August 3, 1986
Roy Cohn, Aide to McCarthy and Fiery Lawyer, Dies at 59
By ALBIN KREBS
Roy M. Cohn, the flamboyant, controversial defense lawyer who was chief counsel to Joseph R. McCarthy's Senate investigations in the 1950's into Communist influence in American life, died yesterday at the age of 59. He lived in Manhattan and in Greenwich, Conn.
Mr. Cohn, whose 38-year career brought him prominence, political influence and personal celebrity but ended in disbarment in New York State, died at 6 A.M. at the Warren Grant Magnuson Clinical Center of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.
Irene M. Haske, speaking for the center, said the immediate cause of death was "cardio-pulmonary arrest." She said the death certificate also listed two secondary causes of death: "dementia" and "underlying HTLV-3 infections."
Most scientists believe the HTLV-3 virus is the cause of AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, the fatal disease that cripples the body's immune system and is statistically most common among homosexual men and intravenous drug users. The virus is also believed to produce dementia and other neurological disorders.
In several newspaper and television interviews in the past year, Mr. Cohn repeatedly denied widespread rumors that his treatment at Bethesda had resulted from his contracting AIDS.
On June 23, near death with what he said was liver cancer, Mr. Cohn was disbarred from the practice of law in New York State. In a unanimous decision, a five-judge panel of the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court said his conduct in four legal matters was "unethical," "unprofessional" and, in one case, "particularly reprehensible."
Allegations Called Smears
Mr. Cohn denied that there was any substance to the allegations and contended that his disbarment was the result of a smear campaign engineered by his enemies - "a bunch of yo-yos" - because "the establishment bar hates my guts."
Nearly two decades after he had become, almost overnight, a nationally known personality, Mr. Cohn predicted that even if he died at age 100, his obituary would be headlined: "Roy Cohn Dead; Was McCarthy Investigations Aide."
Indeed, such a conclusion by Mr. Cohn was almost inescapable, for it was for his work as chief counsel to Senator McCarthy's Communist-hunting subcommittee in the early 1950's, the age of McCarthyism, that he became an often celebrated, often denigrated national figure.
But when Mr. Cohn left the Washington scene in 1954, he did not become, as some predicted, a has-been. Instead, he returned to New York to practice law and in the process became a political power broker, a friend of the rich and the fashionable, one of the city's most sought-after legal talents and probably a very wealthy man.
The young man with the heavy-lidded eyes, the perpetually tanned skin and the knowing grin that the public came to know during the televised Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 never lost his enormous energy, his fiery intensity, his quick, dagger-like wit.
He won a reputation for loyalty to his friends and clients, and they returned it. Devoted to celebrating his birthday, he gave lavish annual parties, usually at his estate in Greenwich, and his famous friends and clients all came.
At the 1983 gathering, for instance, the guest list included such diverse personalities as former Mayor Abraham D. Beame of New York, the former Tammany boss Carmine G. de Sapio, Andy Warhol, Calvin Klein, the Brooklyn Democratic leader Meade H. Esposito, several Federal judges, the lawyer Marvin Mitchelson and Richard A. Viguerie, the publisher of the Conservative Digest, who praised his host as "24-carat, one of life's great Americans."
Mr. Cohn counted among his friends such people as President Reagan (although a Democrat, Mr. Cohn tended to support Republican Presidents), Norman Mailer, Bianca Jagger, Barbara Walters, Rupert Murdoch, William F. Buckley Jr., William Safire, George Steinbrenner, Estee Lauder, Warren Avis and dozens of politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, at every level, from Cabinet members to county judges.
As a lawyer he represented such diverse clients as Donald Trump and Sam Lefrak, the real-estate executives; Francis Cardinal Spellman and Terence Cardinal Cooke and, on occasion, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. He also represented Carmine Galante, who before his death was said by authorities to be Mafia "boss of all bosses," and Tony (Fat Tony) Salerno, also said to be a Mafia chieftain.
"Truth is hardly ever an absolute -there are so many elements," Mr. Cohn said after sucessfully defending Mr. Salerno, who was accused of income-tax violations. He said Mr. Salerno, known as a gambling kingpin, was "technically guilty," but the lawyer said he had won the case because he had shown that Mr. Salerno, unlike most gamblers, had actually declared and paid taxes on most of his income.
U.S. Audited Taxes 20 Years in a Row
Mr. Cohn himself was almost constantly in conflict with the Internal Revenue Service, which audited his tax returns more than 20 years in a row and collected more than $300,000 in back taxes. In 1979 alone, the I.R.S. had claims of almost $1 million against him, and there were liens against any assets he might accumulate. The I.R.S. had liens against him totaling $3.18 million, dating back a quarter century.
He had many other legal troubles, some of which he seemed to enjoy. He was tried and acquitted three times in Federal court on charges ranging from conspiracy to bribery to fraud. Mr. Cohn maintained that he was subjected to these "ordeals" because of "vendettas" arranged by Robert F. Kennedy or by Robert M. Morgenthau, the former United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York who is now the Manhattan District Attorney.
There were other troubles, stemming from legal dealings that many of Mr. Cohn' s fellow lawyers considered shady. It was four of these cases that led to his disbarment.
One went back to 1976, when a Florida court found that Mr. Cohn had entered the hospital room of Lewis S. Rosenstiel, the multimillionaire head of Schenley Industries, and "misrepresesnted the nature, content and purpose of the document that he offered Mr. Rosenstiel for execution." The document, which the dying client shakily signed, was a codicil to his will that would have made Mr. Cohn and certain others the executors of the will. The court refused to probate the codicil.
That case and the others that eventually led to his disbarment prompted Mr. Cohn to charge there was an attempt to "smear" him.
That kind of combativeness came naturally to Mr. Cohn, who once said: "My scare value is high. My area is controversy. My tough front is my biggest asset. I don't write polite letters. I don't like to plea-bargain. I like to fight. You might want a nice gentle fight, but once you get in the ring and take a couple of pokes, it gets under your skin.
"It's fair to say that in an adversary situation I've got one role - to win for my client. Law is an adversary profession. But within the bounds which are permitted, most lawyers are Caspar Milquetoasts. They don't realize that they are in a fight. To them, a lawsuit is nothing more than going to court, then going out to lunch with your adversary. To me it's serious business."
Son of Judge With Party Power
Roy Marcus Cohn, who was born in New York City on Feb. 20, 1927, was the son of Dora Marcus and Albert Cohn, and was brought up in a Park Avenue apartment. His father, a justice in the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court, was a onetime protege of the Tammany boss Ed Flynn and wielded substantial power in the Democratic Party. Young Roy was precocious and liked to impress his friends by telephoning famous family friends such as "Bill" -Mayor William O'Dwyer - on the spur of the moment to make small talk. His parents, particularly his mother, doted on their only child, bragging about how clever he was.
Indeed he was. By age 20 he had breezed through the Fieldston School in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, Columbia College and Columbia Law School.
He had to wait until he was 21 to be admitted to the bar, and the day he was admitted, he used his political connections to get on the staff of the United States Attorney in Manhattan. As an assistant United States Attorney specializing in subversive activities, he was soon to come to public attention as a boy wonder.
"He was a precocious, brilliant, arrogant young man," one of his contemporaries recalled years later, "but he performed ably and energetically on such cases as the William Remington perjury trial, the Rosenberg spy trial and the big New York trial of top Communist leaders."
Mr. Cohn, in the courtoom, was agile, cool and impressive. He became closely identified in the public eye with the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after conducting what was described as a brilliant direct examination in which David Greenglass identified his sister, Mrs. Rosenberg, as a member of a Soviet spy ring. The Rosenbergs were convicted of conspiring to pass atomic secrets to the Russians and were eventually electrocuted.
In 1950, Irving Saypol, then the United States Attorney, promoted Mr. Cohn, making him his confidential assistant. By then Mr. Cohn had built up what amounted to a claque of some reporters and columnists, including George Sokolsky and Walter Winchell. When Mr. Cohn was to be transferred to Washington in 1952, to become special assistant to Attorney General James McGranery, he tipped off his favored journalists, a practice he was to continue throughout his life.
McCarthy Impressed By Young Lawyer
One of Mr. Cohn's first duties in Washington was to prepare the indictment of Owen Lattimore on perjury charges. The charges against Mr. Lattimore, a China expert who taught at Johns Hopkins University, stemmed from the rampaging McCarthy subcommittee, which in the early 1950's was branding dozens of Americans -government officials, writers, actors and others - as traitors, Communists or fellow travelers.
Senator McCarthy, the subcommittee chairman, called Mr. Lattimore "the top Russian espionage agent in the United States." The indictment of Mr. Lattimore prepared by Mr. Cohn contained seven charges of perjury, but two charges were dismissed and the others were ultimately dropped by the Justice Department.
Mr. Cohn, while impressing Senator McCarthy with his efforts in the Lattimore case, also impressed a House subcommittee investigating the Justice and State Departments for purported "foot dragging" in their investigations of American Communists supposedly on the staff of the United Nations. Mr. Cohn strongly implied that most of his Justice Department superiors had opposed him on making public the grand jury's findings in the inquiry on United Nations personnel. In the end, the subcommittee exonerated the Attorney General and his staff, but noted that Mr. Cohn left it with "the impression that he is an extremely bright young man, aggressive in performance of his duties and probably not free from the pressures of personal ambition." It was an observation that was to be echoed, in one form or another, for years to come.
By early 1953, Mr. Cohn's brand of anti-Communism had won him so much admiration from Senator McCarthy, the Wisconsin Republican, who was the chairman of the Senate's permanent investigations subcommittee, that Mr. Cohn was named chief counsel to the subcommittee. This was much to the chagrin of Robert Kennedy, the Democratic minority's counsel, who coveted the job, and was the beginning of an enmity between the two men that was to last for years.
To assist Senator McCarthy in his much-publicized crusade to "root out Communism in government," Mr. Cohn enlisted the services of his closest friend, his fellow 25-year-old, G. David Schine. Mr. Schine was the son of J. Myer Schine, a multimillionaire who owned a string of hotels and movie theaters.
Mr. Schine, who received no pay, was billed as the subcommittee's consultant on psychological warfare. At Mr. McCarthy's urging, Mr. Cohn and Mr. Schine made a highly publicized, 18-day tour of Army bases, embassies and offices of the United States Information Service in Europe. Their object was to "see if there's waste and mismanagement," they said, and to determine whether American officials abroad were sufficiently aware of the dangers of Communism.
Along the way, they charged that Peter Kaghan, a key member of the staff of the High Commissioner for Germany, had "once signed a Communist Party petition." That charge impelled Mr. Kaghan to dub the investigators " junketeering gumshoes." Parts of the press gleefully picked up the "gumshoe boys" label, but Mr. Kaghan was dismissed by the State Department, which was then reacting to pressures from the McCarthy committee.
What came to be known as McCarthyism was in its heyday. As they plowed through investigations of the State Department and the Voice of America, relentlessly trying to sniff out Communists or their sympathizers, Mr. Cohn, Mr. Schine and Senator McCarthy, all bachelors at the time, were themselves the targets of what some called "reverse McCarthyism." There were snickering suggestions that the three men were homosexuals, and attacks such as that by the playwright Lillian Hellman who called them "Bonnie, Bonnie and Clyde."
Years later, Mr. Cohn denied that he was "ever gay-inclined" and pointed out that Mr. McCarthy got married and had a son, and that "Dave Schine married a former Miss Universe and had a bunch of kids." Declaring War On the Army Nevertheless, it was Mr. Cohn's intense devotion to Mr. Schine at the time they were working for the McCarthy committee that got them both into serious trouble. After Mr. Schine was drafted into the Army in November 1953, and Mr. Cohn, with Senator McCarthy's aid, was unable to help him win a commission, Mr. Cohn in effect declared war on the Army.
The Army had already run into trouble with the McCarthy committee, which accused Army Secretary Robert T. Stevens and other officials of trying to conceal evidence of espionage activities that Mr. Cohn and his staff were said to have uncovered at Fort Monmouth, N.J. Mr. McCarthy also pounded the Army with the question "Who promoted Peress?" - a reference to Maj. Irving W. Peress, a dentist from New York who had refused to sign a loyalty oath.
When Mr. Schine became Private Schine, Mr. Cohn was initially able to win many concessions for him from the Army, such as nightly passes while he was in basic training at Fort Dix, N.J., and guarantees that there would be no noxious kitchen duties for his friend and that he was to be treated generally as an important person. Finally, however, Mr. Stevens, fed up with Mr. Cohn's frequent interference on behalf of Private Schine, released a detailed 34-page report on the Cohn demands.
Included in the report was Mr. Cohn's threat to "wreck the Army" for not giving Private Schine all the special treatment that had been sought for him by Mr. Cohn and Senator McCarthy. Mr. Stevens formally charged Mr. McCarthy, Mr. Cohn and another subcommittee staff member with seeking by improper means to obtain preferential treatment for Private Schine.
In the resulting televised Army-McCarthy hearings, Mr. Cohn and Senator McCarthy were cleared in August 1954 of the Army's charges. But the public had witnessed Senator McCarthy's often irrational behavior in action and the methods of McCarthyism in the raw, and the Senator's popularity quickly began to wane.
Finally, in December 1954, Senator McCarthy was formally censured by his colleagues, when the Senate voted to "condemn" him on a number of points, including contempt for a Senate elections subcomittee that had investigated his conduct and financial affairs, and insults to the Senate itself during the censure proceedings.
After that rebuke, and with the Democrats back in control following the 1954 elections, Mr. McCarthy's influence in the Senate and on the national scene steadily diminished until his death in 1957.
A 'Has-Been' Devoted to Work
As for Mr. Cohn, whose job with the McCarthy subcommittee ended in 1954, he seemed at the time to be, as one observer put it, "the biggest has-been since Jackie Coogan." As it turned out, however, that could not have been further from the truth.
Joining the New York law firm that became Saxe, Bacon & Bolan, Mr. Cohn put his family's political power to work, along with his considerable knowledge of the law. Devoting himself almost entirely to his work, he brought into the firm a long list of high-paying clients. So close was he to his job that he even made his New York home in the East Side town house that served as Saxe, Bacon's offices.
Through the years Mr. Cohn honed his reputation as a ferociously loyal advocate, one whose courtroom technique was admired even by his detractors. He seemed always on the attack, intimidating prosecutors, flustering witnesses and impressing jurors by seldom referring to notes. He was said to have a photographic memory.
Along the way, Mr. Cohn was slapped with judicial reprimands for unethical conduct and with civil actions, some brought by former clients, one of whom sued him for the return of a $109,000 loan. His conduct in that case led to another one of the allegations that prompted his disbarment. Another of the charges accused him of lying on his application to the District of Columbia bar.
Perhaps the darkest disbarment charge concerned the sinking of the Defiance in 1973. The leased yacht was owned by the Pied Piper Yacht Charters Corporation, a company whose escrowed funds Mr. Cohn was accused of having often used as his own.
In Miami, one sea captain pronounced the Defiance unseaworthy and quit his job. The charter yacht put out to sea with a new captain, a mysterious fire broke out and the Defiance sank. The captain and two crew members survived, but another, Charles Martenson, lost his life. Mr. Martenson's father charged that Mr. Cohn ordered the Defiance scuttled to collect on a $200,000 insurance policy and was hence responsible for his son's death.
Denying any part in the affair, Mr. Cohn insisted that the yacht belonged not to him but to Pied Piper and that he in no way benefited from the insurance. Actually, court records showed that his law firm received $15,875 in legal fees, and Mr. Cohn himself was paid almost $8,000 for personal property lost on the yacht. The balance of the insurance money went to a dummy corporation set up by Pied Piper.
There was never any evidence presented to connect Mr. Cohn with the sinking, and for his part, Mr. Cohn refused to rebuke the elder Mr. Martenson for his allegations.
However, the Defiance case was to figure prominently in Mr. Cohn's disbarment.
The Appellate Division ruled that following the yacht's sinking, "the events which ensued cast serious doubts upon" Mr. Cohn's "professional conduct and integrity, both as an attorney and as an escrow agent."
Two weeks after an appeal of the disbarment order was denied, Mr. Cohn entered the National Institutes clinical center in Bethesda. With him when he died there was his friend and aide, Peter Frazier. The center specializes in testing experimental therapies for a wide variety of diseases, among them cancer and AIDS. Mr. Cohn had also received experimental treatment there in 1985. Acquitted 3 Times In Federal Court Mr. Cohn's three earlier trials - in 1964, 1969, and 1971, all in Federal court and all ending in acquittal on a variety of charges, including fraud, conspiracy and corporate manipulations - were part of a vendetta to "get" him, Mr. Cohn often said.
At times he said his chief persecutor was Robert Kennedy, his fellow staff counsel on the McCarthy committee, who later became Attorney General of the United States. Their mutual hatred had been so intense that at one point during the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, they got into a hallway push-and-shove match that nearly turned into a fistfight.
Mr. Cohn also liked to identify as his chief tormentor Robert Morgenthau, then the United States Attorney in Manhattan, the son of Henry M. Morgenthau, the Treasury Secretary in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration. Mr. Cohn maintained that Robert Morgenthau bore a "mortal grudge" against him because, during his McCarthy days, he "exposed" Henry Morgenthau's decision to allow the Soviet Union to use United States-occupation currency plates briefly at the end of World War II.
Mr. Cohn was a short, ungainly man with thinning hair and blue eyes, which were often bloodshot, perhaps because he kept late hours at fashionable discotheques such as Studio 54 and the Palladium, although he said he "adored" the sun. He also admired animals, chiefly dogs, and his office contained an extensive collection of stuffed animals.
In his early 50's there were telltale scars in front of and behind Mr. Cohn's ears, usually signs of having had cosmetic surgery. But he insisted that he had only had "an eye operation, not a face lift - there's been a pull." He said the surgery was to correct his heavy-lidded appearance.
Despite his tan, Mr. Cohn's bantam body (he weighed 145 pounds) gave the impression that his physique was fragile, but he kept in shape by water-skiing on Long Island Sound near his Greenwich home.
A Royal Life On Expense Account
A lifelong bachelor, he lived extremely well. To avoid high taxes, he drew a comparatively low salary of $100,000 a year from his law firm, which compensated him further, and regally, by giving him a rent-free Manhattan apartment, paying part of the rent on his Greenwich home, supplying him with the use of a chauffeured Rolls-Royce and other fine cars and paying all his bills at expensive restaurants such as Le Cirque, "21" and many others. These expenses were said to run to $1 million a year.
Mr. Cohn's friends, some of whom said they loved him despite his roguish ways, prized his ability to represent them in court or just to get them tickets to sports events and the theater or easy entry into a popular discotheque.
"My idea of real power is not people who hold office," he said in 1979. "They're here today and gone tomorrow. Power means the ability to get things done. It stems from friendship in my case. My business life is my social life."
He seemed to relish the fact that most of his fellow lawyers looked down on him and his tactics, contending that he gave their profession a bad name. "I'm pleased to say that among my hundreds of really close friends, few are lawyers," he said. Yet he seemed pleased when told that another flamboyant lawyer, Melvin Belli of San Francisco, had said of Mr. Cohn: "He's a good lawyer. He has two of the classic prerequisites. First, he has imagination. Second, he has guts. And it helps he knows the law."
It mattered little to Mr. Cohn that he was called "a legal executioner" by Esquire, that the American Lawyer magazine labeled him an "an embarrassment" and that the National Law Journal pronounced him an "assault specialist."
He shrugged off such criticism, as well as accusations that had continued over the years that he was a "Red-baiter" and a "McCarthyite." In fact, he seemed to cherish the celebrity that Senator McCarthy maintained even long after his death, and did not mind sharing that limelight.
"His name is still a household word," Mr. Cohn said. "It will never go away." He added, when asked about his own part in making McCarthyism a household word: "I sleep well at night. I won't be saying 'please forgive me' on my deathbed."
Mr. Cohn is survived by an aunt, Libby Marcus, of New York City.
Funeral services will be private.