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Last Rites for the Man Who Knew Everybody : CITIZEN COHN by Nicholas von Hoffman (Doubleday: $19.95; 483 pp., illustrated) : THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ROY COHN by Sidney Zion (Lyle Stuart: $18.95; 304 pp., illustrated)

April 10, 1988|Robert E. Bauman | Bauman, a Washington attorney, served as a Republican member of Congress from Maryland from 1973 to 1981. Long active in the conservative movement, he was a founder and national chairman of both Young Americans for Freedom and the American Conservative Union. He is the author of "The Gentleman From Maryland: The Conscience of a Gay Conservative" (Arbor House, New York, 1986). and

Could you really hate a man who told Winston Churchill over dinner at Lord Beaverbrook's, as he filched food from the former prime minister's plate, that in World War II, "the United States saved England's ass"?

Or silenced an officious desk clerk at Tokyo's Imperial Hotel who wanted to inspect his departing luggage with: "You've got a lot of . . . nerve talking about a bath mat after you bombed Pearl Harbor!"

The answer is a definite "yes" and a great many people did detest Roy Marcus Cohn to the end of his often pitiable life Aug. 2, 1986.

Cohn once said he wanted the first line of his obituary to read: "Roy M. Cohn, who served as chief counsel to Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy . . . ," adding, "I never worked for a better man or a greater cause."

Cohn didn't quite get his wish. When he died, the headlines trumpeted the fact that Roy died from the complications of AIDS. McCarthy came second.

For 36 days in the summer of 1954, long before Ollie North, millions of Americans did watch transfixed as the relatively new medium of television presented its first national spectacular--the Army-McCarthy hearings, live from the Senate Caucus Room in Washington.

In the center of this melodramatic maelstrom was the Republican junior senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy, until then nemesis of the liberals and the unchallenged anticommunist leader in America.

Close by Fighting Joe's side was his chief counsel and the man who got him into this political morass, Roy Cohn, a 26-year-old New York Democrat and legal whiz kid who had demanded the Army give special treatment to his drafted buddy and committee staff sidekick, G. David Shine, heir to a multimillion-dollar hotel fortune.

It was the beginning of the end for McCarthy, who was soon condemned by his own Senate colleagues for his conduct growing out of the hearings. Within three years, he died of the effects of alcoholism.

But it was only a way station for the resilient Cohn, who would go on to give new and glorious dimensions to the meaning of the word notorious.

Even before he came to McCarthy's service, Cohn established his brilliance by skipping a year of high school, entering Columbia before he was 17 and graduating from its law school before he was 20. When he passed the New York bar, he was under age and had to wait until he was 21 to practice law.

Within two years, as an assistant United States attorney in New York, he prosecuted more than 200 defendants and played an important role in the treason conviction of atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (strongly urging death for both). By 1952, using his political influence, he became a special assistant to U.S. Atty. Gen. Jim McCranary, specializing in internal security matters.

Two biographies of Cohn appear this month, "Citizen Cohn" by Nicholas von Hoffman and "The Autobiography of Roy Cohn" by his close friend Sidney Zion. Both are filled with often lurid details from the life of a man whom Von Hoffman indelicately described in a recent Los Angeles Times interview as "working his way through a huge national intestine." Conservatives such as myself did not want to believe the worst about Roy. Now everyone has the chance to share our vanished incredulity.

In his heyday in the '70s, Cohn acquired banks and corporations (including the toy maker Lionel), throwing together million-dollar deals usually aimed at producing the cash flow he needed to sustain his sybaritic life style. Earlier, in the '60s, Cohn survived the manic plotting against him by his archenemy, Bobby Kennedy, who as his brother Jack's U.S. attorney general saw to it that Cohn was indicted three times. Each time, Cohn was acquitted. (Jack assured Cohn that he did not share his brother's dislike for him.)

Toward the end, five face lifts later, you could tune in Ted Koppel's ABC "Nightline" most any late evening and there would be gnome-like, heavy-lidded Roy, still holding forth as an expert on civil liberties, anticommunism, libel law or New York social mores.

Those who knew him personally or thought they knew what he stood for either loathed Cohn or loved him. A physician whom the author quotes extensively on Cohn's homosexual escapades and whom I happen to know told me bitterly, while Cohn lay dying, "The bastard should have died years ago." But his last lover, youthful Peter Fraser, a handsome and loyal New Zealander who took care of him to the end, said simply: "Few people loved me and I certainly loved him . . . he protected me. . . ."

An old Cohn friend whom Von Hoffman misnames in his book told me: "Roy was ghastly, just awful to be around sometimes, but he was exciting. In spite of it all I liked him. Once he showed up in the Bahamas when Pat Buckley and I were waiting for Bill to arrive by boat. There stood Roy on the pier, tanned the color and texture of shoe leather and wearing a loud T-shirt with 'Super Jew' written across the front."

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