HBO’s ‘Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn’ is a portrayal of Roy Cohn in what the documentary believes he truly was. It takes its viewers through his various political affiliations, actions and also, his personal life, which has been the focus of several theories. In any case, his death ultimately paved its way in understanding some things about the double life he led, a force to be reckoned with in the public sphere and an extremely private man, otherwise. Even then, the flamboyant parties he threw and the many gay parties he attended are still etched in history.
Roy Cohn showed his legal brilliance in his early career when he was admitted to the bar at just 21. Coming from a Jewish family in New York, he played a prominent role in the prosecution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1951, a much-contested verdict. He was famous for his aggressive questioning of suspected Communists, and while working with Senator Joseph McCarthy, he preferred not to hold hearings in open forums. In the increasing pace at which his public reputation grew, the secrets of his private life also came to the forefront.
The first of its kind was the many gay parties he used to attend at a time when he, along with McCarthy was really prominent in projecting the Lavender Scare, firing government officials who were thought to be either gay or lesbian, essentially in what they described as a ‘homosexual.’ His special friendship with G. David Schine was also the subject of much discussion. While some contested it as being a platonic relationship, many argued that their relationship and the ardent fervor with which Cohn demanded that Schine be treated specially in the army stemmed from a sense of love, that allegedly was more than mere friendship. In any case, this subsequently provided the momentum for him to remove himself from his association with McCarthy and go into private practice, after which he got involved with more prominent personalities.
How Did Roy Cohn Die?
In 1984, Roy Cohn was diagnosed with AIDS. He is known to have used his top connections to get ahead in line to receive experimental treatment with AZT, which was previously developed to treat cancer. From the time of his diagnosis up till his death, he maintained that he was suffering from liver cancer. Thus, many believe that he was publicly in denial about not just his sexuality but also the illness which ultimately resulted in his death. Cohn was diagnosed during the surge of the AIDS epidemic in the US, in the 1980s, wherein the panic and fear of the illness made many refer to AIDS as ‘gay cancer’ or ‘the gay plague.’
Roy Cohn, thus, died on 12 August 1986, in Bethesda, Maryland. He passed away due to complications from the disease at the age of 59. Cohn was laid to rest at Union Field Cemetery at Queens, New York. His AIDS memorial quilt reads, “Roy Cohn: Bully, Coward, Victim.”
This is also the inspiration for the title of the documentary. In many ways, the three words used in his memorial quilt symbolizes who he was and the role he played in the eyes of many. Bully in repressing others for their different sexuality, a coward for living in denial about his own sexuality and a victim, for falling prey to the illness that finally claimed his life, which is also rigged with much irony. (Feature Image Credit: HBO)
Read More: Was Roy Cohn Gay?