By Amy Phillips Penn

On a perfect New York day, a 12-year-old girl running in jodhpurs and riding boots was hailing a cab on Park Avenue and 92nd Street. As the cab swerved toward her at an “I’m yours” angle, a man in a camel’s hair coat approached the taxi from the other side. With an implicit New York nod, the two agreed to share the cab.

They talked about the day, riding in the park and New York. When the cab stopped at the girl’s destination (62nd Street), she offered to share the fare. Her backseat acquaintance waved her money away. So she held out her riding glove and introduced herself.

“Roy Cohn,” he countered.

The name was familiar, but she wasn’t sure why. They shook hands.

When she arrived at her grandmother’s apartment, her mother, aunt and cousins were already there.

“Aren’t we related to someone named Roy Cohn?” she asked.

Her aunt, who was contemplating a divorce at the time, decided this was a sign from heaven.

Not everyone looked at Roy that way.

That was me in the jodhpurs; I all but slept in them.

I’m not really related to Roy. My great Aunt Libby married his uncle, so that makes us six degrees of some-kind-of-New York-something.

By the time my parents and I got back to our apartment, Roy’s mother, “Aunt Dora” (whom I never met), had called my Aunt Libby. Aunt Libby, in turn, had immediately dialed my parents to relay Dora’s message: “What kind of parents let their child into a cab with a stranger?”

And so my odyssey with Roy—which would continue until he died—began.

We all know what makes Roy controversial—why, from Broadway to textbooks, he’s considered a smidge short of the anti-Christ. Between the Vegas wardrobe, lunches at 21, meetings with mobsters, royalty and Church higher-ups, Roy was as close to a caricature of himself as it gets.

When he was alive, there were many who remained loyal to him, and many who would turn their world inside out to retain him as their lawyer.

My meeting with Roy was as serendipitous as his mysterious veneer.

Later on, a man I knew called Michael was given Roy’s phone number when he first came to New York. Michael dialed Roy’s number from a phone booth on Roy’s street. It was pouring out. A knock came from the outside of the phone booth. Michael opened the door slightly, and there was Roy.

“You’re calling me,” he surmised.

Michael moved in with him soon after. Cosmic meetings and ongoing intrigue were Roy’s calling card. Always surprise the audience.

I would see Roy at least once a year at My Aunt Libby’s birthday party in East Hampton. Libby had sat through Roy’s trials with him, and Roy appreciated loyalty. He would fly in from wherever he was to be there for her. Some years, the celebration would take place on Roy’s yacht, The Defiant, others on Bill Buckley’s yacht, or at a nearby club (when rumor had it that someone had blown up The Defiant­).

One of the more famous family legends about Roy was that he was having a Seder at his mother’s house. When it came to ask the traditional questions, a guest dutifully queried, “why is tonight different from all other nights?”

“Because tonight the cook dropped dead in the kitchen,” deadpanned Roy.

Getting the cook’s corpse out of a lobby overflowing with Roy-trailing reporters was another chapter.

Parties at Roy’s home were uber-eclectic. They included Barbara Walters, Donald Trump, famous publishers, Cardinals swathed in religious robes and tough guys who looked like they could be bodyguards or needed to be body-guarded. Plus Andy, Calvin, Monique, her exotic dogs, borzois perhaps. And then it was on to Studio 54.

As family, or pseudo-family in my case, no one ever talked politics with Roy. Why bother? My cousin Howard said “poor Roy saw Communists everywhere.” We left it at that.

In the elevator, riding up to a party in my parents’ home, a close friend of mine didn’t recognize Roy and asked him to “push the fifth floor.” She said that he was not amused, but I can’t imagine that he cared.

Years later, at the Saratoga racetrack, my cousins Bob and Betty were in the box next to my hosts’. Bob was Roy’s first cousin, for real. The news of Roy’s death had just shattered headlines. I sat in their box for a while, relieved to be immersed in family before all the wrath of Roy’s world would choke what was left of him.

Dare I say I miss him sometimes? So do others, who, as the years splinter by, are less and less comfortable whispering that they were close to, let alone knew him.

“I bring out the worst in my enemies and that’s how I get them to defeat themselves,” he said.

How you see him is how you see him. I’ll leave it at that.

One Response to Vintage Gossip: Six Degrees of Roy Cohn

  1. Jean Fraser McCarthy says:

    That’s my gay friend.

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