The word “evil” gets thrown around a lot in reference to Roy Cohn, the notoriously rapacious lawyer and “fixer” whose client list included Joseph McCarthy, several mafia bosses and New York elites like George Steinbrenner and Donald Trump, a Cohn protégé. And it comes up often in the new HBO documentary “Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn,” debuting Thursday, a profile that weighs his influence and legacy against the contradictory details of his private life.
If anyone is entitled to use the word, it’s the film’s director, Ivy Meeropol. As a young attorney in 1951, Cohn pushed for the execution of Meeropol’s grandparents Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on espionage charges. Key to the prosecution’s case was testimony by Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, who claimed that the Rosenbergs had passed atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Greenglass later confessed to lying under oath, but Cohn never wavered in his pride over the verdict, despite evidence of legal improprieties.
Meeropol had wrestled with her grandparents’s story before in her debut film, “Heir to an Execution” (2004), but here the Rosenbergs are only a piece of a much larger puzzle. Meeropol’s documentary attempts to understand a lawyer who gamed the system on behalf of powerful, often arch-conservative figures but who lived as a closeted gay man, publicly denying his AIDS diagnosis until the day he died from AIDS-related complications in 1986.
But “Bully. Coward. Victim.” is about Cohn-ism as much as it is about Cohn, which is why Meeropol thinks a label like “evil” is insufficient.
“It’s not like Roy Cohn just comes up from hell and is this evil being, and that’s how he’s able to operate,” Meeropol said by phone on Monday. “It’s like saying that Trump is just so evil and then if we get rid of him, everything will be fine. We know that’s not true.”
Throughout the documentary, Meeropol intersperses footage from the 2018 Broadway revival of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” which has Nathan Lane playing Cohn as a frail and rage-filled power broker haunted by Ethel Rosenberg’s ghost. In a brief phone interview, Kushner said he considered it his job as a playwright “to understand why people do the things they do and how they see themselves and how they explain themselves to themselves.” But Kushner, who offers commentary in the film, draws a sharp distinction between Cohn and his most notable client.
“I feel strongly that Roy Cohn is an infinitely more interesting human being than Donald Trump,” Kushner said. Trump’s “vocabulary, his repertoire and his worldview,” he added, “is shockingly constricted and impoverished.”
The connection between Cohn and Trump — and Cohn-ism and Trump-ism — is a running theme in “Bully. Coward. Victim.,” which doesn’t divorce them from the corruption and hypocrisy of the New York City ecosystem in which they thrived. Speaking from her father’s home in Cold Spring, N.Y., Meeropol talked about why she returned to this painful chapter in her family history, how Cohn could be called a “victim” and what can be done to keep more Roy Cohns from gaining power. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What inspired you to return to your grandparents’ story now and consider Roy Cohn through a broader lens?
The simple answer is Donald Trump. I did not relish returning to my family story, and in fact I never thought I would. Maybe in some other form, but not in a documentary. I really thought after “Heir to an Execution,” that was it. That film took almost five years of buildup and then production and then a whole year of my life, and it was an exhausting and emotionally draining process.
I always felt that Roy Cohn was a very interesting figure to look at and would make a great film subject. I really hoped that someone else would do it. He’s such a rich and important and complex subject and it just didn’t happen, except for fictional narrative treatments of him. So after Trump was elected, I felt that it was something I had to do. It was that similar feeling I had when I embarked on “Heir to an Execution.” I felt compelled.
You’re obviously so close to this story. Was journalistic objectivity important to you going in? To what extent did you feel like it was even possible to get any distance from him?
I was absolutely focused on having journalistic integrity in this film, of course, and I had to actively work against my own preconceived notions and feelings about Cohn. I did a similar thing when I made a film about Indian Point, the nuclear power plant north of New York City where I grew up. I try in everything I do to work against those feelings, and this one was particularly hard. I knew right off the bat that I did not want this to be what many people would assume it would be, like a Rosenberg revenge film. And there’s certainly some element of wanting to expose Cohn. But it was more in the service of wanting to expose where we are now and understand more about how Donald Trump and Cohn operated similarly.
What compelled you to try to understand Cohn’s humanity as much as you do here?
I was always fascinated by the fact that he was gay and that he lived, on one hand, so deeply in the closet, but also so openly in a way, too. He was able to amass this kind of power and scare people enough, I think, and have people in his debt so much that he could behave in a way where he’s just very open without fear of being exposed.
I found it poignant to see how different he looked in those photos [of Cohn vacationing] in Provincetown as compared to how he looked so miserable [in other contexts]. And people say, like, “He looks like he’s just so unhappy.” Right? But then you see the photos in Provincetown and you hear the stories of how he lived there, and he looked happy and he looked more relaxed. And it’s painful but important for us to recognize that yes, he did it to himself in some ways, and he made choices, but I know how hard it was to be openly gay at the time.
In an interview you gave years ago, you talked about “Angels in America” as a play about forgiveness and how that wasn’t easy for you or your family. Where do you stand on that now? Let’s put it this way: I don’t even know if I would say any more that the message of “Angels in America” is that you forgive Roy Cohn. You don’t have to forgive someone, but you can try to understand. You can still hold both feelings. You can empathize with how they became who they are or what they had to suffer through so that the rest of us can grow. We can understand and change things. I don’t want anyone to have to live in the closet and be ashamed and terrified that they’re going to be found out for being gay. So if understanding what Roy Cohn had to go through helps that greater process of overcoming all that, that’s great. But that doesn’t mean I forgive him.
Cohn’s patch on the AIDS Memorial Quilt informs the title and the film’s vision of him. The “bully” and “coward” parts are well understood. But in what ways was he a victim?
I think anyone who has to suffer in the closet the way he did — or the way anybody has to — is a victim. He’s certainly a victim because he died of AIDS. And I think he’s a victim of his own ideas of what it meant to be a man and what it meant to be tough. But taking that title also has to do with my own coming to terms with him and the moment that I learned for the first time that the guy who had pushed for the execution of my grandparents was also gay and had died of AIDS. So it’s a nod to that moment in my life.
But there’s something bigger at work here. I want people to see him as this horrific example of a person who helped shape the person in the White House, who I feel is also so destructive and dangerous and hateful. It doesn’t serve us. We’re not going to learn anything or get past it if we just think of these people as coming out of nowhere as fully formed evildoers who were just dropped into our society to do harm. So it’s not forgiveness. It’s more like recognition and not letting society off the hook.
How do you build a justice system or even a social system to keep more Roy Cohn types from thriving? What have we learned from four years under a Cohn protégé?
Going back to McCarthy, Communist Russia wasn’t necessarily planning to overthrow our country and take over. What he and Cohn were talking about is the threat to their way of life. A threat to their ability to amass incredible amounts of wealth, and undermine the rest of society’s ability to thrive and prosper. Because it works against our own interests. The way to avoid having more Cohns and more Trumps is if we look at our history and look at what actually is happening and the disconnect between the language that’s used and the promises that are made, and the actual policies.
This film is not a profile of Roy Cohn in an exclusive sense. It’s about a whole system. Has Cohn become a convenient scapegoat for the New York power elites, celebrities of his day? If there were no Roy Cohn would we have had to invent him?
I think the problem is that so many of the elite — and Frank Rich covered this in his New York magazine cover story about Cohn — are people who you would think would have run the other way from Cohn, but they were his colleagues, his friends, and his clients. They worked with him, supported him, went to his parties. Like Andy Warhol. So I think that idea that now to say, “Oh, well, he was so bad,” is a way of distancing themselves from any participation in the larger and the greater problems, the structural problems.
There’s a photo of Senator Schumer in the film. You see him in a tux at a Cohn party. Cohn was a lifelong Democrat. Judge Irving Kaufman [of the Rosenberg trial] was a Democrat. It’s not Republican versus Democrat. It’s bigger than that. It’s a systemic problem that we’re facing. And I think that we have to remember if you have the power and the money, you are going to do whatever you can to hang on to it. Cohn was just more ruthless about that.