Roy Cohn is easing across the breezy room as if in slow-motion. Those infamous hooded eyelids now sag, the once taut, tan face is pale and bony. His illness is described as liver cancer, and today he has just returned from another visit to Good Samaritan Hospital, where his hemoglobin count was viewed as alarmingly low.
"Sorry, I'm late . . . Had to have a blood transfusion . . . It took seven hours," he says matter-of-factly, as if commenting on the Worth Avenue traffic.
At 58, Roy Cohn is fighting for his career and his life, and the insults of history are all around him. When he settles into an overstuffed couch at a friend's mansion on Ocean Drive for what will be a four-hour interview about his life -- from the McCarthy era to magazine covers, from recent disbarment proceedings to his own mortality -- his attention seems to waver, his voice at times is barely audible.
"I'll tell you how I've felt the last few months," he says. "I have felt as though I died and that I have been present at my own memorial service, listened to all of the eulogies . . . got the word on who said what, like, 'Good, the S.O.B. isn't around anymore,' or 'What a shame, he was a tough fighter but he was really a good guy' . . . It would get to the point where I would wake up sometimes in the middle of night, and somebody was in tears . . ."
The late afternoon Florida sun soaks the room as Cohn thinks for a moment.
"I've envisioned who would be strong enough to give the eulogy . . . I've even imagined White House meetings, with them trying to decide whether the president or Mrs. Reagan would attend the funeral . . . What this senator said, what that senator said. It was, to me, like a living death. It was really as though I had passed away and I was back on the scene from some place -- above or below . . ."
Cohn says he is in remission -- he is even planning his annual New Year's bash -- but he looks frail in baggy clothes, khaki pants and a blue sports shirt. His right eye is bright red. After about half an hour, his right hand begins shaking. He holds onto it with his left hand. A little later, his right shoulder starts shaking slightly.
Cohn's friends say he is better than he has been in months, recalling memory lapses and tears and talk of death. But lately, they say, they are seeing some of the old fighter again. On this day, he calls the chief counsel of a New York legal disciplinary panel that seeks to disbar him a "blithering idiot"; talks for 15 minutes about why people have believed him -- falsely, he says -- to be a homosexual; gossips about Washington politicians; and philosophizes about his battle for life.
"There have been days which would come when I would actually say, 'Is this worth it? Is this fight really worth it?' " he says. "It is agonizing. These days of boredom. And what I would do is, I would play with my life-expectancy table and say: 'If I come through this okay, what do I have left -- eight years, six years, 10 years, whatever it is. And what am I fighting all this for and going through all this agony? The answer is, because I'm not a quitter.
"And the answer also comes in with the fact that I wouldn't give my enemies the satisfaction. Every time they think they have me, they suddenly find out they don't have me. And I just want to make this another item on the list."
In the end, it comes down to reflections on a life by the man who lived it, reflections and a judgment. From New York to Washington to New York, he has come full circle. Roy Cohn's verdict on Roy Cohn? Not guilty.
Looking back, he sees himself as a youthful hero of the fight against communism. By the time he was 23, Roy Marcus Cohn was already a seasoned assistant U.S. attorney -- an expert in "subversive activities" -- and he had wrapped up what would become the first highlight of his career: the prosecution of the Rosenberg spy case.
"I believe the things of which I'm proudest are my prosecution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as atom spies, all the way down to the work I do in anticommunism organizations today," he says.
He remains unrepentant about the role that brought him lasting notoriety: that of chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy's Permanent Investigations Subcommittee and scourge -- along with his ever-present colleague G. David Schine -- of the communist agents and dupes who allegedly permeated American society. From embassy to airport they traveled on one infamous European trip, searching out what they considered un-American reading material and chastising personnel.
"I think McCarthy performed a substantial service to the country by alerting the country to the menace of communism when most people in this country were not tuned in to how deadly it was," he says. "Were it not tuned into the fact that, having beaten Hitler, we were up against another bunch of killers, and McCarthy was the one who opened more people's eyes to that . . . So I regard it as a decent hour in history, and I think there's been a total exaggeration of people losing their jobs, jumping out of windows, all that. That's all a lot of baloney."
If he could turn back the clock, would he do anything differently?
"Sure," he says. "Twenty-five, 30 years later, who wouldn't do something differently? . . . Yes, there are things I wouldn't do over again: the trip to Europe. I would never do that over again, because I didn't understand at the time that it was a nothing trip. Something that a hundred congressional staff people take a year. But because I was who I was, and Dave Schine was who he was, we just walked into the lion's den. And I would hope that I would have enough brains not to do that again."
Was he as abrasive as people say?
"Sure, but I'm not sure that if I hadn't been too aggressive if I could have gotten any results, or McCarthy could have," he says.
What does he say to people who say he ruined people's lives?
"I say name one."
Joseph McCarthy has stuck to Cohn like the Pentagon Papers to Daniel Ellsberg, like Vietnam to Lyndon Johnson.
"I can live to be 300 years old and do all sorts of things, perform the greatest operation in the history of mankind, not that it's any possibility, and when I die, when I'm referred to, it's going to be as Joe McCarthy's counsel . . . So that's there, that was cast in steel, in iron."
His McCarthy association gave him fame -- and infamy -- at a very early age. And, as he is the first to admit, it was an asset to his law practice, rather than a deterrent.
But there was a price.
It was during the McCarthy years, for one thing, that his lifelong feud with Robert Kennedy began. Their paths first crossed in 1953, when McCarthy hired Kennedy as an assistant counsel to the subcommittee. Kennedy soon resigned, then resurfaced on the committee as minority counsel to the Democrats. Cohn once lunged at Kennedy outside a hearing room, only to be restrained. Years later, as U.S. attorney general, Kennedy would give his blessing to three separate criminal indictments of Cohn. (He was acquitted three times.)
Cohn tells this story about seeing Kennedy in 1967 at Orsini's, a trendy New York restaurant:
"I came into dinner with S.I. Newhouse, my best friend, and two young ladies. We were seated. A few minutes later, in came Bobby Kennedy with Margot Fonteyn, and they were seated at a table directly next to ours. All of a sudden the conversation stopped at our table, and no conversation ever started at their table. I said, well, this is going to be ridiculous, and at these prices we don't have to spend the evening in silence.
"So I got up, excused myself and went over to Bobby Kennedy, and I said, 'Bobby, look, you're here, I'm there, I'm going to ruin your evening and you're going to ruin my evening just by looking at each other.' "
But even 13 years after their first confrontation, Kennedy could not hide his loathing.
"He said, 'You're absolutely right, you were here first. I'll move.' And he got the head waiter and had his table changed to another part of the restaurant. That's the last time I ever saw Bobby Kennedy."
But Cohn paid a much larger price for celebrity when his personal life, most notably his relationship with Schine, became the subject of public comment. In the mid-'50s, rumors started surfacing about homosexuality.
"The way they got started with some momentum," Cohn remembers, "was a speech made on the Senate floor by Senator Ralph E. Flanders of Vermont, who said, 'What is this strange relationship between the senator and these two associates?' . . .
"I think when you have a situation, both bachelors -- although we were in our midtwenties, which is a respectable age for a bachelor, I suppose -- Schine was very good looking. I was certainly not."
Cohn is asked why he never married.
"First of all, I was an only child. And I was very close to both my mother and father . . . While my mother was alive after my father died, I had a very close relationship with her. Number two: My whole life was work. And many a time when I was in the United States district attorney's office prosecuting the Rosenberg case, I would sleep over in the first-aid room at the courthouse rather than even take the 20 minutes to go home.
"And thirdly, after the Army-McCarthy hearings, I saw what it did to my mother and father, and it wounded them so deeply that I found that I was doomed or blessed, depending on how you look at it, with a life of controversy. And that I could handle it better without a really close loved one on my back. In other words, I saw what it did to my mother. I saw what it did to my father. And I made up my mind if I got married and had kids or something and I was going through this whole business, it would be much more difficult for me knowing the hurt that was being inflicted on them."
Cohn says there were also what he calls "the come-closes, insofar as getting married is concerned."
Has he had any great loves?
"Barbara Walters," he says without missing a beat. "Barbara Walters. Oh, boy, did we ever discusss getting married . . . We discussed it before her marriage, after her marriage, during her marriage . . . You know how those things are . . ."
Cohn has never been one to bury himself in legal briefs. He has preferred to handle high-profile divorce cases, estate battles and charges against alleged organized crime figures -- turning himself in the process into one of the most feared litigators in the country. His firm, Saxe, Bacon & Bolan, has insured his life for $1 million, because most of its clients are his clients.
"Look," he says, getting quite spunky for the first time during the interview, "if the president of the bank has a big antitrust suit he wants to bring or something like that, with a 300-page complaint, I'm not the guy he's going to go to because I'm not gonna sit down and dictate 300 pages. But if he gets a call that his son has been picked up for drunken driving or for possession of some drugs or something like that, I'm the guy he'll call."
He calls the legal community "a bunch of stuffed-shirt egotists, who the most important thing in their life is the country club and tea dances." He is reminded that some of these "stuffed shirts" are now controlling his future with respect to the disbarment proceedings.
"Totally!" he agrees.
On Oct. 31, a New York disciplinary panel recommended that Cohn be disbarred, alleging that he failed to repay a $100,000 loan from a client made to him in 1966 ("It's one of those words that's so difficult to define -- what is a loan?" says Cohn), used funds put in escrow for another client and failed to reveal pending complaints against him when he applied for admission to the District of Columbia bar in 1982.
Cohn denies any wrongdoing, and gets animated when the subject is pursued. He calls the members of the panel a "bunch of little people" and says they are biased against him.
"The bar proceeding is absolutely nothing to me," he says. "Bill Buckley had a line once, he talked about little people who get their kicks out of embarrassing people more successful than they are. And there's the jealousy motive . . . The law has been very good to me, I've been very successful at the law, I've won a lot of cases, lost very few, and I'm not part of the 'old boy' group. I'm anti, I'm an iconoclast.
"I don't know what's bugging them in this whole thing," he continues, "but I'll tell you one thing, there isn't an honest reason, when you analyze the whole thing -- the age of, the ancient age, the whiskers on these cases, the fact that nobody lost a nickel and the fact that it's me, not any of the thousands of other lawyers in New York -- you have to, I believe you have to come to the conclusion that they're just out to get me."
Later, at dinner in an Italian restaurant, Cohn makes an effort to perk up. He is dressed handsomely in a green corduroy jacket, white pants, white shoes.
The party includes Florida businessman Gene DeMatteo, an old friend of Cohn's, and a young New Zealander, Peter Frazier, introduced as the office manager in Cohn's firm. Frazier often travels with Cohn and has accompanied him to the National Cancer Institute for experimental treatment. Tonight, he is the one who brings the evening to an end when he sees Cohn drooping.
In the past 16 months, since Cohn discovered a lump behind his ear that turned out to be malignant, he has not had surgery. All of his treatment has been chemotherapy and drugs. He is not permitted to drink alcohol, but tonight he has a glass of champagne.
He makes a gallant attempt to get the check from DeMatteo -- to no avail -- and then quips: "I can never pick up a check with Gene. The last night I beat him out of check, he sent me over a car the next day . . . Isn't that right, Peter?"
"Yes, it was a Lincoln," Frazier confirms.
As the night comes to a close, Cohn says he believes the tide of public sentiment is turning in his favor, "because now with the situation with the Soviet Union, McCarthy is no longer a bad word in the hinterlands of America."
He is asked, finally, how he wants to be remembered.
"I have no choice. I don't want to think about it. Because I know how I am going to be remembered. I am going to be Joe McCarthy's chief counsel for the rest of my life, no matter what else good or bad I should ever do in anybody's eyes. And I'm perfectly happy with that denomination as long as those on the other side can see that there is another side."