Roy Cohn had a telephone installed in his 1961 Chevrolet Impala Convertible that doubled as his second office. Later he would be chauffeured around Manhattan in a Rolls Royce that had custom license plates with his initials. Cohn touted a long list of clients from Si Newhouse of Conde Nast Magazines, to the Ford Model Agency, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, owners of Studio 54, the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, Nathan’s Famous Hotdogs, Bianca Jagger in her divorce from Mick Jagger, George Steinbrenner, owner of the NY Yankees, and Aristotle Onassis in his preliminary divorce from Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis
Roy Cohn’s life was filled with contradictions. He was a vicious gay-baiting homophobe who was a deeply closeted homosexual; he was a Jewish anti-Semite; and in politics, he was a life-long registered Democrat who aligned himself almost exclusively with the elites of the Republican party.
Now, 32 years after his death at 59 of complications from AIDS, the colorful life of the notorious attorney – who became known as Donald Trump‘s original fixer – is being examined in forthcoming documentary ‘Where’s My Roy Cohn?’
As a young attorney, Cohn worked as Senator Joseph McCarthy’s grand inquisitor in the purging of America during the ‘red scare’ of the 1950s. He won many of his high-profile cases with tactics he had honed during his years as McCarthy’s right-hand-man – a slash and burn approach in which his strategy was to deny, lie, and counter-punch with slanderous, ruinous attacks, destroying reputations rather than winning on the merits of the law. It made Cohn a rich man and something else he coveted – a celebrity, earning him the loyalty of powerful friends and wealthy clients.
Matt Tyrnauer, an award-winning filmmaker, has created a 97-minute portrait of this reviled attorney in his forthcoming documentary. Despite the three decades since his death, Cohn’s reputation for his aggressive and reputation-destroying tactics has become commonplace in politics.
It wasn’t long ago that Donald Trump, in the crucible of his own legal difficulties, is reported to have pleaded to his White House staff: ‘Where’s My Roy Cohn?’
Tyrnauer tells the DailyMail.com ‘The film very much connects the dots not only between Cohn and Trump with Roger Stone as an affirming witness to this, but it goes farther back to the period at the dawn of the Cold War when Cohn inserted himself into the national conversation as the prosecutor in the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg spy case. And then, through his connections to J Edgar Hoover and the FBI when he got a high profile role in the McCarthy committee as a handmaiden to Senator Joseph McCarthy. In a way, he became the ‘Svengali’ or brain of Joseph McCarthy during the communist witch hunt of the 1950s.’
Roy Cohn and Donald Trump attend the Trump Tower opening in October 1983 at The Trump Tower in New York City. Cohn became Trump’s ‘fixer’ and protege after he advised the young real estate developer when he was being sued for housing discrimination in 1973. Matt Tyrnauer’s new documentary ‘Where Is My Roy Cohn?’ explores their complex relationship, in which he said, ‘Donald Trump is Roy Cohn, he’s subsume the personality and world view entirely and that everything we see from Trump and recoil today is the Roy Cohn personality and point of view and tactical playbook’
Roger Stone met Roy Cohn in 1979 and became a fast student of the agent-provocateur. It was Cohn that first introduced Roger Stone to Donald Trump, which inevitably turned into a partnership that would prevail over 40 years until very recently in light of the Russia investigation. In the film Stone tells Tyrnauer, about ‘the rules of war’ and proceeds to say, ‘I learned this from Roy, Donald learned this from Roy.’
Roy Cohn was born to an affluent Jewish family in the Bronx in 1927, heir to the Lionel toy train corporation. He cut his teeth as Senator McCarthy’s top lieutenant during his crusade against communism and became a household name in the sensationally televised 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. While ‘commie hunting’, McCarthy and Cohn also ran a ruthless parallel campaign against homosexuals working in government. Five thousand federal employees deemed ‘sexual perverts’ were laid off in what became known as ‘the Lavender Scare.’ Later in life, Cohn became known for his flamboyant reputation as a fixture at Studio 54 with a famous circle friends. He was a master of public relations who sought the limelight and taught Donald Trump and Roger Stone how to play hard ball as a ‘hired gun’ attorney.
When it came to Cohn, ‘you were in the presence of pure evil,’ said his long time associate, Victor Kovner, to Vanity Fair’s Marie Brenner in 2017.
Cohn ended his short-lived career in government as a pariah in Washington D.C. after the Army-McCarthy hearings effectively destroyed his credibility overnight. With his tail between his legs, the 27-year-old lawyer returned to New York City in pursuit of a lucrative career in the private sector.
Cohn maneuvered within a finely-greased system of exchanges that he called his ‘favor bank.’ As the son of a prominent judge and political heavyweight, Cohn had the advantage of fine-tuning this skill from an early age. The living room in which Judge Cohn conducted his business was Roy classroom where he learned how to manage a balance sheet of political favors and debts. By the time Cohn opened his private practice in the early 1960s; his notorious reputation as a ruthless fixer in politics had already been well established.
‘It wasn’t what he knew; it was who he knew. He knew everybody. He knew every judge; he knew every justice. He knew everybody who had any influence on the judiciary, and you hired him to get access,’ said celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz in an interview with Frontline’s Jim Gilmore in 2018.
‘Don’t tell me the law. Tell me the judge’ became the hallmark of Cohn’s career that was pockmarked by endless personal controversies. His long legal rap sheet included charges of extortion, blackmail, bribery, securities fraud, conspiracy and obstruction of justice. He was audited by the IRS 19 years in a row for tax evasion and was peripherally caught up in an insurance scam that involved the death of a young man when Cohn’s yacht mysteriously sank off the coast of Florida.
In 1976, Cohn was implicated in a scheme to swindle the family of Lewis Rosenstiel out of their $75million inheritance when Cohn appointed himself as the trustee of the estate while his mentally incapacitated client was on his deathbed.
Cohn stiffed smaller guys too. At one point he had 28 different judgments filed against him from various creditors that included a Manhattan button company, Dunhill Tailors, a locksmith, a mechanic, travel agencies, a stationery company and temporary office workers.
‘Once you dig into all the details, it’s an astonishing record of malfeasance. That is if we’re wondering today how we could live in such a corrupt system that could support a corrupt authoritarian interloper in the executive branch of our government. I think when you look at the legacy, it actually makes a certain amount of sense- but for values to say we live in the United States of Amnesia,’ said Tyrnauer to DailyMail.com.
Roy Cohn sits by Donald Trump, owner of the short lived professional football team ‘The New Jersey Generals’ during Trump’s $1.32 billion antitrust lawsuit against the National Football League. This was one of many legal cases Cohn handled for Trump after he secured a $400million tax abatement from New York City for Trump’s 1973 development of The Grand Hayatt on 42nd Street. The 42 year long abatement was the longest in New York City history
Roy Cohn stands next to Newsweek editor, Ed Kosner and Donald Trump. Cohn wielded the press like ‘his personal shiv’ said writer, Frank Rich. He learned that the press could be used to wage his battles, often slipping tips to the papers about his friends and enemies to work in his favor. When two reporters once visited him at his office, Cohn famously told his waiting Gambino mafia clients, ‘These gentlemen are from The New York Times, and that is very important. You’ll have to wait. The press comes first’
Owners of Studio 54 Steve Rubell (left) and Ian Schrager (right) flank their attorney and friend Roy Cohn. Cohn defended them in charges of corporate and personal income tax evasion, conspiracy and obstruction of justice
In what would normally level a person’s professional career, Cohn embraced it. He reveled in bad publicity and used it to cultivate his own celebrity.
‘I’d be a liar if I denied it. It’s given me a reputation for being tough, a reputation for being a winner,’ said Cohn to Esquire Magazine’s Ken Auletta.
Cohn’s larger-than-life personality made him great tabloid fodder. He was famously meticulous about his appearance; ensuring that he stayed permanently tan and fit by doing 75 sit-ups a day and hours of water-skiing at a time. He knew his best angles; ‘TV is the best medium I have,’ he said in an interview with The Washington Post in 1981. ‘…where I look bad is in still pictures.’ His personal bête-noire were his ‘hooded eyelids’ which he attempted to get fixed in botched plastic surgery that he furiously denied. ‘If I wanted to get a face lift, I’d get my nose taken care of!’ he explained to The Post. Wearing bespoke suits, he shuttled around New York City in his chauffeured Rolls Royce that featured custom license plates engraved with ‘Roy C.’ ‘I’m a ham!’ he said to Auletta in Esquire.
Nothing speaks more to this more than the extravagant celebration thrown for Cohn’s 52nd birthday on February 21, 1979. ‘If you’re indicted, you’re invited!’ comedian Joey Adams joked. ‘He invited 150. Three thousand to four thousand showed up,’ said Steve Rubell, owner of Studio 54 and a principal client of Roy Cohn’s. His exclusive guest list included all his influential clients and the powerful people that had open accounts in his ‘favor bank.’ Paparazzi and reporters lined up on the sidewalks to catch a glimpse of the glamorous party-goers: a ‘who’s who’ across the strata of New York’s political, art, media and social scenes.
Notably present among the Warhol celebrity crowd were Republican party leaders, borough presidents and throng of judges including the chief of the U.S. District Court. Other remarkable guests included Barbara Walters, Donald Trump, Bianca Jagger, Cardinal Spellman of the New York Archdiocese and a yet unknown, dewy assemblyman from Brooklyn, Chuck Schumer, who insisted he was just there with a date.
The evening unraveled like most debauched nights under the legendary disco ball. Rubell commissioned a custom birthday cake that bore the image of Roy crowned with a halo. Dancing, drinking and drugs were the name of the game, so it was no shock when comedienne Margaret Trudeau (also mother of Canada’s Prime Minister) toppled into the saccharine centerpiece.
‘On purpose?’ asked Ken Auletta for his profile in Esquire. ‘No. Margaret Trudeau doesn’t do anything on purpose—even think. But Roy went up to her and said, “You weren’t supposed to do that now. Do it later.” Instead of making her feel like an idiot, he made her feel comfortable. He’s very gracious,’ explained Rubell.
Roy Cohn successfully blended his personal life with business. Clients were friends, friends were clients, and everybody benefited from swapping favors brokered through Cohn’s ‘favor bank.’
A few of his most powerful friendships were forged in childhood at his elite private school in the Bronx. The late Si Newhouse, owner of the Conde Nast Empire, Richard Berlin, CEO of Hearst Magazine and Generoso Pope Jr, proprietor of the National Enquirer. Cohn wielded considerable influence over the press owned by his friends and it wasn’t long before he learned that it could also be weaponized and manipulated.
Roy Cohn on the cover of Esquire Magazine, 1968. Owner of Studio 54, Steve Rubell threw Cohn an extravagant 52nd birthday party with a custom cake that bore this image of Cohn wearing a halo. Margaret Trudeau (mother of Canada’s Prime Minister) famously toppled into the cake during the revelries
A 27-year-old Cohn sits next to his boss, Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Army- McCarthy Hearings on June 7, 1954. On recommendation from J. Edgar Hoover, Roy Cohn was selected over Robert Kennedy to be Senator Joseph McCarthy’ chief counsel in his anti-communist campaign. Things went sour when Cohn threatened the Secretary of the Army with blackmail in order to secure preferential treatment for a certain G. David Schine, a draftee in the Korean War and rumored lover of Cohn’s. The televised hearings became a national sensation and effectively ruined Cohn and McCarthy’s credibility
G. David Schine and Roy Cohn visit London during their tour of Europe in search of Communist activities, 20th April 1953. Schine was a wealthy hotel heir from New York City and unpaid intern in McCarthy’s crusade against Communism. Cohn and Schine became regular copy for gossip columnists as they partied from New York’s Stork Club to Paris and London. Playwrite Lillian Hellman famously called Cohn, Schine and McCarthy: ‘Bonnie, Bonnie and Clyde.’ Years later, Cohn denied that he was ever ‘gay inclined’ pointing out that ‘David Schine married a former Miss Universe and had a bunch of kids’
Tyrnauer tells DailyMail.com: ‘He was at the center of what you might characterize as Café Society. He also stood at the nexus between the legitimate political world and the organized crime underworld of the city which was the power position of the period. Cohn made himself an indispensable man in New York at the time, and – that by definition meant that he would have been rubbing shoulders with business tycoons and celebrities circulating that orbit.’
Cohn regularly held court at the 21 Club in Midtown Manhattan. Ken Auletta from Esquire recalled meeting Cohn at his favorite table near the entrance of the restaurant where he could see and be seen. Servers waited on him hand and foot, lighting his Cuban cigar when needed, setting up a red phone to his right for personal needs. Of course, Cohn wasn’t always soigne at the exclusive restaurant – he used to be seated upstairs in a distant corner delegated to tourists until he taught them a lesson in humility. The maitre’d was gobsmacked when Cohn’s guests, Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, arrived for their dinner reservation. Fumbling all over themselves, the staff tried to assuage their gaffe by offering the group a better table but Cohn refused. He never was seated in ‘Siberia’ again.
Roy met all types of important people while hanging out at 21, The Stork Club, and the Latin Quarter. It was the kind of access Donald Trump, the shy kid from Queens, was looking to have. Cohn met Barbara Walters at the Latin Quarter, a nightclub her father owned in the late 50s. Roy took her to the Bronx County Democratic dinner for their first date but things did not end well when Barbara revealed that she was already engaged to somebody else. Instead, Barbara and Roy forged a close friendship that lasted until his death. Gossip columnists speculated that she and Cohn were engaged and she became his ‘beard’ when she knew he was a homosexual.
But undeniably, one of Cohn’s most famous friends was the future president Trump.
‘Donald calls me 15 to 20 times a day. He’s always asking, ‘What is the status of this…and that?’ said Roy Cohn in a 1980 interview with Vanity Fair. They met seven years earlier in 1973 when the budding real-estate developer and his father, Fred were in hot water with the Justice Department for housing discrimination against African-Americans.
Trump approached Cohn for advice during a chance encounter at a private midtown dinner club known as ‘Le Club.’ Cohn’s advice? ‘Tell them to go to hell and fight the thing in court and let them prove you discriminated.’
‘Trump was pure outer-borough material. He had the money, but he didn’t have the status. He was considered to be very uncouth and was not welcome in the important places in New York City business and society, but he had a burning aspiration to rise to those levels,’ explained Tyrnauer to DemocracyNow. ‘From that point on Cohn saw Trump as his protégé and really did everything he could to establish him as a social business force in the New York City during that period,’ he said to Dailymail.com
Cohn was the heir to multiple fortunes on his mother’s side, he grew up as the only child in an affluent Jewish family in the Bronx. He was no stranger to the finer things, but expensive cars, custom suits, extravagant vacations and drug and alcohol fueled parties at exclusive clubs were all part of a personality he cultivated
Steve Rubell and his lawyer Roy Cohn circa 1985 at Studio 54. Rubell thew Cohn an extravagant birthday party in 1972. Revelers included everyone from Andy Warhol’s factory fixtures to Cohn’s longtime friend/ beard, Barbara Walters, Bianca Jagger, Halston, Margaret Trudeau, Donald Trump, newbie Chuck Schumer, Si Newhouse, and a throng of politicians and judges. ‘If you’re indicted, you’re invited!’ joked a guest. Years later Donald Trump would recall his time at Studio 54, ‘I would watch supermodels getting screwed, well-known supermodels getting screwed on a bench in the middle of the room. There were seven of them and each one was getting screwed by a different guy’
Gossip columnist Liz Smith noted: ‘Donald lost his moral compass when he made an alliance with Roy Cohn.’
Cohn’s first big favor to Trump happened in 1976 when he secured a 42-year long tax abatement from the City of New York (during a time when the city was practically bankrupt) for Trump’s Grand Hayatt Hotel on 42nd Street. The $400million tax abatement was orchestrated by Cohn and his favor-banking associate, Stanley Friedman, who signed off the deal on his last day as Deputy Mayor of NYC. This would become the longest ever tax abatement granted by the city and to return the favor, Cohn made Friedman a partner in his law firm.
Roger Stone has recently been a fixture in the news since Special Counsel Robert Mueller filed seven charges against him in the Russia investigation on January 25, 2019. He was indicted with one count of obstruction against the House Intelligence Committee, one count of witness tampering and five counts of false statements while presiding as one of Trump’s political advisers in the 2016 election. Since his initial charges, Stone has waged a campaign across social media and the press to prove his innocence – a tactic he learned from Cohn when he became his student as a 27-year-old man in 1979.
Like Trump, Stone was also an apprentice of Cohn; and long before his current legal woes, Stone agreed to participate in Tyrnauer’s documentary. He tells DailyMail.com: ‘Stone in the film refers to Cohn’s aggressiveness and his axiom that you fight battles on your own ground not on the enemy’s, as ‘the rules of war.’ And then he goes on to say, ”I learned this from Roy, Donald learned this from Roy.” A few years after their first meeting, Cohn personally threw Stone a 30th birthday party at the 21, his de-facto clubhouse.
Very few know that Cohn was the person who orchestrated the friendship between his two students 40 years back when Roger Stone was working for Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign.
It was 1979 and Stone found himself waiting in the dank parlor room of a townhouse on East 68 Street in Manhattan. The location served as central command for Roy Cohn’s law firm, Saxe, Bacon & Bolan and mementos from his vast and varied career decorated the walls. Newspaper clippings hung next to photos of the prominent patrons and associates that he amassed over the years: J. Edgar Hoover, Senator Joseph McCarthy, Cardinal Cooke, Steve Rubell and of course, Donald Trump.
Indeed Cohn probably saw aspects of himself in the self-described ‘dirty trickster’ who was looking to raise money for Reagan’s presidential bid. In an interview with Vanity Fair‘s Marie Brenner, Stone recalls his first meeting with Cohn who was sitting in his living room with client Mob boss ‘Fat Tony’ Salerno at the time. Still wearing his robe, Cohn poked at a ‘slab of cream cheese and three burnt slices of bacon’ with his index finger and told Stone, ‘You need to see Donald Trump, I will get you in, but then you are on your own.’
‘True to his word, I got $200,000. The checks came in $1,000 denominations, the maximum donation you could give. All of these checks were written to ‘Reagan For President.’ It was not illegal—it was bundl