Let’s talk for a minute about Roy Cohn. Roy Cohn was Donald Trump’s lawyer, and earlier this year, after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself on the Mueller investigation, Trump issued the plaint: “Where is my Roy Cohn?”
Dead, Donald. Long dead. If people remember Cohn at all, they think of the eager assistant to Sen. Joe McCarthy, chairman of the committee that brought the term “witch hunt” into popular parlance long before Donald Trump splashed it all over Twitter. In the 1950s, brandishing a list of supposed Communist infiltrators, McCarthy ruined the lives of dozens of talented people including Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. McCarthy’s downfall was dramatic enough to resemble a Trumbo screenplay. Censured by the Senate, he died at 48, killed by hepatitis exacerbated by alcoholism.
My mother introduced me to Roy Cohn when I was a tender young thing. He was a shadowy power player in New York politics, and, not so incidentally, Donald Trump’s fixer.
Here’s the skeleton in my closet: my mother served on the board of the Women’s National Republican Club. She and her friend Rosemary were the Young Turks of that doughty organization, which even my mother joked about as “Ladies With Hats.”
Mom ran The School of Politics, a speaker’s series hosting big shots like Cohn, and on one memorable occasion, Ronald Reagan. These Very Important Men — I don’t recall any women but perhaps there were some — purveyed their wisdom to the Ladies With Hats.
As a divorcée, my mother had no one to escort her to these affairs, so she forced either me or my brother to be her plus ones. Mercifully, the club’s bartender had a heavy hand. My M.O. was knocking back cocktails while sinking progressively deeper into the nearest plushly upholstered couch. When my mother needed me, I would leap up to shake hands and thank the Republican men when they told me I was as pretty as my mother, which I didn’t believe.
Roy Cohn, as I recall, looked like a lizard. For an ugly guy, he was oddly attractive; sexually attractive, even, although I knew he was gay. My mother had told me about a yacht belonging to Cohn, the parties with boys. No big deal. Three-quarters of my mother’s friends were gay. The scene was not foreign to my blasé teenage self, even if the yacht and the wealth were a cut above the usual appurtenances.
Years later, when I went to the first production of Angels in America, I thought F. Murray Abraham got it all wrong. He played Cohn as a screamer. When I met him, Cohn spoke so softly I had to lean closer to hear him. It’s an old trick, but it impressed me as a teenager.
My mother once asked Cohn to be her fixer, but there was no money involved. Her best friend Judy, an Elizabeth Taylor lookalike and world-class drunk, was in the midst of her third divorce. A fireman’s daughter from Detroit, Judy had scored, or so she thought, marrying an old money WASP named Bill. Bill raced cars, and, like Judy, he drank. The word “work” was not mentioned. He was that kind of guy, nice enough, fishy blue eyes outlined with red when he was hung over.
Bill and Judy’s divorce was getting ugly. Bill had moved out of their Park Avenue apartment, the lawyers were doing what lawyers do. The problem was that Bill was not paying the rent. Judy was about to be evicted. Evicted! Her response was to drink more. She took to wearing her nightgown during the day. She called my mother threatening to throw herself out the window. My mother would rush over in a cab. On one of these occasions, she held Judy under a cold shower to sober her up, Judy still wearing the aforementioned nightgown.
Clearly, this could not continue. My mother called Roy Cohn’s office. The receptionist made an appointment for her to talk, not to the great man himself, but to one of his associates. At the Upper East Side brownstone that served as Cohn’s home and office, my mother recited Judy’s tale of woe. This was after Cohn’s gig at the School of Politics, of course; otherwise she would never have made it past the front door.
At the end of my mother’s recitation, a box on the lawyer’s desk buzzed. The lawyer pressed the speaker button. “Send her in,” said the metallic voice. Even with the poor sound quality, Mom recognized the voice as Cohn’s. She looked around the room, realizing it was bugged. Well, of course.
Obediently, she trotted up to Roy Cohn’s office, where he greeted her warmly. “Don’t worry, Barb,” he told her. “I’ll take care of it.”
Within 24 hours, Judy’s rent was paid. We never knew exactly what Cohn did; all we needed to know was that he had rescued our drunken damsel in distress.
Happy ever after, I guess. Judy married an oil man. She still drinks. My mother, no slouch in the booze department herself, died a few years ago. I’m happy to report that prior to her demise, Mom went back to the Democratic Party, where she had started her political life as a Kennedy Girl wearing a styrofoam straw boater with JFK’s name on it. Bill Clinton seduced her back into the fold. He was good at that.
Judy, despite her more impressive booze intake, was the practical one: she married repeatedly. My mother always had a thing for charming narcissists, being one herself. After my father, she never remarried.
So, you ask, why tell this story now?
Roy Cohn. Roy Cohn is why I believe every damn word that Stormy Daniels said on 60 Minutes, especially the story about a mob guy threatening to kill her if she talked about her hotel room misadventure with Trump.
Nobody would be surpised to discover that Michael Cohen called one of his Russian Mafia buddies to put the broad in her place. But this Cohen is miscast as a fixer. His work is sloppy. He leaves a trail of bread crumbs for prosecutors. I want to say: You sir, are no Roy Cohn.
My mother gave Roy Cohn her highest accolade: Cohn had balls. Unlike his feckless successor, he also had brains. (My mother, as you may have gleaned, wasn't exactly Donna Reed.) Despite my horror at his viciousness, I have a grudging respect for Cohn. When I was in journalism school, we received an assignment to write a fictional obituary. I wrote Cohn’s.
In my fictional obit, Roy Cohn died of AIDS-related complications. This was 1982. It stuns me now that I wrote this; we had barely heard of AIDS then.
In 1986, Cohn died of AIDS-related cardio-pulmonary arrest. Reportedly, he had AIDS-related dementia. Cohn did a lot of harm in his life, but dementia was an ignominious end for a man who lived by his wits.
It’s obvious who the smartest folks in the room are now, and none of them work for Donald Trump. Robert Mueller represents everything Trump is not; the same goes for James Comey, blinkered G-Man morality notwithstanding.
As I think of my mother and Judy, party girls at a time when they perceived only one route to success and that route led through mens’ bedrooms, I feel a certain affection for Stormy Daniels. She took the shitty hand she was dealt growing up in Louisiana and turned it into becoming a screenwriter and director, even if it was of porn films. She ended up with a string of horses, a real nice house in the suburbs, and a young husband who presumably doesn’t talk about himself in the grating narcissistic way that inspired her to spank The Donald with a rolled up magazine. Bad dog! (Go Stormy!)
Daniels has more balls, and I’m guessing, more brains, than either Donald Trump or his Married-to-the Mob fixer. Poor Michael Cohen! Like Trump’s reanimated corpse of 1950s America, he’s a cardboard cutout of a made man. We’re damn lucky that he’s not the real Roy Cohn.
Further reading — Nicholas von Hoffman’s essayistic obit for Cohn.