In the courtroom, Cohn was agile, cool and impressive. He became closely identified in the public eye with the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after conducting what was described as a brilliant direct examination in which David Greenglass identified his sister, Mrs. Rosenberg, as a member of a Soviet spy ring. The Rosenbergs were convicted of conspiring to pass atomic secrets to the Russians and were eventually electrocuted.
In 1950, Irving Saypol, then the United States Attorney, promoted Cohn, making him his confidential assistant. One of Cohn's first duties in Washington was to prepare the indictment of Owen Lattimore on perjury charges. The charges against Mr. Lattimore, a China expert who taught at Johns Hopkins University, stemmed from the rampaging McCarthy subcommittee, which in the early 1950's was branding dozens of Americans -government officials, writers, actors and others - as traitors, Communists or fellow travelers. Senator McCarthy, the subcommittee chairman, called Mr. Lattimore "the top Russian espionage agent in the United States."
By early 1953, Cohn's brand of anti-Communism had won him so much admiration from Senator McCarthy, the Wisconsin Republican who was the chairman of the Senate's Permanent Investigations Subcommittee, that Cohn was named chief counsel to the Subcommittee. This was much to the chagrin of Robert Kennedy, the Democratic minority's counsel, who coveted the job, and this was the beginning of an enmity between the two men that was to last for years.
Roy M. Cohn, was chief counsel to Joseph R. McCarthy's Senate investigations in the 1950's into Communist influence in American life. Cohn’s 38-year career brought him prominence, political influence and personal celebrity but ended in disbarment in New York State. Although Cohn’s immediate cause of death was "cardio-pulmonary arrest," the death certificate also listed two secondary causes of death: "dementia" and "underlying HTLV-3 infections." Near death with what he said was liver cancer, Mr. Cohn was disbarred from the practice of law in New York State. In a unanimous decision, a five-judge panel of the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court said his conduct in four legal matters was "unethical," "unprofessional" and, in one case, "particularly reprehensible." Cohn denied that there was any substance to the allegations and contended that his disbarment was the result of a smear campaign engineered by his enemies - "a bunch of yo-yos" - because "the establishment bar hates my guts."
Nearly two decades after he had become, almost overnight, a nationally known personality, Cohn predicted that even if he died at age 100, his obituary would be headlined: "Roy Cohn Dead; Was McCarthy Investigations Aide." It was for his work as chief counsel to Senator McCarthy's Communist-hunting subcommittee in the early 1950's, the age of McCarthyism, that he became an often celebrated, often denigrated national figure.
When Cohn left the Washington scene in 1954, he did not become, as some predicted, a has-been. Instead, he returned to New York to practice law and in the process became a political power broker, a friend of the rich and the fashionable, one of the city's most sought-after legal talents and probably a very wealthy man. He won a reputation for loyalty to his friends and clients, and they returned it. Devoted to celebrating his birthday, he gave lavish annual parties, usually at his estate in Greenwich, and his famous friends and clients all came. At the 1983 gathering, for instance, the guest list included such diverse personalities as former Mayor Abraham D. Beame of New York, the former Tammany boss Carmine G. de Sapio, Andy Warhol, Calvin Klein, the Brooklyn Democratic leader Meade H. Esposito, several Federal judges and Richard A. Viguerie, the publisher of the Conservative Digest, who praised his host as "24-carat, one of life's great Americans."
Cohn counted among his friends such people as President Reagan (although a Democrat, Mr. Cohn tended to support Republican Presidents), Norman Mailer, Bianca Jagger, Barbara Walters, Rupert Murdoch, William F. Buckley Jr., William Safire, George Steinbrenner, Estee Lauder, Warren Avis and dozens of politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, at every level, from Cabinet members to county judges. As a lawyer he represented such diverse clients as Donald Trump and Sam Lefrak, the real-estate executives; Francis Cardinal Spellman and Terence Cardinal Cooke and, on occasion, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. He also represented Carmine Galante, who before his death was said by authorities to be Mafia "boss of all bosses," and Tony (Fat Tony) Salerno, also said to be a Mafia chieftain.
"Truth is hardly ever an absolute -there are so many elements," Cohn said after successfully defending Mr. Salerno, who was accused of income-tax violations. He said Mr. Salerno, known as a gambling kingpin, was "technically guilty," but the lawyer said he had won the case because he had shown that Mr. Salerno, unlike most gamblers, had actually declared and paid taxes on most of his income.
A lifelong bachelor, Roy lived extremely well. To avoid high taxes, he drew a comparatively low salary of $100,000 a year from his law firm, which compensated him further, and regally, by giving him a rent-free Manhattan apartment, paying part of the rent on his Greenwich home, supplying him with the use of a chauffeured Rolls-Royce and other fine cars and paying all his bills at expensive restaurants such as Le Cirque, "21" and many others. These expenses were said to run to $1 million a year. Roy's friends, some of whom said they loved him despite his roguish ways, prized his ability to represent them in court or just to get them tickets to sports events and the theater or easy entry into a popular discotheque.
Cohn was a short, ungainly man with thinning hair and blue eyes, which were often bloodshot, perhaps because he kept late hours at fashionable discotheques such as Studio 54 and the Palladium, although he said he "adored" the sun. Despite his tan, Mr. Cohn's bantam body (he weighed 145 pounds) gave the impression that his physique was fragile
Cohn himself was almost constantly in conflict with the Internal Revenue Service, which audited his tax returns more than 20 years in a row. In 1979 alone, the I.R.S. had claims of almost $1 million against him, and there were liens totaling $3.18 million, dating back a quarter century, against any assets he might accumulate. He had many other legal troubles, some of which he seemed to enjoy. He was tried and acquitted three times in Federal court on charges ranging from conspiracy to bribery to fraud. Cohn maintained that he was subjected to these "ordeals" because of "vendettas" arranged by Robert F. Kennedy or by Robert M. Morgenthau, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
That kind of combativeness came naturally to Mr. Cohn, who once said: "My scare value is high. My area is controversy. My tough front is my biggest asset. I don't write polite letters. I don't like to plea-bargain. I like to fight. You might want a nice gentle fight, but once you get in the ring and take a couple of pokes, it gets under your skin. "It's fair to say that in an adversary situation I've got one role - to win for my client. Law is an adversary profession. But within the bounds which are permitted, most lawyers are Caspar Milquetoasts. They don't realize that they are in a fight. To them, a lawsuit is nothing more than going to court, then going out to lunch with your adversary. To me it's serious business."
To assist Senator McCarthy in his much-publicized crusade to "root out Communism in government," Mr. Cohn enlisted the services of his closest friend, his fellow 25-year-old, G. David Schine. Schine was the son of J. Myer Schine, a multimillionaire who owned a string of hotels and movie theaters. Schine, who received no pay, was billed as the subcommittee's consultant on psychological warfare. As they plowed through investigations of the State Department and the Voice of America, relentlessly trying to sniff out Communists or their sympathizers, Cohn, Schine and Senator McCarthy, all bachelors at the time, were themselves the targets of what some called "reverse McCarthyism." There were snickering suggestions that the three men were homosexuals, and attacks such as that by the playwright Lillian Hellman who called them "Bonnie, Bonnie and Clyde."
Years later, Cohn denied that he was "ever gay-inclined" and pointed out that Mr. McCarthy got married and had a son, and that Dave Schine married a former Miss Universe and had a bunch of kids Nevertheless, it was Cohn's intense devotion to Schine at the time they were working for the McCarthy committee that got them both into serious trouble. After Schine was drafted into the Army in November 1953, and Cohn, with Senator McCarthy's aid, was unable to help him win a commission, Cohn in effect declared war on the Army. The Army had already run into trouble with the McCarthy committee, which accused Army Secretary Robert T. Stevens and other officials of trying to conceal evidence of espionage activities that Cohn and his staff were said to have uncovered at Fort Monmouth, N.J.
When Mr. Schine became Private Schine, Cohn was initially able to win many concessions for him from the Army, such as nightly passes while he was in basic training at Fort Dix, N.J., and guarantees that there would be no noxious kitchen duties for his friend and that he was to be treated generally as an important person. Finally, however, Stevens, fed up with Cohn's frequent interference on behalf of Private Schine, released a detailed 34-page report on the Cohn demands. Included in the report was Cohn's threat to "wreck the Army" for not giving Private Schine all the special treatment that had been sought for him by Cohn and Senator McCarthy. Mr. Stevens formally charged McCarthy, Cohn and another subcommittee staff member with seeking by improper means to obtain preferential treatment for Private Schine.
In the resulting televised Army-McCarthy hearings, Cohn and Senator McCarthy were cleared in August 1954 of the Army's charges. But the public had witnessed Senator McCarthy's often irrational behavior in action and the methods of McCarthyism in the raw, and the Senator's popularity quickly began to wane. In December, 1954, Senator McCarthy was formally censured by his colleagues, when the Senate voted to "condemn" him on a number of points, including contempt for a Senate elections subcommittee that had investigated his conduct and financial affairs, and insults to the Senate itself during the censure proceedings. After that rebuke, and with the Democrats back in control following the 1954 elections, McCarthy's influence in the Senate and on the national scene steadily diminished until his death in 1957.
Leaving Washington, Cohn joined the New York law firm that became Saxe, Bacon & Bolan, where he put his family's political power to work, along with his considerable knowledge of the law. Devoting himself almost entirely to his work, he brought into the firm a long list of high-paying clients. So close was he to his job that he even made his New York home in the East Side town house that served as Saxe, Bacon's offices. Through the years, Cohn honed his reputation as a ferociously loyal advocate, one whose courtroom technique was admired even by his detractors. He seemed always on the attack, intimidating prosecutors, flustering witnesses and impressing jurors by seldom referring to notes. He was said to have a photographic memory.
In a variety of trials relating to accusations of a variety of his misconducts, Cohn said his chief persecutor was Robert Kennedy, his fellow staff counsel on the McCarthy committee, who later became Attorney General of the United States. Their mutual hatred had been so intense that at one point during the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, they got into a hallway push-and-shove match that nearly turned into a fistfight. Cohn also liked to identify as his chief tormentor Robert Morgenthau, then the United States Attorney in Manhattan, the son of Henry M. Morgenthau, the Treasury Secretary in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration. He maintained that Robert Morgenthau bore a "mortal grudge" against him because, during his McCarthy days, he "exposed" Henry Morgenthau's decision to allow the Soviet Union to use United States-occupation currency plates briefly at the end of World War II.