant and emotionally touching, and second, because it’s more entertaining and easier to watch.
Ivy Meeropol is the granddaughter of Julius
and Ethel Rosenberg.
The June 19 date chosen by HBO has a special meaning, because Ivy Meeropol is the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed on that date in 1953 for allegedly conspiring to give “the secret of the atom bomb” to the Soviet Union.
I met Ivy’s father, Michael Meeropol, when I was a freshman at Columbia College in New York City, and he was a junior at Elisabeth Irwin High School, and I’ve been friends of the Meeropol family for more than 60 years. I remember when Ivy was born and she was given “Ethel” as her middle name. There’s touching old footage in the film when the Meeropol children are with their parents and discussing their deceased grandparents.
The personal connection of the filmmaker to the subject matter is presented in an appropriate way, subtly adding to and yet not detracting from the viewer’s experience. The other film, Where’s My Roy Cohn?, also deals with the Rosenberg case, because that’s how Cohn, a 23-year-old federal prosecutor, got his start. For more on the Rosenberg case, you can read the Wikipedia page, but I recommend the books authored by Walter Schneir, whom Michael describes as the most serious student of the case. Also here’s a link to a piece written in 2018 by Michael.
Ivy started her professional career as speechwriter and legislative aide to Congressman Harry Johnston (D-Florida), This experience helped her with direction of a Sundance Channel series, The Hill, about daily life in a congressman’s office. She is also known for her 2004 film, Heir to an Execution, about the legacy of the Rosenberg case. Her film Indian Point focuses on safety issues at a nuclear power plant in New York State. There’s more about Ivy on her Wikipedia page.
I’ve never met Matt Tyrnauer, never heard of him, in fact, until his Cohn movie appeared. In an interesting coincidence, however, I just learned that Tyrnauer spent considerable time as editor (and friend) of the outstanding liberal thinker and writer Gore Vidal. Here’s what happened: As I was partway through the writing of this article, I chanced upon a 2015 documentary film entitled Best of Enemies. It’s about the sometimes acrimonious debates between Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. produced by ABC News during the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions.
Tyrnauer, because of his link with Vidal, is interviewed in Best of Enemies. Buckley’s conservative politics, displayed in the movie and in his role as editor of the National Review, make him a good person to include in considering the impact of Roy Cohn and Donald Trump. Tyrnauer also was the director of a documentary film I saw years ago entitled Studio 54 about the chic Manhattan club with a mixed clientele of A-list gay men and celebrities including movie stars and Roy Cohn. Perhaps while making Studio 54, Tyrnauer thought of a future Cohn movie. The Cohn film he eventually made has great content, but I must mention that the music was excessively loud, annoying and irrelevant.
It’s not a coincidence that these two movies have been brought to the public eye during the presidency of Donald Trump. Tyrnauer’s film’ title, Where’s My Roy Cohn, couldn’t be more direct. The title is a quotation from Trump, reportedly something he asked as he discussed Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal from the Mueller Investigation.
Both films clearly show that Cohn was a significant mentor to Trump.
Both films clearly show that Cohn was a significant mentor to Trump, teaching the real estate mogul techniques to increase his wealth without regard to morals and integrity. For example, we see Cohn intentionally not paying bills and not fearing lawsuits that he knows won’t succeed. Tyrnauer’s film offers more details about Trump’s corrupt behavior during construction of the iconic Trump Tower in Manhattan, including doing business with mobsters and hiring scores of probably illegal immigrants for low-cost labor.
Ivy Meeropol, during an interview with the Women in Hollywood blog, stated, “I want people to understand why Donald Trump’s relationship with Cohn is critically important, and help audiences to gain a deeper insight into how Cohn helped set Trump on a path that reverberates today. This film is my way of impressing upon audiences that the past is very much present, and we would be wise not to forget how we got here.” Here’s a link to the entire interview.
Both filmmakers interviewed people with direct and indirect knowledge of Cohn’s career and personal life, with surprisingly little overlap. All of these “talking heads” have stories to tell. Only one — a cousin of Roy Cohn — appears in both flms.
With the McCarthy Era ended, Cohn continued to focus a lot of energy on both his legal career and his social life. While few would seriously doubt his sexual interest in males, he pretends to be heterosexual whenever he has a chance. Photos of him adjacent to beautiful well-dressed women are common, though I’m certain he would likely steer clear of a butch lesbian no matter how attractive!
Ivy’s film includes interviews with two well-known artists from the world of gay culture.
Ivy’s film includes interviews with two well-known artists from the world of gay culture, filmmaker John Waters and playwright Tony Kushner. Ethel Rosenberg is a major supporting character in Kushner’s critically acclaimed play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1993), in which her ghost haunts a dying Roy Cohn. In the HBO 2003 miniseries adaptation of the play, she was portrayed by Meryl Streep while Al Pacino portrays Cohn.
This article has a New York, N.Y., dateline because I first saw Ivy’s film in its debut screening at the New York Film Festival in Manhattans’ Lincoln Center. It was a privilege to be there, accompanied by my partner, Dave, and we were also invited to a post-screening reception where we met Ivy and her family as well as people involved with the movie. Tony Kushner wasn’t there, alas, but John Waters was, and since Dave and I have enjoyed many of his zany movies, it was fun to actually have a conversation with him. We’d spotted him previously on trips to Provincetown, but not being a “celebrity hound,” I didn’t approach him, but this was the perfect occasion to do so.
Ivy’s Provincetown footage of Cohn was fascinating because when Cohn was there, he rented an expensive property and galavanted with attractive young men whom he almost certainly hired for sex and companionship on his motorboat (seen in the film) and on his bed (not seen in the film). This part of the movie was eye-opening for me, because the footage (from an unidentified source) showed Cohn looking happy and carefree as a gay man might be in Provincetown, not behind a tightly shut closet door.
When Ivy interviewed John Waters, he told her how disgusted he was every time he saw Cohn enjoying himself and his male companions in P-town, clearly feeling Cohn’s very presence was a blight upon this world-renowned liberation-oriented gay Mecca. Cohn also spent time on Fire Island, New York, another gay Mecca. Gay author Felice Picano emailed this to me: “I had dinner twice — inadvertently- — with Cohn at Fire Island. He looked and acted more of a snake then a weasel. He sat down at the host’s place and ate his food.”
When Cohn acquired AIDS, he frequently maintained he had liver cancer.
When Cohn acquired AIDS, he frequently maintained he had liver cancer, a lie he told right up to his death. A nervy reporter, interviewing him on tape, asked him outright if he was a homosexual. Cohn looked right at the camera and said something like this: “No, I am not. A man with my accomplishments could not possibly be a homosexual. I am someone with power and influence. Homosexuals are weak and inconsequential, so no, I am not a homosexual.”
He knew how to tell lies and we can assume that’s one of the skills he taught Trump early on in their professional relationship.
I asked Jonah Raskin, my longtime friend, fellow red diaper baby, and frequent Rag Blogger, to compose a few sentences about how he viewed Cohn, and here’s what he wrote:
I saw Cohn on TV many times when I was a kid watching the Army-McCarthy hearings, but I only saw him once in person. That was in the 1970s, on the steps of the U.S. federal courthouse in Foley Square in New York, when he wore a camel hair coat and had a woman on each arm, all three of them laughing as though they had just put something over on someone. As a Jew and as a homosexual, Cohn might have had some experiences with discrimination and repression and one might have expected him to empathize with others who experienced discrimination and repression, including Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, but as Paolo Freire noted in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, some people who are oppressed become even more oppressive than those who once oppressed them. That was Roy Cohn: an oppressor. To call him a “coward” and a “victim” is not only too kind, it is also historically inaccurate. The fact that he died of AIDS doesn’t make him a “victim.” He was the author of his own life and death who helped greatly to give birth to the greatest moral monster of our times: Donald Trump.
Appreciating what Jonah wrote, I also feel moved to respond to his comment about the “inaccurate” characterization of Cohn as a “victim.” People with AIDS, in the midst of the plague, objected to being called AIDS victims, and I don’t think it was about being the victim of a virus. The words “bully, coward and victim” were seen by Ivy on an AIDS Memorial quilt, probably put there by someone familiar with Cohn, but we don’t know who. I have met other self-hating Jews and self-hating homosexuals in my life, and those people are indeed victims — victims of a society that degrades and demeans both of those groups. In that sense, Cohn was indeed a victim, but as Jonah states “he was the author of his own life.”
Many reviewers had no trouble showing their own contempt for Cohn.
Many reviewers of these movies had no trouble showing their own contempt for Cohn, and rather than create my own well-crafted expression of disgust, I’ll offer a couple of examples:
Owen Gleiberman wrote in Variety:
Roy Cohn’s misdeeds are always compelling in a sinister way, yet inevitably they stoke our curiosity about who he was as a human being. These days, he gets stamped with the E-word (evil!) a bit too automatically, as if that explained everything. (“Evil” has become Roy Cohn’s ironic liberal brand.)… For any liberal who’s in a rage about the corrupt machinery of right-wing lies (and is there one who isn’t?), Roy Cohn is the dastardly gift who keeps on giving. In Bully. Coward. Victim, he’s a villain out of central casting — the beady-eyed weasel whispering in Joseph McCarthy’s ear, the attorney from hell who rose from the ashes of the Army-McCarthy hearings to become the ultimate New York power player, defending mobsters who became his pals, embedding himself in the rancid center of the city’s favor bank. According to the conservative journalist gadfly Taki Theodoracopulos, when Cohn entered the El Morocco nightclub in the late ’50s, “He would come in with those hooded lids, looking so ominous. It was like Dracula coming out of his box at midnight.” As the years went by, the lids drooped further, the flesh of his face sunk inward, and he came to look like what he was: a reptile rotting from the inside.
Charles Bramesco, writing for AV Club, commented:
Anyone with the vaguest consciousness of American political history doesn’t need 97 minutes to learn that this dead-eyed ethical vacuum was a bad person, or even the depth of his badness.
I’ll end by saying I agree that Rag Blog readers don’t need to see these movies to learn that Cohn was bad, but the two filmed narratives about this man’s life give us important details. As we hope and strive for an end to the Trump presidency, it’s helpful to understand all the lessons he learned from his number one teacher. As Cohn was eventually disbarred for misconduct, we can only hope that Trump will be defeated at the polls because of his misconduct.
[Allen Young has lived in rural North Central Massachusetts since 1973 and is an active member of several local environmental organizations. Young worked for Liberation News Service in Washington, D.C., and New York City, from 1967 to 1970. He has been an activist-writer in the New Left and gay liberation movements, including several items published in The Rag Blog. Retired since 1999, he was a reporter and assistant editor of the Athol (Mass.) Daily News, and director of community relations for the Athol Memorial Hospital. He is author or editor of 15 books, including his 2018 autobiography, Left, Gay & Green; A Writer’s Life — and a review of this book can be found in The Rag Blog archives.]
- Read more articles by and about Allen Young on The Rag Blog.