The High Holy Days prayer to be inscribed in the Book of Life doesn’t pertain to Roy Cohn, who died in 1986. Surely, though, he is inscribed for eternity in the Book of Bad Jews.
Matt Tyrnauer’s “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” revisits in depth the infamous early landmarks in the unscrupulous lawyer’s career: His prosecution (as part of the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan) and the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for spying for the Soviet Union, and his investigation and persecution (as chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy) of alleged Communists in the Federal government. The film opened late last month.
Those high-profile, early-1950s power plays established Cohn as a brilliant, ruthless and smoothly articulate operative who would go to any lengths to conceal his sexual identity (while pursuing his pleasure). All of that, along with Cohn’s rule-flouting approach to private practice, is sufficient to place him among the most despicable figures of 20th century public life.
Yet “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” adds a third charge to the indictment. It assembles a case that Cohn was the primary mentor and role model for a bullying, amoral real estate developer by the name of Donald Trump. Our current mess, in other words, bears the long-gone Cohn’s greasy fingerprints.
This last bit, while provocative and persuasive, is plainly included in Trynauer’s purview to draw his detailed (and aggressively, excessively soundtracked) documentary out of the realm of history and into the maelstrom of current events. In fact, the film takes its title from a Trump lament when he needed a fixer with Cohn’s efficiency, discretion and nonexistent moral code. (He found him in Michael Cohen, who’s on track for his own entry in the Book of Bad Jews.)
Cohn was an only child under the influence of an influence-seeking father and a domineering mother. Dora Marcus was a less-than-attractive woman with family money and powerful connections; Albert Cohn was a shady lawyer who purportedly proposed marriage if one of Dora’s kin procured a judgeship for him.
Dora was quite, um, pragmatic herself, it seems. A cousin remembers the seder when a maid inconveniently died, and Dora ordered the body stashed under the kitchen table rather than ruin her guests’ evening.
Presumably, Roy got his extraordinary talent for expediency from Dora. A regular presence in the New York daily papers and a political force behind the scenes for nearly his entire career, Cohn was driven by power and its perks. His tactics were astonishingly shameless – deny, distract, attack and intimidate – and it’s disheartening that they’re been embraced and adopted by a major political party.
Incidentally, that cousin, while one of the most candid interviewees in Tyrnauer’s documentary, is pretty much the only one who can muster a smidgen of affinity for Cohn three-plus decades after his death from AIDS.
The obvious crony who wouldn’t kick dirt on his grave is former television personality Barbara Walters, who had to benefit from her association with the Manhattan power player (even as Cohn used her to deflect persistent reports that he was gay). But Walters, now 90 years old, is conspicuously absent.
If it seems that the saga of Roy Cohn, like the Passover story, is told and retold to new generations, you’re not wrong. Tony Kushner imagined the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg visiting an AIDS-wracked Cohn in his Tony Award-winning 1991 play, “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” In 2003, director Mike Nichols adapted the play for HBO Films with Al Pacino playing Cohn and Meryl Streep as Ethel. (Nichols, at least, was Jewish.)
The following year, Julius and Ethel’s granddaughter, Ivy Meeropol, released “Heir to an Execution,” a powerful documentary about the Rosenberg trial and its political and personal aftermath. Coincidentally, at last month’s New York Film Festival, Meeropol premiered “Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn,” which will air at a future date on HBO.
It’s difficult to glean a lesson, or a moral, from Roy Cohn’s life of narcissism, cruelty and self-loathing. After all, he penetrated the inner circles of power, and he reveled in the spoils of victory.
If history truly is the final judge, at least on Earth, then it’s a good idea to maintain the Book of Bad Jews.