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The Real Unexciting Life of Roy M. Cohn

By (douglas B. Smith

COMMUNISM just isn't what it used to be; Roy M. Cohn just isn't what he used to be either. It has been more than fifteen years since the McCarthy hearings, highlighted by the special Cohn investigations of subversion in foreign embassies and military bases, and today Roy Cohn is in trouble: charges of blackmail, stock-manipulating, bribery, and fraud. Everyone knows about it, from the readers of Life, to Bob Morgenthau, District Attorney for Southern New York (the man who has brought the case against Cohn).

But things are not too bad, not in private, at least. The New York Times tells us that Roy is angry with the treatment the court is giving him, and he is having problems about which lawyers are going to represent him: "I'm probably the least qualified to act as lawyer... a man who acts as his own lawyer has a fool for a client." That is the public Roy.

A few weeks ago I went sailing with him on his ocean-going yacht, rapped with him, and simply observed the amazing Cohn milieu. He refuses to allow the threat of 36 years in jail and $41,000 in fines to interfere with the Real Roy's personal life.

An explanation is necessary here. A month ago, Gary, a friend of mine from high school, was released from a mental hospital, and I went to visit him. He suggested that we go sailing with his cousin. His cousin is Roy. So off we went to Cohn's residence, office.

The house is unmistakably Roy's though also a cliched epitome of Manhattan East Side sybarite splendor. Up the spiral staircase one encounters what can only be described as a trophy room. The walls are covered with walnut plaques, shield-shaped generally, though some are rectangular, with gold plates, the gold shellac now peeling away to show the brass underneath, bearing laudatory appreciations from the American Legion, The Veterans of Foreign Wars, and even the Rumsey, New Jersey Boys' High School: " To Roy M. Cohn, outstanding patriotic American, brilliant young attorney, fearless crusader, and defender of the faith against Godless Communism. "

The ego chamber is more than plaques, scrolls and citations. There are photographs of all Roy's friends with autographs: Ronald Reagan in his Ten Gallon Hat sends his regards; best wishes from Everett Dirksen, J. Edgar Hoover, Cardinal Spellman, and Cardinal Cooke, and finally a photograph of Nixon and Roy at a banquet, Dick whispering paternal advice to Roy. (Nixon is presently trying to remove Morgenthau as District Attorney, astonishingly enough.)

The F.B.I. had done some bugging to obtain evidence against Cohn, and I observed some wires running along the outside window sill. Hoping that at last I had gotten J. Edgar Hoover's ear, I delivered a subversive and anarchical speech to the empty room, while we were waiting for Roy to come down from the office.

I learned later that the wires on the sill were electrified wires placed there to keep the pigeons of New York from roosting: Keep that shit off the facade.

The surprising thing about the man who appears to be a shrewd manipulator of money and power is that he really likes to have a good time. He is not at all hung up by his professional role. He is not personally mean, despite what he may do in public. He is a hedonist with a mischievous sense of humor and fun: his bedroom is filled with toys and knick-knacks and a huge mirror is hung under the canopy of his bed.

HE FINALLY came down from work, dressed in Bermuda shorts and golfing shirt. I was amazed to find that he looks exactly like Roy Cohn, even the Roy Cohn of fifteen years ago. We were introduced, and he did a darting sideglance, "is this for real" (double take at the length of my hair). Gary and I both caught it, and Cohn tried to cover his surprised embarrassment with polite trivialities.

We left for the boat. Cohn was sporting a powder blue golfing windbreaker, wide wale scarlet corduroy pants, and sort of Pilgrim shoes with fancy buckles. We were accompanied by Dan and Jerry, two legal assistants, and Dan's omnipresent pair of miniature spaniels with matching cute names. Dan is short and stocky, with flowing Brillcream coiffure. Jerry is thin; he wore a red and white striped round-collared button down, and conjured up images of Kingston Trio. We said farewell to the two other legal assistants who strolled off in their six button au-courant east side uniforms and their enormous, pastel blue, round sunglasses.

Cohn's boat is named Defiance! Jerry proceeded to tell me that it is 140 feet long: twice the length of the Mayflower, in fact. It was purchased from one of the Forbes (magazine, plaza, etc.) and Roy related an anecdote concerning the unusual sexual aberrations of the former owner.

We were joined by Brian, another assistant to Roy. People began to drink various concoctions of Sprite, vodka, and bloody Mary's. Gary and I went to look for beer as a "feasible alternative," as they say, but failed to find any. Brian suggested that we have some champagne instead (it being the same color and gaseous), so we did.

The skipper and the first mate were disconcertingly light on their feet and very camp: they played for Roy a record of selections from radio shows and commercials of the '40's-the Green Hornet, the Lone Ranger, Camay Soap, and Phillip Morris.

We sat in the adjoining room while the others reminisced. Brian, I noticed, had disappeared up top. I went out to walk around on the deck and detected the unmistakable smell of dope on the sea breeze.

Ella Fitzgerald replaced the Green Hornet while we sat around in the cabin before dinner. Lying around on the shelves were copies of The Chairman, -with Gregory Peck on the cover, an Oscar Wilde anthology, a Thoreau anthology, and The Age of Rock Jerry discussed Peter Fonda, Edward Albee, and the Metropolitan Opera strike.

At dinner, in the mirrored dining room, Roy inquired with genuine scientific curiosity when I had last had my hair cut. This led to another question about where I went to school.

He smirked upon learning, and wanted to know if I had taken any courses from "famous professors." I mumbled something about Wald and Beer. "Wald? He's ABM, isn't he? I hate those God damned crusaders."

Fortunately, the conversation shifted to entertainment. Roy contended that "Mame" was the greatest musical ever produced. He also liked "Goodbye Columbus," especially the girl (beautiful) but not so much the "ugly Jewish boy." Gary told Roy that though he might know a lot about the law (Dan told me that Roy was a "walking legal encyclopedia") he just didn't know anything about aesthetics. We all laughed and Roy playfully twisted Gary's arm.

There was a subtle undercurrent throughout the meal. Brian was stoned and sulking, but le Roy soleil ran the rest of the court. He emphatically dismissed the wine as abominable. We all poured our glasses into a bucket which the first mate passed around.

Jerry had the gift of instantly, almostly psychically, realizing whatever Roy needed at the table. Roy dropped his napkin, and without a word, Jerry handed his own to Roy. When Roy consumed the portion on his plate, the tray of sliced meats was automatically before him.

Over coffee Gary mentioned that a friend of ours had recently committed suicide. Roy figured "it must have been tough on his parents."

We returned to Pier 81 and moored. Leaving the dock, we passed an off-duty cabbie in a parking lot who was washing his windshield. Cohn felt that it was "nice" and deduced that the man must own the car personally if he took the trouble to care for it.

Roy had slept after dinner and was reinvigorated: he struck out ahead to search for a cab. As he stomped authoritatively ahead I realized that he was still a tough little kid from the Bronx who, like so many others, felt the unsurpassable need to always be in the lead.

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