Mailer’s Muddy Friend

Stephen Ambrose

  • Citizen Cohn by Nicholas von Hoffman
    Harrap, 483 pp, £12.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 245 54605 7

This is a tale of sickness, corruption and degradation at the highest levels of American economic, social and political life. It makes me ashamed of my country, and terrified for its future. The analogy that fits is Rome under Nero. The retribution that is surely coming will be terrible to behold.

The tale is told in the form of a biography of one of the minor players. Roy Cohn was a personification, but not a creator, of the rot that has spread through the élite of American life since World War Two. He was Jewish, son of a New York State Supeme Court judge, a mama’s boy (he lived with his mother until she died when he was middle-aged – she called him ‘Woy’ and he called her ‘Muddy’), a lawyer, a back-stage politician, a professional anti-Communist, a fixer and a manipulator.

Cohn was gay, a fact he simultaneously flaunted and denied, even as he was dying of Aids. He destroyed people indiscriminately. He was a fabulously successful lawyer who made millions of dollars and spent even more. His life-style might have made Imelda Marcos blush. He was a deadbeat who only paid a bill when he had a gun at his head. He was a blackmailer who dealt in gossip, threats and innuendo. His main characteristic was cynicism.

And yet his friends included Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump, Norman Mailer, Barbara Walters (they almost married), Cardinal Spellman, nearly all the top Mafia people, Richard Nixon, Si Newhouse, Rupert Murdoch, Frank Sinatra, J. Edgar Hoover, William F. Buckley, an endless list of Congressmen and judges and society swells, of the rich and famous. Cohn knew, dealt with, worked for, went to parties with and generally hobnobbed with more celebrities than any other American. He did favours for them all, and they for him.

Nicholas von Hoffman, a liberal news reporter who had been appalled by the young Roy Cohn who wreaked such havoc as Senator Joe McCarthy’s aide, has fallen into Cohn’s web, become entranced by him, and tries to get away with presenting him as a lovable rogue. Von Hoffman makes no attempt at sustained analysis: he is content to present one interview after another, from Cohn’s friends as well as his enemies. These anecdotes show Cohn at work – in famous, high-stakes divorce cases, defending Mafia dons, defending himself in numerous suits brought against him by aggrieved clients and creditors, whispering in the ears of gossip-columnists and of the power brokers in the Democratic and Republican Parties, acting as chief legal counsel for the Catholic Church of New York, making deals with the biggest publishers and television executives. The ancedotes also show Cohn at play. Drugs and booze and sex – perverted, constant, obsessive sex – provide the background for the main theme here, which is money. Cohn did not want to be rich, and never was, in the sense of owning very much: he just wanted to spend unlimited amounts of money, which he did, whether he had it or not.

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