Elevated by Joe McCarthy, felled by AIDS, he went with no regrets
March 1988
By Nicholas von Hoffman

Four months before the end, a haggard Cohn posed willingly, just as he’d sought the spotlight with McCarthy 35 years earlier.

A the time of his death on August 2, 1986, Roy Cohn was 59 and a generation had come to adulthood knowing of no senator named Joe McCarthy. But people born in the 1940s or earlier remember Cohn and his master performing on television. They remember coming home to be hushed by a mother or aunt who was watching the hearings; they remember a father's opinion, expressed at the family table when families still ate together. Roy served as chief counsel on Senator McCarthy's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. But exactly what was the subversive menace that Cohn investigated?

Today the United States, alone among the major democracies, has no Communists, no socialists, no anarchists, no left-wing political groups except in microscopic numbers. Few Americans under 50 have seen or heard a Communist who didn't speak with a foreign accent. The purging of American society in which Roy Cohn took such a conspicuous part in the early 1950s may seem like a gratuitously malevolent lunacy. In actuality, domestic Communism posed a problem like that posed by the Catholic Church to Protestant England in Elizabeth I's time. Both were sometimes public, sometimes clandestine organizations ideologically connected to a foreign power. Some of the members of the CPUSA were connected to the Soviet Union of Joseph Stalin.

The fact that these smart, tough men and women often did not identify themselves as Communists gave non-Communists a permanent case of the jitters. Citizens were taken before commissions, subcommittees, grand juries, courts and other instruments of inquiry. They were asked, by Roy Cohn and others, that terrible question: "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?

For younger people, however, Roy Cohn was simply another name for a très smart lawyer, for Disco Dan, for the international, I-go-by-private-plane man. He hosted parties in Washington; he was a lawyer with famous friends and rich, rich clients. He was a figure very tough and in on things, a champion of the underdog, though definitely running with the overdog pack. He nested on the nighttime radio call-in shows; he spread his wings over Koppel on Nightline. He appeared to be able to avoid all taxes and all penalties, maybe because he was connected, or on the A list, or known to the headwaiters and hostesses of New York.

But just as his Communist foes hid their secret beliefs, Roy Cohn hid his private life as a homosexual. When AIDS killed him in the bloom of the Reagan years, the public discourse had turned to family values and Americanism. The triumph of patriotic kitsch must have pleased Cohn, for he himself reveled in little flag-waving displays. At his parties he'd haul people to their feet to sing "God Bless America," evidently his favorite song, and though he was a lifelong operagoer, Roy's idea of a good time was to sing patriotic ditties at a piano bar in Provincetown, on Cape Cod. A friend recalled going home early one summer evening, and, on inquiring the next morning about the rest of the night, being told, "We all stood around the piano. Roy sang three choruses of 'God Bless America,' got a hard-on and went home to bed."

My vision of him in my youth was like everybody else's. I was living down in Texas, reading about the McCarthy era and was appalled, since I was a very liberal kid, raised in a liberal tradition, and I thought he was just the devil incarnate. But after I came to New York and was a little more cynical myself I got a big kick out of watching him operate here. This (New York) was really his dominion. And, you know, to the end of his life he remained this very strange Jewish son who was still trying to please his mother and father's portrait over his piano. - Liz Smith, syndicated gossip columnist.

Labor Day, 1984. Provincetown was readying itself for another night of dancing and partying, for this was the last holiday of the season. Lying on a chaise on the deck of Roy's cottage, Russell Eldridge was sick. He was 20 years younger than Roy, but misfortune had come to Russell first. At one time or another Russell had done everything for Roy but get into bed with him. He had mixed the drinks, cut Roy's hair, brought in the cash from Roy's various businesses. He ran strange errands, such as rounding up the night's boys at the Boat Slip bar in Provincetown. Gay people, straight people cottoned to Russell. He had a way of being a part of Roy's madnesses and yet standing apart from them, looking on with sardonic good humor. Years ago he was supposed to have been wicked, the mean kind of man hustler. He had outgrown his bad self, but now Russell was 50 pounds lighter, a shaking scarecrow, wrapped in towels and lying on Roy's deck.

There had been great times in Provincetown, but this time Russell hadn't wanted to come. He couldn't even walk by himself. "He knew he'd have to pretend he was feeling better than he was for Roy," Russell's friend Sue Greenig remembers. "That's what he did until he couldn't pretend anymore." Roy acted as if there were nothing wrong with Russell, though he knew the virus was in both their bodies. Roy wasn't admitting it, and Russell shouldn't either.

Roy would look at Russell and say, "Let's go to dinner," and they all would put Russell in the car and go, but Russell wasn't able to eat. Roy wasn't being cruel. "He was very good with him," Sue says, "but he refused to let him know that he knew Russell was really sick. Roy didn't want anybody to baby him." At the same time Roy could be heard blowing up at Roger, the houseboy, because he didn't bring Russell orange juice or water quickly enough.

The cottage was jammed with holiday people. It was a small place: Upstairs Peter Fraser and Roy shared the big bedroom, Sue and Russell were in the small one, and downstairs more casual friends came and went. "That's the way he liked it," Sue says. "People stacked up." Roy wasn't permitting any dying on these premises. "Russell doesn't have AIDS," he'd say. "He is fine; he is going to be O.K."

It was about a year after Russell's diagnosis that Roy was given his, and it happened the same way, beginning with a visit to the doctor's office for a small nothing. Roy apparently cut himself shaving, and it wouldn't stop bleeding. "He went to the doctor," one of Cohn's friends recalls, "and they re­moved two growths plus something on his leg." Roy's own account, which may be less than 100 percent reliable, was that he was in his plane flying to Washington when the call came through on the radiotelephone telling him that a growth on his ear was malignant. His story to the end was that he had cancer, not AIDS.

Roy thought he'd have six months to live, although in fact he would have two years. To his lover Peter Fraser, 28, it seemed that Roy dealt with the news very practically. "When he found out, he didn't cry but a couple of tears," Peter says. "He was thinking about his Aunt Libby and his friends who would be affected by him dying. He tried to make sure I would be taken care of."

Yet Cohn would die hard; he would clamp onto the doorjambs, and when death yanked him through to the other side, he would go without grace and without the consolations of philosophy, arms flailing, legs kicking. But for now, in the summer of '84, he made ready. He took out his yellow legal pads and worked on his memoirs. "He just started doing it on the boat or in the sun somewhere," Peter says. "He'd write longhand, page after page after page."

The only child of Dora and Albert Cohn was born on February 20, 1927, at Manhattan's Woman's Hospital. Roy's father was a judge who had married into the well-to-do Marcus family. "When Roy was born, he was a cute little baby, an adorable-looking kid, but he had a little spur on his nose and that drove Dora crazy," one of the family says. "She took him to some surgeon or other who botched the job of trying to get rid of the spur. All his life Roy had that scar down his nose."

Roy lived at home until Dora died in 1969. He was a middle-aged man before he and this driving, loving, shy, combative woman parted. The young lawyers who worked in Cohn’s law office in the '50s and '60s, after he'd returned from Washington, were amused by Dora. They were fond of her in a teasing way. Howard Krantz, one of the associates, recalls that she had a slight speech impediment that caused her to call her son Woy. Dora also called him "my child" so often they came to refer to Roy as "the child."

Having one's mother wandering around one's law office is not the way a practice is ordinarily run, but Roy always said that he mixed his personal and professional lives so thoroughly that they were an amalgam. It was thought he said this only because on his tax returns he wrote off his personal spending as business costs. But Roy was speaking the truth. Mother came and went in the office, and business meetings were often held at Dora's Park Avenue apartment.

Roy would leave a note at night: "Wake me up at ten o'clock " This was 1959. One morning Nixon called. Dora picked up the phone at a quarter of ten. He said, "Hello, is Roy there? "She said, "Who's calling, please? "He said, "This is Vice President Nixon. "And she said, "Could you call him back in fifteen minutes?" He said "Well, I'm at the airport and I'm getting a plane to Washington. " She said, "I suggest you call him when you get to Washington." - Neil Walsh, a childhood friend of Cohn's.

Roy never fussed over anyone the way his mother had fussed over him. But that summer on the Cape, there was a tenderness in the way he helped Russell Eldridge down to the beach. His neighbors next door were struck by his solicitude--markedly different from the pro forma, stylized gestures they were familiar with. For example, Roy asked them to give a dinner party for TV personality Barbara Walters, his friend for 30 years. In the 1950s the two had dated (Roy even said they'd been engaged). Now, visiting the Cape, Barbara was bored and without inner resources, according to Roy. So he made this big, ostentatious entertainment gesture and afterward sent the hosts flowers. But what he did for Russell was private, done for Russell alone.

Russell died in January 1985. Roy and Peter and Ed Gillis, another friend, were in Florida at the time. They flew back the next day, and at dinner that night Gillis said, "Roy didn't cry, and he wasn't about to cry. He was angry but very reserved in his anger, and maybe he just cursed the disease and talked about how he had been trying to get somebody in the Office of Management and Budget to increase funding for research."

The politicians of the gay community held it against Roy, when he was stricken, for not facing the lenses, telling the world he had the disease and campaigning for money for research. Apparently Cohn didn't use his power or his contacts to help when he was uniquely positioned to do so. But Peter Fraser is certain Roy worked behind the scenes. "While this [his illness] was going on," Fraser says, "Roy made a call and got a large amount of money-many millions of dollars. Of course, he would never tell anyone he had done it."

Roy decreed that there should be a memorial service for Russell in the town house on East 68th Street, the moldering old building in Manhattan where Cohn lived and kept his law offices. There was a controversy over whether the casket should be open or closed. Before it was resolved, Roy had a screaming fit about the undertaker, swearing he'd have the man's license pulled.

The large second-floor living room where Roy had his caviar-and-champagne parties was so crowded that some people had to stand in the hall. Roy, with that marvelous memory still working for him, recited a poem by Omar Khayyam that he said had been his father's favorite. Russell Eldridge was dead, and now Roy was facing the last full year of his own life.

During the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, Cohn was testifying on the stand and he used the moment to pay tribute to Tailgunner Joe [McCarthy]. Afterward we were standing outside the Senate Caucus Room when we were approached by a little old lady. And she really was just that. This tiny little woman with white hair, wearing tennis shoes, with tears coming from her eyes. "Oh, Mr. Cohn, " she said "I just couldn't believe your wonderful tribute to the senator. It meant so much to me. " Cohn turned to me--although she was standing right there--with that cold look he had. "I almost believed it myself " he said. She looked like she had been hit with a whip, and l said to him: "You dirty SOB."-historian William Manchester.

People would put the question to Roy, but the only ones who knew for certain that Cohn had AIDS were Peter Fraser and law partner Tom Bolan. Robert Blecker recalls going to see Cohn at his small stone house in Greenwich, Conn., a charming place in a glen by the side of a fast-running brook. Blecker, a New York Law School professor, had ghost-written one of Roy's books. "We talked a lot about life and the meaning of it, and his illness," Blecker says. "I asked Roy, 'You don't have AIDS, do you?' And he said, 'Oh, God, no! If I had AIDS, I would have thrown myself out the window of the hospital. I have liver cancer. There would be no reason to stick around and live if I had AIDS.' He was denying it to somebody who knew he was gay--with whom he was open about being gay--and who knew he was very sick."

For as long as he could, as hard as he could, Roy forced himself to carry on his normal life. He lunched, he partied, he water-skied, he traveled. He kept the telephone in his ear; he kept moving in business, politics, deal making and even in sex. And he continued to practice what one colleague called his "other perversion "--publicity.

New York lawyer Roy Cohn is flanked by U.S. Information Agency Director Charles Wick and Sen. Chic Hecht (R.-Nev.) after Cohn received the Americanism Award at a Washington reception over the weekend. President Reagan congratulated Cohn via video. -the New York Post March 1985

Peter Fraser had been delighted to meet the President when Roy took him to dinner at the White House a few years before. Peter traveled as Cohn's "office manager." "We went into a small room," Fraser recalls. "Several people were milling there. Roy said, 'Why don't you come meet a friend of mine?' As I was walking over, I scuffed my shoe and the sole came off. I was dragging my foot so I wouldn't go flop-flop, and Roy said, 'I want you to meet the President and Mrs. Reagan.' The President was very warm. He was probably so nice to me because he thought I was handicapped. This poor boy dragging his foot."

Peter and Roy were a complementary pair--Roy from the grand world and Peter from a distant rural one. He had grown up on a farm in New Zealand. The name Roy Cohn didn't evoke in Peter what it did in Americans. "People would ask me how could I be associated with somebody who did all these awful things in the 1950s," he says. "I don't know about any of that."

"Once, at a lunch given by [New York socialite] C.Z. Guest, he introduced me as Sir Peter Fraser. I thought: Oh, God! What are you doing? The next day it was in the Eugenia Sheppard column. She wrote about who came to C.Z.'s for lunch--Peter Fraser, the Prime Minister of New Zealand."

Roy liked to play games with his friends in the gossip columns, and not always nice ones. A lawyer closely associated with Roy in the 1960s remembers, "He once let something happen in a column, something like, 'Rumors are circulating that Roy Cohn may be tying the knot with So-and-so.' Miss So-and-so would be calling the office to talk to him because she didn't know anything about it. He'd dodge her. His secretary would say, 'So-and-so is calling. She's called four times this morning. She wants to know about the Jack O'Brian column.' He'd say, 'Tell her I'll talk to her tomorrow. I gotta run.' And it was he who planted the item!"

In the early 1950s my wife and I lived in a small one-room apartment on West 70th Street, and we had Roy to dinner. I had known Roy since we went to high school together. I remember Roy came in and said, "Can I use the telephone? "He dialed the operator and said so we could hear it "Get me Walter Winchell at the Boca Raton Hotel in Boca Raton, Florida. "He got Winchell on the phone, and he proceeded to plot out with Winchell how to do something nasty to Jimmy Wechsler. James Wechsler had been a young Communist, but by then he was a columnist on the New York Post, or perhaps even the editor, and had long since given that up. And here was Roy Cohn saying, "Now, Walter, we could play this up, and we could do that, "and listening to this thing, I should have said, if I had had any guts, "Roy, that's outrageous", please leave. "But I didn't." - Anthony Lewis, columnist for The New York Times

Roy wanted to do everything and go everywhere one more time. Half his life he had spent traveling. He could never stay still, he didn't have the attention span for it, so in the summer of 1985 he took off for Monte Carlo. When he got back, he took off in the August heat for Israel with Peter and two Republican senators, Jesse Helms from North Carolina and Chic Hecht, a backbencher from Nevada who was devoted to Roy. The Israeli military took their important guests off on automobile and airplane tours; they kept moving until eight o'clock in the evening.

All the while Roy was taking shots of Interferon, which, says Peter, not only was sapping his body but, worse, was affecting Roy's mind. "It wasn't so much a dementia, it was more disorientation and confusion. Sometimes he would all of a sudden realize he'd said something totally wacky." This would panic Roy, and then depress him, because the one thing he'd always prided himself on was his intellect, being fast on his feet. "How he ever struggled through that trip..." marvels Tom Bolan. "When he came back, he had had it."

With his old friends, Roy no longer had the self-mastery to hide his trouble. Barbara Walters recalls an emotional lunch they had in a restaurant when he returned from Israel. As the tears ran down his face, she tried to distract him with news and bits of gossip. Afterward she told friends that if his cancer was a judgment from God, then Roy Cohn had been punished enough.

He was engaged at one time to Barbara Walters and his mother broke that up. Dora used to call me and say, "Have you seen him out with 'that girl'?" She'd say, "I'm not mentioning the name. I'd say, "Then don't ask me. "Barbara took it long enough, and I guess Roy realized it wouldn't work out. - Mrs. George Sokolsky, widow of the Hearst newspaper columnist of the 1950s

By the fall of '85 Roy was having trouble breathing and was suffering from short-term memory loss. The Roy Cohn barter-and-swap exchange, specializing in deals, favors and reciprocities of all kinds, was in abeyance. When Si Newhouse's son Sam wanted the impossible--a berth for his yacht at the East 23rd Street marina--the chore fell to one of Roy's law partners, Stanley Friedman. (Friedman was later to be convicted on unrelated corruption charges.) For 40 years Roy had been taking care of the Newhouses, billionaire owners of newspapers and magazines, and for 40 years the Newhouses had been taking care of Roy. No longer.

In early November he went to Bethesda, Md., outside Washington, for treatment at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center. He used his clout to get to the head of the line for AZT, then an experimental drug. But as he began his long dying, Cohn lost control over the image he had always projected of himself. Ambitious reporters, greedy people, old enemies began to move in on his secrets. "Roy Cohn Reported on Verge of Death," blared the New York Daily News, the city's largest-circulation paper. The little Chelsea Clinton News headlined, "Cohn Has AIDS?" and then answered its own question: "Roy Cohn, reported in the Daily News and The New York Times as having liver cancer, is being treated by Dr. Bijan Safai, whose field of expertise is Kaposi's sarcoma, a form of AIDS."

The deathwatch was on. Michelle Golden, a young real estate dealer and daughter of a powerful Brooklyn politician, calculated the commercial opportunities. She began calling Roy's law firm in hopes of getting the listing for the town house on 68th Street. It would sell for millions, and so Golden persisted, phoning seven times and meeting twice with Stanley Friedman about future dispositions of property. Roy would have appreciated her grasping hand.

Cohn responded to the AZT. But the files hint at a not wholly cooperative patient: "… Reinforce need for celibate state … Caution against spread of disease … Pat [patient] stated somewhat reluctant to become celibate… On the other hand, "Patient asked for information on sexual practices. I [an unnamed doctor] stated that the safest sex was none but if he wanted to have sex, he would need to use condoms and especially inform his partner that he had AIDS."

Roy wasn't confined to the hospital. Once he went to downtown Washington for lunch, and he made sure the event found its way into the gossip columns. There was a fighting, in-character quote: "I'm recovering faster and better than anyone anticipated. Those people who have had me at death's door may be surprised to see Roy Cohn leaving his deathbed to have lunch at the posh Madison Hotel in Washington.”

Peter Fraser, however, remembers the bouts of dementia. "He would say things like, “The six senators who were here this afternoon--I'm going to talk to them, and you are all going to be sorry. That wasn't Roy, it was the disease."

Peter goes on: "Once I woke up, hearing him, and asked, 'Roy, what's wrong?' This was the one time he reacted negatively to me. He said, 'You! You tried to kill me. Get out!' It wasn't until about seven a.m.--we were up all night with the doctors, talking to him--that he was finally convinced I hadn't tried to kill him and that I was his friend." They would celebrate Thanksgiving six times because Roy couldn't remember eating the turkey.

After three weeks of treatments, Cohn was discharged on November 23. Telegrams came. "I just learned that you are being sent home from the hospital," read one. "Nancy and I are keeping you in our thoughts and prayers. May our Lord bless you with courage and strength. Take care and know that you have our concern. Ronald Reagan." During the last months, there was a succession of such messages. Each one was framed and hung in the den of the house in Greenwich.

In Palm Beach before Christmas, Roy told Lois Romano of the Washington Post that his liver cancer was in remission. But he confessed to musing about his funeral. "I've envisioned who would be strong enough to give the eulogy," he said. "I've even imagined White House meetings, with them trying to decide whether the President or Mrs. Reagan would attend. [I've imagined] what this senator said, what that senator said. It was really as though I had passed away and I was back on the scene from some place above or below."

In March 1986, looking awful, Roy was interviewed on "60 Minutes." Mike Wallace put it to him: Are you now or have you ever been a homosexual? Ditto with AIDS. Roy fought it off the best he could: "I'll tell you categorically, I do not have AIDS." Well, then how did all this talk about you get started? "Oh, it's a cinch, Mike. Take this set of facts: bachelor, unmarried, middle-aged--well, young middle-aged. The stories go back to the [McCarthy] days."

At home he talked about suicide. He would use his store of Valium and sleeping pills, he told Peter. "One night I woke up," Fraser says, "and I heard the rattling of the pills and the bottles. Roy was out of bed going through his medicine bag, trying to open bottles that he could never open, because they're all childproof."

"What are you doing?" Peter wanted to know.

"I'm trying to get enough pills to finish it," Roy told him.


"I can't get the damn bottle open .... Open it."

"No," Peter said, "you open it, and if you can't, go back to bed." Roy threw the bottles down and went back to bed.

As attached as he was to Peter, Roy still kept in contact with other boyfriends. Peter says, "Of course, I used to get extremely jealous. He would fly Mark in every couple of months from San Francisco. He would always try to keep it secret, and I would always find out. Roy used to think I had a spy. I'd see the tickets being delivered to the office, or I'd see a bill from the travel agent, and I'd make Roy's life miserable."

"What's he coming in for?" Peter would demand.

"I'm dying, goddamit! "Roy would shout back. "It may be the last time I see him."

"You said that the last four times!"

The New York Bar Association had begun disbarment proceedings against Cohn. He was charged with unethical conduct in four old cases he'd handled. One of Roy's defense team remembers that rather than slipping discreetly into the closed hearing room that spring, Roy would tool down Fifth Avenue in a red Cadillac, top down, and swagger into the NYBA offices. In federal trials in 1964, 1969 and 1971 Roy had been acquitted on a variety of more serious charges. But this time his enemies prevailed. Peter Fraser was with Roy in Greenwich when he got the news in June that he was a lawyer no more.

"I had been taking all his calls and making all his calls for him," says Peter. "But he happened to be by the phone as it rang. He picked it up and it was [TV reporter] Gabe Pressman, asking if Roy had any comment on his disbarment.

Of course Roy said, 'I couldn't care less.' Then he went up to his room. He talked to Tom Bolan and cried, and from that day on I had to force him to eat. He just wouldn't eat."

In July, instead of taking off for Provincetown as he'd always done, Roy went to the hospital again in Maryland, his last trip. Shortly before he left, a friend going away on vacation popped in, and Roy told him, "I don't think I'll be here when you come back, so goodbye."

In New York it was common knowledge that Roy was hospitalized again. Among those gays who'd made the disco scene in the last wild years before the plague, there were remarks to the effect that if anybody would get the infection, it would have to be Roy M. Cohn, such was his behavior. One man, seized with a hatred of operatic proportions, went around Greenwich Village boasting that he had arranged to put Roy together with an infected lover. The story was malarkey, but it showed the depth of Roy's still unforgiven crimes.

During the last few weeks of Cohn's life a Jack Anderson--Dale Van Atta column publicized inside information about his AZT treatments and his ghastly suffering. The two journalists were attacked for breaking the seal of medical secrecy, and the NIH let it be known that prosecution was not out of the question, thereby certifying the story.

If he had been able to add his voice to the quarreling about this last shot of publicity, doubtless Roy would have come down against Anderson, whom he'd broken with long ago. However, before falling sick, Roy had told a friend that at the beginning of the Nixon-McGovern campaign of 1972, it was he who had arranged for Senator Thomas Eagleton's medical history to be made public. The news that the Democratic candidate for Vice-President had once been treated with electroshock therapy for depression forced Eagleton off the ticket. Of course, Roy didn't do everything he said he did. He liked to take credit for other men's villainies when he could.

At about six in the morning, before the August heat could build, death finally stilled him. Roy in his hospital bed gasped his last, and Peter was there holding his hand. Some 400 or more came to the memorial service in October, including Senator Hecht, but not the President and First Lady. It must have been a prickly problem for the Reagans, who practiced the politics of propriety with the same unyielding rigidity as Roy had. Perhaps on account of their show business background, the Reagans have a history of personal tolerance toward homosexuals. Several worked on his gubernatorial staff in California until a scandal forced their resignations. Yet during all these years, Ronald Reagan, like Roy himself, has never supported gay rights legislation. In his casket Roy wore a tie bearing the President's name.

He gives not only to big charities, but little charities. I can give you dozens of instances. A man who loves people, loves animals. He once jumped into a river to save a dog. He is a man who likes to help the underdog. He has always been a sucker for a letter from a person in prison, much to his great disappointment later, but he has helped people without counsel. He has helped big people, judges, lawyers, without fee, because he felt the charges against them were unfair. He does the work of any five lawyers. - Tom Bolan, testifying at the disbarment hearings of Roy Cohn.