Historiography Saturday: Roy Cohn

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The epitaph awarded to Roy Cohn on the Names Project quilt by an anonymous donor summarizes Senator Joseph McCarthy’s dubiously ethical legal eagle in three words: “Bully. Coward. Victim.” He kicked off his career as part of the prosecution team during the infamous Rosenberg trial; he later bragged that he was the one who arranged for them to receive the death penalty. McCarthy was impressed by his performance and recruited him for his Communist-hunting team. The two worked well together until a scandal involving special favors for another team member who had been drafted into the army broke, and Cohn moved on to a lucrative private practice, where he specialized in serving New York’s wealthiest clients. He was disbarred shortly before his death for unethical and unprofessional conduct.

Cohn’s lobbying was partially responsible for the anti-Communist Lavender Scare of the 1950s that convinced President Eisenhower to bar homosexuals from government service, but his own sexual orientation was an openly mocked rumor during his lifetime. He makes an appearance for Historiography Saturday due to his vehement public denials, despite dying of AIDS in 1986 (which he went to his grave insisting was liver cancer). It may be true that pop culture appearances such as his role in Tony Kushner‘s play Angels in America that paint him as gay are accurate, but unlike the cause of his death, homosexuality is not as easy to prove when the person in question asserts a different identity.

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