Roy Cohn, the lawyer, has the most famous eyelids in the world, especially since Aristotle Onassis died. Onassis, you recall, had a bad case of myasthenia gravis, making it necessary for him to hold up his considerable eyelids with Band-Aids. This was near the end of his life, when, as it happened, he was also calling Roy Cohn about handling a divorce from Jackie Onassis, according to Cohn -- the reason being that if Cohn took the case, Onassis would have had to pay his former wife "nothing."
This is what Cohn tells the audience of "The Charlie Rose Show," up at the WRC studios on Nebraska Avenue. He says he got called by Onassis "because I handled another case for him. Jackie wanted to sue that photographer, that paparazzi that was taking pictures of her. Onassis didn't want her to but she went ahead. She won the case, and then her law firm sent Onassis a bill for $400,000. So he hired me to represent him against the law firm. I called them, and said this is Roy Cohn . . . and they sent him a bill for $200,000, instead."
He blinks a lot (you notice it with those eyelids) and pushes a peculiarly blunt tongue between his teeth while he talks. The audience might not have expected these particular kinetics, but the rest of the face, brash and wistful at the same time, is totally familiar.
People run up to him after the show.
A guy with a white mustache says: "I saw you in the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings on television back in the '50s, and I picked you for a winner."
They shake hands.
"Thanks a lot," says Cohn, who actually was never with HUAC but, instead, was chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, grilling witnesses for communist ties, threatening to "wreck the Army" for its treatment of his friend David Schine . . .
A white-haired man says: "I admired your work in the '50s."
"Thanks," says Cohn, still a hero of the Old Right after all these years.
People remember his face, that dark and wary look of a preoccupied and well-tanned imp. He's been famous since he was 23 and one of the prosecutors in the atom spy case that sent Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair; then the McCarthy job, then the Senate's condemnation of McCarthy in 1954 that turned Cohn into what one columnist called "the youngest has-been since Jackie Coogan." Then back to New York City for wheeling, dealing, and accusations of stealing, the mysterious sinking of his yacht, a segment about him on "60 Minutes," on which Morley Safer pointed out that Roy Cohn is known as "something of a snake" . . . the point here being that not everybody wants to shake his hand.
He's been called "a legal executioner" by Esquire, "an embarrassment" by The American Lawyer magazine; an "assault specialist" in the words of the National Law Journal, plus a "liberal's pariah," a "sleaze" and a "Fascist" in Penthouse. Said the Baltimore Sun: "The very sight of Roy Cohn has the power to instantly trigger jarring memories and evoke an unconscious residual hostility that is somehow inextricably linked to his face."
Heavy-lidded. Earlier, before "The Charlie Rose Show," Cohn is sitting in a hotel coffee shop drinking an iced tea, and he's asked if it isn't "heavy-lidded" that gets associated with his name.
"Hooded," he says, with the five-pound-sledge consonants of a full New York accent. He stares back with what Time magazine called "deceptive, sleepy eyes" in 1954, after his clash with the Army in the name of Pvt. Schine . . . the friendship with Schine being the opportunity for Lillian Hellman to describe Cohn, Schine and McCarthy as "Bonnie, Bonnie and Clyde." (He says that he is not now and never has been a homosexual, and points out that Schine married a former Miss Universe and had a bunch of kids.)
Anyhow, "hooded": There's no denying that these eyelids are waging a nip-and-tuck war against gravity, but they're better than the image a lot of people carry around in their head, that image of cowls, or inverted hammocks, or planetarium roofs swiveling open. Is it television that makes him look like that?
"TV is the best medium I have," he says. "Where I look bad is in still pictures."
Is that why he got the face lift?
"I had an eye operation, not a face lift," he says. He has big scars in front and back of his ears, face lift-type scars.
"There's been a pull," he says, pulling at the corners of his eyes, which are bloodshot and milky blue, to demonstrate a pull. The pull makes him look like he's telling a joke about a Chinese. He stretches the lids up. "The lids began to interfere with my vision, I had to do it, I'll have to do it again."
And face it, he couldn't look that bad, or he wouldn't have the big-time list of clients he's so fond of reciting: Benson Ford, the late Onassis, Carmine "He Sleeps With the Fishes" Galante, Newhouse Newspapers, gambler Tony Salerno, the late Vito Genovese, Bianca Jagger, the late Cardinal Spellman and the Catholic Church in New York, Warren Avis of Avis Rent-a-Cars, Studio 54 . . .
He flies to Europe for one-day visits every couple of weeks or so. He's so big in New York he had to hold his birthday party in an armory. He has a 3 1/2-acre place in Greenwich, Conn., and he puts most of his life on the expense account of his law firm, Saxe, Bacon & Bolan. His income gets estimated at $100,000 a year but to live like he does, he says, "You'd have to have an income of a million dollars a year." His ongoing hassle with the Internal Revenue Service gets estimated at being worth around $1 million in back taxes, but since he keeps his income comparatively low, and manages to write off the rest of his life as a business expense, there's not much for the tax men to garnishee.
Anyhow, you don't live the life he leads, with the autographed picture of President Reagan on the wall, the pictures of J. Edgar Hoover, Reggie Jackson, and so on, if you look as bad as he does in still photographs, and he doesn't. His eyelids have these deep purple furrows in them, maybe from the operation, but otherwise, over a glass of iced tea, they look relatively normal, if a bit low-slung, giving his moving eyeballs a tracking effect, like tank turrets.
Despite press comment, he did not get a face lift, he says.
He may work hard at staying tan and fit-looking, which he does with 75 sit-ups a day, and hours of water-skiing at a time -- he doesn't take jumps, just rides along behind the boat, "thinking," he says -- but he didn't get a face lift.
"If I wanted to get a face lift, I'd get my nose taken care of," he says. He points to a ragged crease down the middle of his nose, as if someone had grabbed his ears and folded his face forward in a motion akin to breaking the spine of a paperback book. "It's a childhood scar from an operation for the removal of a cyst. The surgeon did a bad job, they didn't have the techniques back then," he says. Sometimes there's a sad thing about him, this bad guy that so many people love to hate, and right now, there it is, a little bit of regret in this face that's been harried for 54 years.
He was the only child of a New York State Supreme Court justice; a whiz kid who attended his parents' dinner parties and learned the fine points of New York City politics -- still a major concern -- as a teen-ager; who had both his bachelor's and law degrees from Columbia when he was 20; who tore through the Rosenbergs and then beat out Bobby Kennedy, he says, for the job as McCarthy's chief counsel.
Actually, he finds his public image to be "good," although he admits there are negative aspects.
"The negatives come from the McCarthy era. Every once in a while I meet somebody who says I was responsible for their best friend jumping out the window. A woman came up to me and said I cost her her job. I said: 'I don't mean to be rude, but I don't even know who you are.' " He barks this out. The blunt tongue dances behind his lips -- he has elaborate, interesting lips, in the multi-arched shapes of a recurved hunting bow left unstrung, a lip line that lilts out to the corners of his mouth like simultaneous bullwhips about to be CRACKED.
"The second area of hostility is from my own profession -- the Wall Street firms, the firms in Philadelphia -- they look at me as somebody who should be a member of the country club and attend the bar association lectures. But I'm a maverick. Outside of that people are extremely friendly. Young people who weren't around during the '50s and saw me on "60 Minutes," to them I'm the tough lawyer. People like me. People like people who are well known. People like saying they sat next to me on the plane rather than some missionary."
Even after the three indictments for corporate manipulations and fund misuse?
"I was indicted in 1964, 1969 and 1971 and I was acquitted 12-0 in every instance -- Roy Cohn 36, the government nothing. That's another reason people have a good feeling about me. When you survive something like that, you come out the stronger for it."
But why all the indictments, if he was 36-zip innocent?
"It was the hatred Bobby Kennedy had for me. It couldn't be anything else."
The hatred springing from . . .
"When I got the job as staff counsel and he didn't. He was out to get me, after that."
Bobby Kennedy would get beaten out for a job and spend the rest of his life getting even?
"Sure," Cohn says.
Get, get, get, get, get. The world is out to get his clients, the government is out to get him. He's tired of people telling him he was out to get them during the McCarthy days. He's even written a book -- "How to Stand Up for Your Rights and Win!" -- about how not to get gotten.
He doesn't worry about innocence in a client, he says, he just worries about getting the getters. As he told the National Law Journal: "I have to see that big, wide establishment out there closing in on somebody and I have to want to show them that they're not going to close in on me . . . "
It's a hard way to live.
At 54, it shows in his face. Maybe it always did.
Then again, Roy Cohn is all in the eyes of the beholder. On the way out of the WRC studios after "The Charlie Rose Show," Cohn gets cornered by the famous Washington autograph hound, Marlene, who waits with her notepad and pen outside all the Washington talk shows.
Cohn signs a couple of autographs for her, and heads for his limousine (paid for by Simon & Schuster, his publisher).
Marlene calls after him: "I love your blue eyes! They're so serene and blue!"
Cohn thinks about this one, and his face, that face, moves as close to embarrassment as it probably can. He calls over his shoulder to Marlene: "Except when the red creeps in."