Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Wrath of Cohn, Part 3

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On December 4, 1983, the readers of Parade magazine were treated to the cover story “How to Stay Fit” by President Ronald Reagan. In the article, Reagan, or his ghostwriter, described his fitness and diet regimen, which included “the cutting, hauling, and stacking of the wood” at his ranch, and finished:

I don’t want to be be overbearing about the need for exercise, but I would encourage each of you reading this article to think how you could get a little more physical activity into your life. I guarantee that you will feel better both physically and mentally…The next time they report I’m out riding or chopping or otherwise getting the old circulation going, why don’t you get out there and enjoy some exercise yourself? If all of us do, America will be in better shape, too. I’ll be thinking of you. Good health to you all.

In retrospect, it’s hard to read this without reflecting that it appeared at the exact moment that the Reagan administration was studiously ignoring—if not actively mocking—the AIDS crisis. It must have seemed odd to many people even at the time, and its backstory is even stranger. The attorney Roy Cohn had met with Ed Rollins, Reagan’s campaign manager, who was concerned about public perception of the president’s age and health. Cohn recalls in his own autobiography: “I thought about it, and I said it seemed to me that a well-placed magazine article showing the president’s physical prowess would be the best answer. The obvious magazine was Parade…The article served its purpose. It was widely received and acclaimed.”

Parade was “obvious,” needless to say, because it was published by Cohn’s good friend Si Newhouse, and everyone in the Reagan camp was pleased by the result, including Nancy Reagan, who, according to Roger Stone, “thanked [Cohn] profusely for it. She knew that Roy could get things done, and she respected and used people who could get things done.” Stone, like Ed Rollins, later worked on the Trump campaign, and much of Cohn’s advice, particularly on the media, has been passed down to the current administration. In all of the profiles about Cohn’s relationship with Trump—which often mention Rupert Murdoch, but not Si Newhouse—it’s this aspect that strikes me the most. Jonathan Mahler and Matt Flegenheimer wrote last summer in the New York Times: “Among the many things Mr. Trump learned from Mr. Cohn during these years was the importance of keeping one’s name in the newspapers. Long before Mr. Trump posed as his own spokesman, passing self-serving tidbits to gossip columnists, Mr. Cohn was known to call in stories about himself to reporters.” And in Vanity Fair, which has seamlessly pivoted to attacking Trump after decades in which it glorified him, Marie Brenner wrote:

Another of Cohn’s tactics was to befriend the town’s top gossip columnists, such as Leonard Lyons and George Sokolsky, who would bring Cohn to the Stork Club. He was irresistible to tabloid writers, always ready with scandal-tinged tales. “Roy would be hired by a divorce client in the morning and be leaking their case in the afternoon,” New Yorker writer Ken Auletta recalled. Columnist Liz Smith said she learned to distrust most items he gave her. A similar reliance on the press would also become a vital component of the young Trump’s playbook.

And when Trump heard of Cohn’s death, according to the Times, he said to himself: “Wow, that’s the end of a generation. That’s the end of an era.”

Roy Cohn would receive his most famous afterlife as the most vivid character in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, in which he dominates the play to an extent that seems to have troubled even his creator. (In an interview with Adam Mars Jones, Kushner said: “I’m a little worried that in the process of figuring [Cohn] out I’ve overdone it and he’s maybe too sympathetic a character.”) It’s a stunning portrait, and it resonates even more deeply today. Reading it over this week, I was most struck by the speech in the first part, Millennium Approaches, that Cohn delivers to his doctor, Henry, as his body is ravaged by AIDS:

Homosexual. Gay. Lesbian. You think these are names that tell you who someone sleeps with, but they don’t tell you that…Like all labels they tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology, or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout. Not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will pick up the phone when I call, who owes me favors. This is what a label refers to. Now to someone who does not understand this, homosexual is what I am because I have sex with men. But really this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows…I have clout. A lot. I can pick up this phone, punch fifteen numbers, and you know who will be on the other end in under five minutes, Henry?

Henry ventures his best guess: “The President.” Roy shoots back at him: “Even better, Henry. His wife.”

This has the ring of authenticity, and the speech itself reflects what Cohn evidently believed about himself. (In a profile written a decade ago by Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker, Roger Stone said: “Roy was not gay. He was a man who liked having sex with men. Gays were weak, effeminate. He always seemed to have these young blond boys around. It just wasn’t discussed.”) Toward the end of Perestroika, the second part of the play, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg says to the dying Cohn:

They beat you. You lost. (Pause). I decided to come here so I could see could I forgive you. You who I have hated so terribly I have borne my hatred for you up into the heavens and made a needlesharp little star in the sky out of it…I came to forgive but all I can do is take pleasure in your misery. Hoping I’d get to see you die more terrible than I did. And you are, ’cause you’re dying in shit, Roy, defeated. And you could kill me, but you couldn’t ever defeat me. You never won. And when you die all anyone will say is: better he had never lived at all.

I don’t know if Kushner ever really believed this—one of Cohn’s last lines in the play is “I win!”—but it doesn’t seem true now. Cohn wasn’t defeated at all, although the extent of his victory took thirty years to become manifest. On the day after the election, Stone told Vanity Fair, Trump mused: “Wouldn’t Roy love to see this moment? Boy, do we miss him.” And when I think of Cohn today, I remember these lines from Kushner, and I know that the play isn’t over:

Roy: I’m immortal, Ethel. (He forces himself to stand) I have forced my way into history. I ain’t never gonna die.
Ethel Rosenberg: (A little laugh, then) History is about to crack wide open. Millennium approaches.

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