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June 25, 2020

Bully Pulpit

A producer explores a complex political force.

Curt Schleier
  • Roy Cohn at home in Greenwich, Connecticut, in 1986

    Mary Ellen Mark
  • Ivy Meeropol

    Courtesy HBO

It's not surprising that Ivy Meeropol chose to produce and direct Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn, which debuted on all HBO platforms on June 19. She has a vested interest in the subject.

Meeropol is the granddaughter of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the New York couple prosecuted (some say persecuted) in the early 1950s by a young Roy Cohn and sent to the electric chair for funneling atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.

What is surprising is that despite that — and Cohn's subsequent work as chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy at the infamous Army-McCarthy hearings as well as his later work for Mafia types — Meeropol developed compassion for her subject.

That evolution began in 1988. On a break from Sarah Lawrence College, Meeropol was walking with her father on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where the AIDS Memorial Quilt was on display.

"We could have walked into any entrance — there were thousands of panels," she recalls. "But the first one we saw was a panel for Roy Cohn. It was kind of chilling. I didn't know he was gay or that he'd died of AIDS.

"I thought, 'Finally someone's calling him out.' But I also had the feeling of being sorry for him. There was that central tension: I think of him as a horrible person. But I can feel empathy for someone and not forgive them.

"He had this self-loathing and rage because he felt he could not be himself, could not be a gay man and be as successful as he was. I can't not have empathy for someone who couldn't be himself."

Hiding part of yourself was something Meeropol understood. Growing up in western Massachusetts, "I quickly learned to hide my background." An incident from summer camp still rankles: "A kid found out who I was and threw a pile of mashed potatoes on my plate and said, 'That was the bomb your grandparents stole.'"

''Still, the idea of exploring Cohn's character "nagged at me because he was really interesting." Meeropol had already directed a documentary that explored her family's views of her grandparents' trial and execution, 2004's Heir to an Execution. A new film about Cohn, she says, would "be revisiting [a painful] part of my history."

So the idea percolated. "We'd been having the conversation for a number of years," says Julie Goldman, a producer on the Cohn doc as well as Indian Point, Meeropol's study of nuclear energy. "We had a very good sense of the story that Ivy wanted to tell, one with a greater understanding of what drove him."

Ultimately, political events of the Trump administration spurred Meeropol to move forward. "Where's my Roy Cohn?" lamented Trump — who'd been a client of Cohn's in the 1970s — when faced with the investigation of his ties with Russia.

"That became part of the national consciousness," Goldman says. "People wanted to know who he was referring to. It seemed that if we were going to make this film, this was the moment."

Meeropol conducted fresh interviews with the likes of playwright Tony Kushner (who made Cohn a major character in Angels in America), actor Nathan Lane (who played him on Broadway), columnist Cindy Adams and attorney Alan Dershowitz.

There are glimpses in the film of a happy Cohn, traveling through Europe with his colleague and rumored boyfriend David Schine, searching for Communists, and summering in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

But the archival footage of Cohn badgering witnesses and telling off reporters will likely resonate more strongly with viewers. "Law is an adversarial profession," he is heard intoning. "One side wins. One side loses. And I hate to lose."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2020

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