In the grip of AIDS, the all‑powerful Roy Cohn maintained his fierce bravado. One year after his death, his young cousin tells the inside story.
BY DAVID LLOYD MARCUS
Showing the flag: Cohn’s last portrait, for Vanity Fair, four months before he died.
One Sunday morning in December 1985, I went to have coffee with Roy Cohn in a penthouse overlooking the Breakers hotel in Palm Beach. I was a reporter for the Miami Herald, but the visit was personal. Roy Cohn was my cousin, and I had a question to ask him, and a favor. He was slouched on a chaise longue on the concrete deck, his chest slick with tanning oil, and when he saw me he stuck out a quivering right hand. His right eye was a confusion of red lines. We talked about the latest society divorces for a few minutes until his young companion, Peter Fraser, went inside.
Then I asked the question: "They say you have AIDS. Is it true?"
"Who the hell is 'they,' and how would 'they' know?” Roy said, his anger apparent even in his feeble voice. "It's a smear campaign." He pursed his thin lips into a devil‑baiting smile. "Of course," he added, "I have been a high‑risk candidate."
He insisted that his ailment was liver cancer and that it was in remission. “I had to go to the hospital for a blood transfusion Friday. It took ten hours," he said, as if he were talking about filing a brief.
Even in his emaciated condition, his voice reduced to a whisper, he came across like the toughest bully on the block, temporarily sidelined with a cold. Slowly, painfully, he walked out to the heated pool and swam two laps. As he dabbed himself with a towel, he lectured me about the "immorality" of his enemies the New York Bar, which was threatening to disbar him, and the I.R.S., which was pursuing him for income‑tax evasion.
It occurred to me, as he spoke, that if anyone could defend himself against death and taxes, it was Roy.
Then I asked the favor: I wanted to shadow him for six months and write a story. He agreed, and told me to fly to New York in three weeks for his annual New Year's Eve party.
Six years earlier, as a sophomore at Brown University, I had made an appointment to see Roy in order to ask him about Joseph McCarthy for a term paper. It had been a rite of passage for me.
Roy and my father, Lloyd Marcus, were first cousins, but opposites in every way. They hadn't spoken for twenty years. I grew up with the notion that Roy Marcus Cohn was the embodiment of evil.
I arrived early for my appointment at his town house on East Sixty‑eighth Street, and he kept me waiting for two hours. Then I took the elevator up to his little office on the fourth floor, sat down opposite him, and gawked at the autographed pictures on his walls: Floyd Patterson, J. Edgar Hoover, Reggie Jackson, Terence Cardinal Cooke...
The lights on his phone flashed constantly, and every few minutes he would pick up the receiver and mutter cryptic advice to a client. In between, he reminisced about the McCarthy era and dropped in gossip about upcoming Yankee trades. I was hooked. From then on, we stayed in touch.
Roy grew up in the Bronx. His father, appointed to the New York State Supreme Court by Franklin Roosevelt, was gentle and reserved. His mother was overbearing, "like the cow that gives milk and then kicks over the pail,” as my grandmother, Roy's aunt, likes to say. Everyone in the family can tell a Dora Cohn anecdote. For instance, the first summer Roy went away to camp, Dora stayed in a hotel nearby the entire time.
At Passover, the Cohns always hosted Seder dinners for relatives and friends. In 1953 Roy returned home from the McCarthy hearings halfway through the meal. As the youngest person at the table, he had to ask the traditional question from the prayer book: "Why is this night different from all others?"
Dora answered irritably, "Because the maid died in the pantry.” The woman had indeed expired just before the guests arrived, and Dora had had the body stowed in the servants' quarters, awaiting the coroner.
Following Roy around during his last months, I came to see that much of his life was like that Passover dinner. Though you thought you'd seen it all -the perfectly scripted, elaborate feast- you had in fact missed the body hidden in the back room.
On December 31, 1985, I climbed the red‑carpeted staircase to Roy's foyer for what I knew would be his last New Year's Eve party. Buck Buchholz was playing riffs on the grand piano. Roy, in a white dinner jacket and red bow tie with sequins, huddled with Carmine De Sapio, the aging Tammany Hall boss. Andy Warhol stood in a corner, beside a portrait of Roy by Norris Church, Norman Mailer's wife. Just after midnight, Roy rounded up the hundred guests. "I thank you all for coming, and with great confidence I look forward to seeing you next year. Since our president cannot run for office again, I want you all to know I am available in 1988."
The toasts were recorded at length in the New York Post, owned by Roy's friend Rupert Murdoch. The next morning, Roy and Peter Fraser drove to Roy's Greenwich, Connecticut, house in their red Cadillac convertible. I followed, stopping to admire Roy's two llamas in the front yard.
When I walked into the dining room, Roy was holding court at the big oak table. Six or seven men sat in a ring, talking about the twenty‑year‑old grandson of one of Roy's clients, a mob figure. The young man was in prison.
“I bet he's been screwed in the shower," one of the guests volunteered.
“I wish I was the one doing it," another said.
Then someone asked what I did for a living, and the room quickly cleared. I told Roy my grandmother was taking me to see La Cage aux Folles on Broadway that night. Roy smirked. “I could play any part in it," he said.
Everyone who spent time with Roy knew that the stories of his engagements to Barbara Walters and several other women were fiction. Ever since I was a kid, I had watched him attend family reunions with a series of younger male companions, who were invariably introduced as "office managers” from his firm, Saxe, Bacon & Bolan, but whom one of my relatives always referred to as Roy's tricks.
In the early 1980s Roy introduced a man named Russell Eldridge as his secretary. Soon I learned that Russell had become very sick. Roy put him up in a quiet, private suite at the Barbizon Plaza, overlooking Central Park. When Russell died, Roy was heartbroken. Later I gathered that Russell had died of AIDS.
I first met Peter Fraser three years ago. Roy was visiting Florida for a debate with leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union, and we go together for breakfast. Peter had blondish hair and a model's sinewy body. He was twenty‑five ‑one year older than me and half Roy's age. Roy spared me the "office manager” introductions. "Have you met my friend Peter?” he asked.
At nineteen, Peter had left his farm town in New Zealand to see California. He met Roy at a party in Mexico, and soon after that he moved into the thirty-three‑room town house in Manhattan. While Roy was alive, I never knew much more than that. Peter had a way of engaging in conversation without saying anything that revealed his personality. But I soon realized that he was different from the others. He wasn't intimidated by Roy, and he always managed to be at his side, reading his mind. As time passed he started to use Roy words like “schlepp,” and he completed Roy's sentences without missing a beat.
"We had dinner with Estée Lauder after…" Roy would say, becoming distracted as he glanced around a party. "Where was that, Peter?" "In Monaco, after we went to Paris, where you did that television interview."
During the winter and spring of 1986, I visited them in New York, Greenwich, and Palm Beach. Later I learned that doctors at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, had diagnosed Roy's AIDS the previous October. The only two people who knew were Peter and Roy's partner of thirty years, Tom Bolan. To his secretary, Susan Bell, and his closest friends he kept dispensing progress reports of his liver cancer.
In December, at the time he told me he didn't have AIDS, Roy seemed like a man unconcerned with death. But privately he was obsessed with it. He wrote a will. He fretted about which White House officials and senators would attend his funeral. He told Peter he never wanted to be plugged into life‑support machines. “I don't want to be a vegetable," he said.
One night in January, Roy woke up and stumbled into the bathroom. He could barely walk. Peter heard him fumbling in the medicine cabinet.
"Roy, what are you doing?” he called.
"I'm going to finish this off," Roy said. He grabbed a bottle of pills, but was too weak to open it. It tumbled to the floor.
Peter gently persuaded him to go back to bed.
Anyone could tell toward the end that Roy's memory ebbed and flowed. For a couple of months he was buoyed by what seemed to be a miraculous recovery. He was at his peak in February, when he returned to Palm Beach for a weekend of recuperation at a friend's mansion. A 60 Minutes producer was in town with a crew to do an updated story on Roy, and I joined them. I placed my tape recorder next to him, and we had an interview while a camera and a boom mike pointed at our faces and Roy's Irish‑wolfhound puppy, Disraeli, played at our feet.
Transcribing the tape later, I noticed that he brought up the subject of death a couple of times. While railing about the I.R.S., he said, "I just have no interest in money. I have enough for what I want, I'm not looking to buy a jet plane, and after I'm dead I have no responsibilities toward people."
"What about your obligation to the Irish wolfhound?” I asked, trying to add a note of levity.
"Peter over there can take care of the wolfhound," Roy replied.
A couple of weeks later I flew to New York for his fifty‑ninth birthday. I waited in the lobby of the town house with Ken Burdick, the chauffeur, while Roy got dressed. When he shuffled toward me, he said, "Hi, Gary. How's the weather in Florida?"
Gary is one of my cousins. Peter, walking a step behind Roy, corrected him: "You mean David." Roy seemed not to hear.
When we piled into the back of his burgundy Rolls‑Royce and headed for the party, Roy suddenly was rejuvenated. He talked about finding a replacement for a llama that had died. He couldn't decide what to name the newcomer, and he laughed at Peter's suggestion: Dalai Llama.
Mike Wallace and the 60 Minutes crew were already set up. Donald Trump, Lee Iacocca, Norman Mailer, and Steve Rubell ignored the glare of the lights. Roy's partner Stanley Friedman, about to be indicted for bribery, did his best to look chipper. Basha Szymanska, the hostess, uncorked Château Bouscaut '70 for the occasion. After the speeches, Roy told everyone to hold the date for next year. We all clapped loudly and I noticed a lot of wet eyes, including my grandmother's.
In May I called Roy to arrange my final interview. Susan Bell read me a message he had dictated: "Dear David, You don't seem to understand I don't want to answer any more of your questions about myself. You already have enough material for an article, two books, a movie, a play, and several crossword puzzles."
In June the New York State Supreme Court ‑the court his father had served on‑ disbarred Roy for dishonesty, fraud, and deceit in cases dating back as far as twenty years. I called to say I was sorry.
“Roy's out on the boat," Peter said. "He's not worried. They're a bunch of cheap politicians."
The weekend of July 4, Roy and Peter were supposed to fly to Provincetown with friends. Roy felt tired, so Peter invited the friends to Greenwich for a barbecue. By midafternoon Roy was so weak and dazed that Peter called the doctor and chartered a jet to the National Institutes of Health.
During the next four weeks Roy slipped in and out of consciousness. Peter sat next to the bed or lay beside him, holding his hands. He left only to work out in the gym. Once, he returned to find Roy screaming. Roy didn't recognize the nurses or the doctors, but he calmed down when Peter walked in. After a few days he stopped speaking. His famous darting tongue was silenced. He attempted to move his jaws, but he had lost control.
Peter would decipher what he was trying to say: "You want to be moved to your other side?” "You want a blanket?” Roy couldn't nod, but he responded with movements of his big, boyish eyes. Peter told the doctors of Roy's wish not to be preserved as a vegetable.
Like others in the family, I knew something was wrong, but I wasn't sure what. Susan Bell would say only that Roy was in the hospital and visitors weren't allowed. We had scheduled a family reunion in East Hampton for the end of July, and I figured somehow Roy and Peter would pull up in the red convertible or the Rolls, late as always. Instead, columnist Jack Anderson produced a zinger: transcripts of Roy's hospital records, leaving no doubt that his disease was AIDS, not liver cancer.
On Saturday, August 2, I went fishing with friends on Long Island. We got back late and didn't watch the news. I didn't learn until the next day that Roy had been conscious only off and on for several days and had died at six A.M. with Peter by his side.
He died on a Saturday, a slow news day, which guaranteed editors' attention. And he died in the morning, allowing the papers plenty of time to put together big spreads for the Sunday editions. Every story mentioned AIDS. Ironically, the Post, always his staunch defender, doesn't publish on Sundays.
Once death caught up with Roy, taxes weren't far behind. At the end of 1986, I stopped by the town house and spoke to Tom Bolan, who looked thin and pale. Roy had bequeathed his assets to Tom and Peter, but the I.R.S. had ordered all the assets frozen. Another lawyer in the firm told me that Roy's associates had offered to settle part of his $7 million debt with the I.R.S., but the first offers had been rejected. They were afraid the town house would be sold to pay back taxes to the federal government, the state, and the city.
Peter met me for dinner at a restaurant on Madison Avenue. It was the first time we'd really had a chance to talk. He told me about coming to America with just a backpack, and how he became immersed in Roy's world.
"I'm learning about a whole different New York,” he said, at once amused and sad. "I'm not sure I like it. I never took a subway until Roy died."
I had to smile when Peter talked about moving out of the town house. "I've got a lot of furniture to schlepp,” he said.
I asked if he resented Roy at all. "He was wonderful to me," he said, and his eyes welled with tears.
He took me for a last walk through the house. The red rugs were soiled and tattered. Chunks had fallen off the Corinthian columns. We took the creaking elevator up to the sixth floor, and I looked out to the sun‑tanning deck, which had buckled from the cold weather. On the fourth floor, Roy's office was locked tight. "The firm wants to keep me out. They think I'm going to steal things," Peter said. On the third floor, Peter opened his door and out bounded Disraeli, now a 180‑pound dog the size of a colt. The door across the hall was shut, and the Disneyland plastic sign that said ROY'S ROOM had been stripped off. One of the lawyers was letting a friend stay there. “I don't even know who he is," said Peter with disgust.
I left him and Disraeli and continued to the second floor, where Roy had held his parties. The only furniture left was a sofa and a faded green love seat. A pipe in the ceiling had burst, and plaster chips the size of footprints littered the hardwood floors.
Ken Burdick was by the front door.
“I'm just taking a look so I remember what it was like," I said. "I'm glad to see that old Rolls is still outside."
"Make an offer if you like it so much," he said. "It's for sale.”