Roy Cohn was a real son of a bitch. At least, that’s the kindest way to describe the prominent New York City attorney whose career happened to span some of the most shameful incidents of American history during the 20th century. The life and unscrupulous morals of Roy Cohn are now the subject of the new HBO documentary Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn. The documentary is a fascinating portrait of despicable man even if it feels incomplete because the depths of Cohn’s ruthlessness and contradictions can’t fully be condensed into a hundred-minute package.
There’s no reason to believe that Bully. Coward. Victim. is an exercise in objectivity, and that’s established right away in the film’s opening archival footage where director Ivy Meeropol, the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, is recalling the story of her grandparents who were executed on June 19, 1953. Ivy’s father Michael Meeropol (born Michael Rosenberg) had his parents executed by the United States when he was 12 years old and has since dedicated his life along with his brother Robert to uncover the truth of what happened.
It was the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg that put Roy Cohn on the map, and after securing their conviction and execution was he recommended by J. Edgar Hoover to work for Senator Joe McCarthy. Like his boss, Cohn was unscrupulous in his collection of evidence and accusations, charges that would follow Cohn throughout the rest of his career. Much of the first third of Bully. Coward. Victim. focuses on Cohn’s work for McCarthy as well as the trial of the Rosenbergs and the aftermath that left on their children. Collateral damage wasn’t a concern in Cohn’s relentless hunt for suspected communists.
Like his boss, Cohn would soon overplay his hand in a way that would backfire. Cohn worked alongside G. David Schine, and it was widely believed that he and Cohn were having an affair. Of course, part of the Red Scare was the Lavender Scare where communism was conflated with homosexuality, but those that lust for power often find themselves immunized from hypocrisy. Schine was drafted into the Army, and there started the beginning of the end for Cohn’s time working for McCarthy. Cohn demanded preferential treatment for Schine and when that was denied he promised to take on the Army next. Cohn and McCarthy staged investigation hearings into the Army but the hearings turned into a fiasco, and Cohn’s relationship with Schine was placed under greater scrutiny with notable allusions made to Cohn’s sexuality in the hearings. The beginning of whispers that would follow Cohn until well after his death.
After leaving McCarthy, Cohn established a private practice in New York City, and once again his ambition puts him in the circle of power. Cohn was a media darling, and would often take to the airwaves to defend and extol the virtues of his various clients, be they noted mob figures, George Steinbrenner, or the current President of the United States. Bully. Coward. Victim. briefly explores Cohn’s various famous clients as well as the lawyer’s extremely shady finance situation. Cohn’s finances consisted of loans and favors from his wealthy clients but IRS troubles forced Cohn to not be the legal owner of anything, and he often left behind a lengthy paper trail of unpaid bills. But Cohn’s illicit business dealings and amorality aren’t what makes him such a fascinating figure. It’s the personal contradictions that manifested themselves into public cruelty.
Cohn’s sexuality was an open secret. The film recalls anecdotes of Cohn arranging parties in Greenwich, Connecticut, which had a bustling gay community, where Cohn would be liberal with cocaine and various young men while publicly being anti-gay and anti-drug. Perhaps the most amusing anecdotes of Cohn’s time in Greenwich come from legendary director John Waters, who doesn’t hide his disdain for Cohn while sharing his personal memories of his time in Greenwich. These deep contradictions within Cohn are further highlighted in the film through comments by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, whose Angels in America prominently features Cohn as a character and Meeropol employs clips from the acclaimed play to further shade in Cohn’s contradictions. The open secret of Cohn’s sexuality would haunt him in his lifetime when stories about him appeared in a small gay magazine. Richard Dupont, the publisher and once a street hustler hired by Cohn, was relentless in trying to shame his nemesis but found himself on the losing side of the battle as Cohn’s connections resulted in Dupont being charged with aggravated harassment and an 18-month prison sentence.
Bully. Coward. Victim. also documents Cohn’s growing political influence in the ‘80s with the rise of Ronald Reagan, and even goes as far to trace his connections to political operatives and future felons Paul Manafort and Roger Stone. Cohn also represented media mogul Rupert Murdoch, and became a mentor to the current President of the United States. His influence in coarsening the public discourse can still be felt to this day, and though his political allies were vehemently anti-gay Cohn was able to secure a pass because he was their attack dog, their son of a bitch. Until he became ill. Publicly the lawyer stated he liver cancer, but most knew he had contracted AIDS. Suddenly those allies became distant. They could tolerate an outsider as long as his indiscretions were out of sight. Once that was impossible, Roy Cohn was in exile.
Ivy Meeropol’s film is a fascinating portrait of an American villain. The title for the film comes from a panel on the AIDS quilt on display at the National Mall in Washington D.C. that Ivy and Michael Meeropol encountered by chance. Ivy Meeropol uses Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn as a chance to craft a biography of her family’s chief villain while also confronting and processing the various revelations in the Rosenberg case, namely the revelations that Julius was likely guilty but still prosecuted with evidence and testimony manipulated by Cohn. Decades in the public sphere for Roy Cohn left behind a trail of pain and misery that reverberates to this day. Ivy Meeropol personally knows the pain that defines Roy Cohn’s legacy, and as that pain he taught others to exert is spread upon a nation she wants us to understand the duplicitous and hateful heart behind so much pain.
Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn
A fascinating albeit incomplete portrait of an villain, Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn delves into the contradictions and cruelty of an amoral American icon while also exploring the lasting ramifications of his actions.