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Roy Marcus Cohn
Attorney, federal prosecutor, and communist-hunter, Roy Marcus Cohn built a flamboyant, successful, and troubled career on his prominent role in Cold War politics. As a wunderkind whose legal prowess quickly brought him to national attention, Cohn took part in the controversial espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1951. By the mid-1950s, he helped engineer Senator Joseph R. McCarthy's notorious anti-Communist witch hunts. From the 1950s to the 1980s, his private practice put him in the top rank of celebrity attorneys, but questionable ethics ultimately led to his being disbarred in 1986.
The privilege of family connections helped launch Cohn's career. He was born on February 20, 1927, in New York, New York, the son of a prominent state supreme court judge. His father was well connected in the Democratic Party. By age ten, Cohn had already met Franklin D. Roosevelt. Academic brilliance helped Cohn sail quickly through college, and he earned his law degree from Columbia University in 1947 at the age of twenty. He then had to wait one year in order to meet the state's minimum age for admission to the New York State Bar. Meanwhile, he worked for two years in the U.S. district attorney's office before moving to Washington, D.C., in 1950, to join the Justice Department as an assistant U.S. attorney.
In Washington, Cohn established his anti-Communist credentials. For the period of the Cold War, this was an auspicious career move: Hysteria was about to afflict the nation, and he would help tighten the grip. At age twenty-three, he served as the third-ranking prosecutor on the espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the American Communists who were convicted and sentenced to death in 1951 for furnishing atomic secrets to Soviet spies. During the trial, Cohn held a number of improper ex parte—one-sided—private conversations with Judge Irving Kaufman outside of court. According to Nicholas von Hoffman's 1988 biography Citizen Cohn, the attorney probably used these talks to convince Judge Kaufman to impose the death penalty. Cohn denied doing so, in his posthumously published 1988 book The Autobiography of Roy Cohn, but he claimed that the judge had told him the verdict of the trial even before it had begun. The American Bar Association ultimately exonerated both Cohn and Kaufman for their conversations.
The Rosenberg Trial put Cohn on a fast track to prominence. Adding to his reputation as an enemy of radicalism, Cohn toured U.S. sponsored libraries in Europe in 1952 on behalf of the U.S. Senate, confiscating subversive books. In 1953, he was a special assistant to Attorney General James McGranery, but he left the job for greater visibility. He became chief counsel to the Senate Permanent Investigations Subcommittee, beating out Robert F. Kennedy for the position. The subcommittee would make history as the bully pulpit for Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, who used it to conduct his relentless pursuit of communists in the U. S. government.
Cohn was McCarthy's right-hand man. In the Senate, he sat beside the senator and took part in the grilling of witnesses who were hauled before the committee. Officially, his role as McCarthy's special counsel made him the senator's assistant, but the relationship worked differently behind the scenes. Cohn knew more people than McCarthy did. He helped to compile lists of witnesses and suspects, a task made easier by his friendship with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. When McCarthy blundered by challenging the army in 1954, his political career ended abruptly. Cohn was criticised for having sought special favors for a friend in the army. But unlike McCarthy, who was censured by the Senate and died a broken man in 1957, Cohn escaped to a new, lucrative career.
In private practice in New York, Cohn flourished. Although many intellectuals excoriated him for his role in the McCarthy witch hunts, he gained prominent clients from across the political spectrum. He represented everyone from alleged mafia bosses to pop stars, and he was largely successful, often without having to appear in court. Cohn had developed the right friends: newspaper columnists, publishing magnates, politicians, judges, and fellow lawyers. He was as feared for his ability to get headlines published as he was for any oral argument he might make. Outside of his law practice, he wrote widely in the popular and legal press, and authored four books, including How to Stand Up for Your Rights—And Win! (1981).
Though successful and popular until shortly before his death, Cohn was a complicated and enigmatic figure. Although he was Jewish, he befriended anti-Semites and used anti-Semitic jibes. Outspoken against homosexual rights, he was a gay man himself. Until the end, he concealed the fact that he was dying of AIDS. Pursued for twenty years by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), he had no bank account and owned little property; the IRS was unable to collect the reported $7 million he owed in back taxes. Months before his death on August 2, 1986, Cohn was disbarred for ethical abuses that included lying, stealing, attempting to defraud a client, and forgery.