“Where’s My Roy Cohn?” – Magisterial Documentary About a Transgressive Gay Machiavelli Who Knew No Limits
October 3, 2019 /
“I should say, a pixie is a close relative of a fairy.”
-Chief Counsel of the U.S. Army Joseph Welch at the Army-McCarthy hearings to Roy Cohn
Where’s my Roy Cohn? is a fascinating overview of perhaps the most loathed and despised gay man in American history. Filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer has shaped a juicily informative documentary that contains much information those familiar with Cohn know already, but which is still stunning to recall. However, recent interviews with family members and his helpful relationship with a rising business titan named Donald Trump squeeze more juice into the pitcher. When the current President’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, it is said that in dismay the Commander-in-Chief asked rhetorically, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”
Roy Cohn (1927-1986) was the only child of Jewish parents, Dora (maiden name: Marcus) and NY State Supreme Court Justice Albert C. Cohn, an influential Democrat. Roy’s politics were incisively Republican. His parents’ marriage was a kind of Faustian bargain which Where’s My Roy Cohn? puts right out there.
Tyrnauer’s film actually has comments about how physically ugly people thought both mother and son were. That opinion of their lack of physical attractiveness is spoken of in the film. At points throughout, with corroboration, she is stressed as being controlling and ruthless, qualities which in turn, Roy absorbed into the core of his own personality. As presented, it floats, perhaps unwittingly, the old idea that male homosexuality is fostered by a domineering mother and a weak father. Indeed, this teeters close to an archaic stereotype. Nonetheless, Tyrnauer convinces us that both were utter emotional despots.
When only in his mid-20s, Cohn was paradoxically disgraced, yet propelled by the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. The settled view is that Cohn, as chief legal counsel to rabidly anticommunist Sen. Joseph “Reds Under the Bed!” McCarthy, fomented spurious insinuations that the U.S. Army was infiltrated with Soviet spies. This was a bridge too far. However, this lie and treacherous innuendo against the enlisted citizens of the military was brazenly perpetuated so that their integrity was besmirched, while Cohn lobbied underhandedly for the man he loved, G. David Schine, to be given army officer status stateside and easy duties.
Historian Thomas Doherty observes with insight that Cohn’s love for Schine was a kind of delayed adolescent infatuation that didn’t emerge till young adulthood during his tenure as a McCarthyite bigwig. This makes psychological sense and was a disaster beyond just two guys. Homophobic invective was directed at the pair as well as McCarthy himself from both sides of the aisle. Some today would call this hate speech. One interviewee says that when one was in the presence of Cohn “you knew you were in the presence of pure evil.”
These hearings formally ended the McCarthy Era along with the suicide of Democrat Sen. Lester Hunt (D-Wyoming) whose son was arrested for soliciting a police officer (Tyrnauer doesn’t relate this but it’s crucial information), and from that flowed scandal and tragedy. Moreover, McCarthy himself was perceived by some to be latently or a closeted homosexual.
During the McCarthy period of the early ’50s there was the “Lavender Scare” in which suspected gays and lesbians were routed out of government posts. This was empowered by President Eisenhower’s Executive Order 10450.
Further irony: Hunt was supportive of Ike’s policies. 24-year-old Lester Jr. aka “Buddy” was actually a student then, not a government employee. It shows that even relatives of gays could be ensnared (the new Downton Abbey film addresses this very thing, by the way). The Hunt tragedy was the inspiration for the 1959 Pulitzer Prize-winning bestselling novel, Advise and Consent by Allen Drury. The 1962 film version is a classic in general and in queer cinema. It starred Henry Fonda in top form with superb support from actors we now know were closeted: Walter Pidgeon and Charles Laughton. Longtime straight gal pal of gay men, Betty White, played the Senator from Kansas.
However, something Tyrnauer does not balance in his film is that in the same period in the USSR, Josef Stalin was conducting his infamously totalitarian show trials, which sent innocent Russians to gulags and atrocity on a scale comparable to the Third Reich. Stalin’s show trials are rightly compared to Hitler’s Star Chamber set ups as well as equivalents set up by Chairman and Madame Mao in China. Gays were caught up in all of these.
McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) definitely did not delve into anywhere near a comparable level of darkness as these statist courts so monstrously did. As shamefully inexcusable, as irrational, as insidious, and as unjustly ruinous as McCarthyism in the U.S. was, it spent itself and ended in national recognition of its malevolence. It was far, far milder than what had gone in the three aforementioned tyrannies. Stalinism instituted its rampage long after Stalin’s death. But in the US the Civil Rights movement and the Sexual Revolution kicked into gear soon after, about the time of McCarthy’s early death in 1957. That’s quite a difference. Night and day.
In the state-controlled Soviet Union, the very idea of civil or sexual minority rights was unmentionable. Homophobia was an article of faith there because men were meant to work for the state and not to be distracted by male beauty and eros. Queerness was deemed decadent and antithetical to myth of state-run harmony.
Of course, the closet was and still can be psychologically powerful even in free societies. McCarthyism actually crystallized Cohen’s audaciously authoritarian personality right up to his death of AIDS-related causes when he refused to say publicly he was a gay man or afflicted with the deadly virus. (He never came out to his mother.)
On the other hand, that audacity propelled him into lucrative representation as a lawyer for La Cosa Nostra (better known today as The Mafia), New York’s ever-booming real estate market, and the Manhattan elite among whom he associated: Andy Warhol, Normal Mailer, Cardinal Spellman, Ed Koch, and very longtime friend Barbara Walters. It is said that Cohn bridged the legitimate world with the illegitimate world. He would bring his studmuffin escorts, looking studly (in some cases) or flaming (in others), to buttoned down social events with conservative business icons. Yet all went well. He knew the skeletons in the closets—and I mean in the larger sense. Not just gays in the closet, though that was something he certainly knew as well.
The same was true with his fellow close closeted buddy, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. The conservative elite were compelled by skeletons to be nice. The non-conservatives, like the drug-drenched Studio 54 crowd, worshiped celebrity for which Cohn qualified as a bad boy and where he flaunted his appetite for men and his need to flame. Recall, as The Godfather reminds us, La Cosa Nostra ran the drug trade for much of the last century in New York. Tyrnauer’s documentary Studio 54 nails how dreadfully corrupting that institution was and Cohen’s role in that is stunningly conveyed.
So how could Cohn get away with such obvious hypocrisy on his gayness? Tyrnauer shows us. His cousin, Anne Roiphe, eloquently explains how homophobia manifested in the American psyche in the ’40s and ’50s and Cohn’s formation by that. His part in crafting the scurrilous interim reports on “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts” is proof-positive of his self-loathing as a man with the capacity to love men. One interviewee says Cohn “was totally ugly and totally charismatic at the same time.” Cohn dodged accusations of being gay by claiming that two qualities he fiercely embodied—aggressiveness and toughness—were incompatible with homosexuality. He said it in a way that convinced people in general. That said, in a deliciously funny interchange, gay titan Gore Vidal will have none of it.
The film covers Cohn’s home and office facility where he hired extremely attractive men for brain work in his office in the same way Hollywood executives do the same with women in their offices. In the home section of the facility, we see him work out: a fitness fanatic determined to look sexy to other men. One can imagine that Cohn was in a position to coerce men in the same way Harvey Weinstein coerced and assaulted women. However, Cohn’s libido seems to have been so insatiable that he was a consummate night prowler. Gossip columnist legend Liz Smith gives a clue regarding that compulsivity, whether she is aware that she did or not when she says that because Cohn couldn’t come back from the McCarthy disgrace “he just embraced it more.” It could be added that it helped to inculcate a “might as well” attitude toward his sex compulsion-addiction. Gay buddy Wallace Adams spills some beans to bolster that possible theory.
The gay blade met Trump when the future president was a mere 23 years old. Cohn was there for DJT when he fought off claims of race discrimination in housing and using illegal immigrants as unpaid labor. Cohn was known as the ultimate fixer.
Though Tyrnauer’s film glistens with hot men who Cohn either employed legitimately for legal work and whom he compulsively preyed upon for sex, there’s nothing in Where’s My Roy Cohn? that validates any connection between the two beyond business mentorship and the platonic. Cohn is said to have bridged the legitimate world with the illegitimate world.
The Trump section is certainly engaging, though there’s nothing in what Tyrnauer relates that comes as a surprise. Of course, it’s certainly good to have what he relates about their friendship on record. It’s been surprisingly unreflected on by the media in general until Tyrnauer. To his credit, the filmmaker doesn’t discuss playwright Tony Kushner’s polemical characterization of Cohn in Angels in America. Where’s My Roy Cohn? is as unflattering of it’s title subject as it is anyway. No need to gild the lily. Two areas (among others) where Kushner and Tyrnauer share similar views are on how Cohn was instrumental in the conviction that led Russian spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair in 1953. Even many hardcore anti-communists now hold that Ethel was innocent. That said, controversy still haunts these conclusions this with the Venona documents and other information unearthed since the end of the Cold War.
If anything, Tyrnauer could have afforded to have deepened what was already available to him. For example, Roger Stone, a Trump friend, who apparently knew Cohn well, is interviewed but is not given scope to enlarge on the subject as fully as one suspects he might have. Perhaps that would have thwarted the filmmaker’s thesis. Stone is renowned for his controversial analysis on Lyndon Johnson. Surely, since he actually knew Cohn well, he could have been probed more engagingly. Like him or not, Stone is a mind to be reckoned with when he’s given time to speak.
Another missed opportunity might have been Katie Roiphe, brilliant writer and daughter of Cohn’s cousin, Anne Roiphe, author of the feminist classic Up the Sandbox. For all we know, Katie may just be another critic of her uncle, but given her own gutsy counterpoints as a revionist feminist to the feminist orthodoxy of the Dworkin-MacKinnon-Faludi era, she was an original thinker who may have some original thoughts about Roy and-or how being a single gay man who died of AIDS was regarded within the family structure. The film relates that great animosity was felt against Roy from within his own family. We see some really dazzling assertions about the family dysfunction that surely must have credibility. But there’s no real excavation toward what’s underneath that.
Early on in Where’s My Roy Cohn? a brief account is shown of a family financial crisis during the stock market crash in the 1920s which sent a close relative to prison – touched on but not examined like it could have been. One wants more to be mined because the family story is an American story in its own right. His cousin, David Marcus, calls Cohn, “the definition of a self-hating Jew.” What a powerfully anguished thing to say. Indeed, one can be easily disgusted by Roy Cohn, but within Tyrnauer’s magisterial film, we see so much to be pitied and lamented over.
Where’s My Roy Cohn?
Edina Cinema, 3911 W. 50th St., Edina