Anyone familiar with Angels in America will note the story of Cohn: a Jewish-American lawyer married to extreme right-wing politics and a closet homosexual who died of AIDS. Cohn made a career as a lawyer for key mob figures, and as an assistant prosecutor in the case of accused atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. He also played a pivotal role in both the Red and Lavender scares, relishing the destruction of accused communists and queer government employees.
Ivy Meeropol never met Cohn, but she knows him well. As the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, she grew up with the torturous scandal of her grandparents, and the mounting evidence that Cohn had tampered with witnesses, evidence and illegally lobbied the judge in the case, Irving Kaufman, to make sure both Julius and Ethel were convicted and executed for leaking atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. That pain also drove her into a career as a director. Her first film Heir to an Execution examined the case of her grandparents and made a case for her grandmother’s innocence. Her second, Indian Point, dealt with dangers surrounding atomic energy and the titular nuclear power plant.
Now, Meeropol returns with another personal tome. Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn traces the life of Roy Cohn, his mad ambition for power, and his seemingly amoral values that prized wealth, influence and winning above all else. Featuring interviews with historians, experts and personal friends of Cohn, including Tony Kushner, Nathan Lane, writer Cindy Adams, journalist Ethan Geto, John Waters and Ivy’s dad Michael Meeropol, the film investigates the evil of Cohn, and how it gave birth to contemporary America.
We caught up with Meeropol just ahead of the premiere of the film. Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn debuts on HBO June 18.
So obviously Roy Cohn has played a pivotal role in your life, albeit not directly. Growing up, was he a boogeyman-type figure in your life?
I actually used that very word to describe him. But, it wasn’t so specific—I didn’t understand what his actual role was [growing up]. He was among a list of boogeyman including J. Edgar Hoover, Judge Irving Kaufman, Irving Saypol, the prosecutor. David Greenglass. Cohn was one of many. And in Heir to an Execution, I focus on David Greenglass as the bad guy that I fixated on, but wanted to understand. Cohn—I hadn’t really thought about him that much. Now, I understand how much more of a villain he is in our story, more so than even David Greenglass.
And when you say “our story,” that could easily apply to your family, or even to the larger American story.
When did you decide you wanted to make a film about him?
I actually had thought about and talked to my producing partner, Julie Goldman about making a film about Cohn a couple of years before we even started. I just kept thinking why hasn’t anyone done a documentary treatment of Cohn’s life? To be honest, I hoped someone else would do it. I didn’t want to delve into my family history again. But it was the election of Donald Trump, pure and simple. I think it was a day or two after—after I’d recovered from my horrible hangover…
Makes two of us.
It suddenly struck me that I had to make the film. It was the same feeling of being compelled that I felt when I decided to make Heir to an Execution. I have a personal entree to the story. I can contribute something. Donald Trump, Roy Cohn’s mentee, moving into the White House? People don’t even know who Cohn is. So it was my way of channeling how angry and unhappy I was at Trump’s election.
That’s wonderful to hear. Now pardon my asking, but what did your dad say when you told him?
I think my father was supportive right away. My mom, at first, said “Why do you want to spend so much time with a horrible person?” Because that’s what happens when you make a film. All I’d be doing was eating and breathing Roy Cohn. But, in the end, they both felt—my dad in particular—it’s a great bonding thing for us. And this was in a whole different way than Heir to an Execution. It wasn’t as painful.
But, his stories of having to confront Cohn when he and my uncle were trying to reopen the case, that is incredible material. He’d never even seen the footage in the film of him debating Cohn. He remembered it of course, but to be able to bring that history back is remarkable, and he really appreciates it.
To your point, that footage is astonishing. The idea that both your dad and Roy Cohn—and at that time, people knew Roy wasn’t to be trusted—but Roy sits there, stone-faced, no remorse, no hint of sympathy. And he helped kill this guy’s parents. It’s stunning.
He was so dismissive of them and made it his mission to trail them. We weren’t able to find the other appearances, but when you see my dad testify before congress, Cohn was right there. He testified before [my dad] did. Every step of the way he was there defending the government’s decision to execute and saying “Sorry, these are just two little ones who can’t let go and accept the truth.”
The condescension of that is amazing. So what was the biggest shock for you in researching Roy? You have this wealth of footage and anecdotes from his close associates. By the way, I may not be able to ever look at Barbara Walters again.
I know! You mean his beard? His fiance?
There are so many things that were surprising. I have to say one of the things that most surprised me was that I had no idea how publicly and viciously fought against a gay rights bill. I was floored by that. It became very important to me to tell that story. It wasn’t easy, but we did find some footage of him on Larry King Live saying “I don’t believe in a gay rights bill. I don’t believe in any rights bill.”
Charles Kaiser, the wonderful author of The Gay Metropolis, connected me with Ethan Geto, the activist we interview. He helps the audience understand the level of hypocrisy of Cohn allying himself with Cardinal Spellman and fighting publicly against equal protection for gay people. There are so many stories I heard. It’s just hypocrisy over and over again. That was one of the most astonishing things for me. But, we know others who do that too.
Yes, we do. We’ll get to them in a minute because it relates to our current cultural moment. And I’m sure we both have thoughts. But first, this is your third feature film. Both of your previous films dealt with familiar themes from your family; Indian Point with nuclear power and Heir to an Execution with your grandparents. Do you feel like you’re living with a ghost, living with this family history?
Yeah, there is something to that. Absolutely. I think what the ghost is though—and it’s interesting how Indian Point fits in with that. It is like this strange line that flows through a lot of my work. I think the way it really informs it is a desire to have empathy, or try to cultivate empathy, even for people that I think are the enemy, or a bad guy. I think that informs how I approached Heir to an Execution, with asking tough questions, and now with Cohn. So there’s something that ties all of that together, but it’s hard for me to see it. I think so much of what I am drawn to are stories where people are misunderstood or hiding or afraid. Even my own experience growing up—I used to hide that I was the granddaughter of the Rosenbergs.
What teenager wants anyone to know their grandparents are considered evil atomic spies? When you grow up with that kind of feeling, you immediately have a greater sensitivity to others.
I love that you talk about empathy there. It really impressed me the amount of empathy you do show Roy. You take the title of the film from a panel from the AIDS quilt you saw with your dad. And tellingly, I think you show him more empathy than most of the people you interview that actually knew him. They all say he was fun to be around, but pure evil.
As a filmmaker, how do you not let someone’s misdeeds overshadow your own empathy for him? That’s particularly relevant to this subject matter.
I think one way is putting context of the time when he lived, and for me, to understand what that would have been like. So from the beginning, doing research, learning about the period where he was counsel to Sen. McCarthy—that was a horrible time to be gay and living in Washington, DC. I kept saying it’s important to remember that he was young, and that’s what he was confronted with. So he wanted to have a public life and be influential, but he couldn’t be his true self. I think I started to really understand that just calling him evil is dehumanizing also. It also lets all of us off the hook to say he’s just evil. Yes, he amassed incredible power and influence, and so he hurt a lot more people than the average self-loathing, closeted person might do. But there’s also something about calling him that where we don’t pay attention to systemic problems: we’re not recognizing that Roy Cohn also wanted to live free. He was a tortured person. That’s not to forgive him. It’s about using him to understand that this is a much bigger problem, and we can’t overlook systemic racism and homophobia and all the ways we institutionalize these things. That’s the bigger problem.
Well, and for that matter, the Lavender Scare (sometimes called the Pink Scare)–the outing and humiliation of gay, government employees—was going on at the same time. And Roy had a hand in that too, even as he was running around with his army boyfriend. It’s unbelievable.
Do you think Roy’s aggression against other gay people was born of that self-loathing? Was he someone that did not know love, and that was the root of his obsession with power? Or was it inborn?
It’s hard to say. He was very doted on by his mother, and very close to her. He was an only child and incredibly spoiled. She really adored him. In some ways, I think it was less self-loathing than self-protection.
For him, it was I’m going to do all these things and never let the fact that I’m gay be used against me. So to me, all of that extreme attacking of gay people or gay rights was similar to being Jewish. He didn’t want anyone to think he was one of those Commie Jews. During the Red Scare, antisemitism was rampant. There was the assumption that if you were a Jew you were probably a Commie and maybe a spy. So there’s Roy making sure that nobody ever confuses him with a bad Jew and that nobody ever confuses him with being gay, even though he lived openly. I was really fascinated that for being a closeted man in the time he lived, he was really open.
He was remarkably cavalier.
It’s amazing. And Cindy Adams says “We all knew. We all knew the boyfriends. They were all so good looking.” I think that was really true. And Tony Kushner talks about how he flaunted it. And he did. He really enjoyed his life as a gay man wherever he could. He had enough power and influence that he was protected. But that’s what makes me so outraged. He didn’t need a civil rights bill. He was protected. He had money. He had power. He didn’t have to worry about getting thrown out of a restaurant for holding hands with his boyfriend or losing his job. So his attitude was screw all of you. It makes me so angry what he says in the film: “All these gay rights organizations—they should just be a man about it.”
It makes me angry that I still know gay men who spout bullsh*t like that. Pardon my swearing.
No, not at all.
It infuriates me that we still have Aaron Schocks in the world. The list goes on. So last question: in making a film like this, do you ever come to a point where you forgive Roy? Or your great uncle David Greenglass? Or Judge Kaufman?
Wow. There is catharsis in exposure. I took great satisfaction in everything we’re talking about, in exposing Roy’s hypocrisy, how he helped Reagan get elected, and how that compares to the lies the Trump administration and his people tell their followers about how they care about them. They don’t. Look at their policies. So there is that.
There is also gratification and catharsis in showing people that everything is not so black and white. And maybe that’s the theme you’re getting at in all my work: I’m trying to show that Roy Cohn isn’t just evil. Neither are my grandparents just simple, innocent martyrs. It’s more complicated than that. I don’t know that I forgive Roy, but understanding more about his experience and his life I can accept him as a human being. It’s more comfortable for me now to know who he was, and that I’m not dehumanizing him now either.
Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn debuts on HBO June 18.