I am thinking about Roy Cohn.
I am thinking about Roy Cohn because I don’t know much about him besides a handful of images and fragments: whispering in Joe McCarthy’s ear, wearing a halo on the cover of Esquire, dominating the action in Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” like Satan in “Paradise Lost.”
On Monday The New York Times ran an article about Cohn’s relationship with Donald Trump, and I thought, there he is again, this American Iago: recognizing power and wealth, earning its trust (and amusement!) and manipulating it for his own ends.
Who was he? How did he get from McCarthy to Manhattan power broker — and did he stay as nefarious as he was during the 1950s witch hunt days?
Until this recent attention, I wonder if anyone had thought of Cohn since Al Pacino’s performance in the HBO version of “Angels,” more than a decade ago. He remains a unpleasantly fascinating character, a symbol of mankind’s lesser angels.
The most comprehensive biography of Cohn is Nicholas Von Hoffman’s 1988 “Citizen Cohn,” which was itself made into a 1992 movie with James Woods as Cohn. I’ll have to read it, though perhaps with tongs: In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Von Hoffman still seemed perplexed by the man he’d spent chronicling, a man described to him as an “automobile accident.”
“Cohn ‘was everywhere,’ working his way through ‘a huge national intestine,’ ” Von Hoffman told the L.A. Times. Being immersed in the research “was not pleasant,” he added, which — given the intestine metaphor — sounds like an understatement.
Cohn was pals with J. Edgar Hoover. He was once engaged to Barbara Walters. (I’ll have to read Walters’ book and see what she has to say.) He was incredibly vain and had five face lifts.
And, of course, though his homosexuality was an open secret, he himself consistently denied it, maintaining that the AIDS that eventually killed him was liver cancer. (In one scene from “Angels,” he threatens his longtime doctor if the physician so much as breathes the name of Cohn’s illness publicly, with its links to gay men.)
So this was one of Trump’s mentors, a man who had the motto “Always attack, never apologize.” I thought this sentence, also, was particularly interesting: “Cohn’s craving for celebrity, according to Von Hoffman, was of drug-addict proportions.” That sounds familiar.
But Von Hoffman also said that he ended up with some affection for Cohn, though he was careful not to confuse it with approval. Cohn got things done. He was also a dervish of activity and had famous friends.
Still, he was also the guy who helped get the death penalty for Ethel Rosenberg, sat next to McCarthy and destroyed careers.
“He brutalized for you,” Trump once said.
Politics ain’t beanbag, but still. It makes me think.