March 21, 1977 12:00 PM

The credits had hardly rolled last month on NBC’s Tail Gunner Joe, a three-hour prime-time special on the late Senator McCarthy, than Roy Cohn was mounting a counterattack. When McCarthy was hunting Communists in the 1950s, his assistant was the young, cobra-eyed Cohn. Last week Cohn’s paperback polemic, McCarthy: The Answer to Tail Gunner Joe (Manor Books, $2.25), came off the presses. In it, he charges that NBC “out-McCarthyed McCarthy” by unfairly portraying his boss as an unruly alcoholic with a phony war record.

This week Cohn and another former McCarthy aide, G. David Schine, will broaden the attack. Charging that both were defamed in Tail Gunner Joe, they plan not only to sue NBC for $5 million but also to demand equal time and a budget to produce their own version of the Joe McCarthy Story.

“It’s just incredible!” exclaims Cohn, a Gucci-shod, immaculately tailored 50. “All of a sudden everybody’s interested in a period and a part of my life that happened more than 20 years ago—young people especially.” In addition to Tail Gunner Joe, other TV specials (CBS’s Fear On Trial), books (Scoundrel Time) and movies (The Front) have revived memories of McCarthyism. Cohn clearly revels in the new notoriety, if not always in the intellectual direction it has taken. “A lot of people are rewriting history to make it look like democracy was mean to Uncle Joe Stalin,” he says, grimacing. “I’m happy to set the record straight.”

Cohn is no stranger to controversy. “When it comes to making headlines,” he boasts, “I’m sui generis.” The son of a New York judge, he graduated from Columbia Law at 20 and four years later, in 1951, was a key member of the prosecutor’s staff in the atomic spy case that led to the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. “The Rosenbergs don’t trouble me at all,” insists Cohn, puffing on a $1 cigar. “I think the death penalty was called for.”

Two years later Cohn signed up as chief counsel to McCarthy’s Permanent Senate Subcommittee on Investigations and soon became famous for pinioning witnesses during the group’s search for Communist subversion. Backstage, Cohn almost came to blows with another committee counsel and rival for McCarthy’s attention—Bobby Kennedy. “I can understand that Bobby may have changed his mind later in life,” Cohn says. “But the fact is that he and McCarthy were extremely close. Bobby Kennedy even egged McCarthy on.”

The beginning of the end for McCarthy came in 1954, in nationally televised hearings, when Cohn was accused of trying to obtain favors for Dave Schine after his close friend was drafted. Late that year McCarthy was censured by the Senate, and in 1957 he died of a heart attack.

Cohn returned to New York and began buying up companies—including the failing Lionel Corporation (the toy train manufacturer). Then troubles developed. In 1963 he and several cronies were indicted for conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Over the next nine years Cohn was a defendant in three criminal prosecutions—and each time won acquittal. “After fighting for my life in court,” Cohn says, “I have an absolute horror of conspiracy trials. Then I have to remember that I used to prosecute cases like mine!”

Today the shrewd Cohn is one of New York’s most sought-after lawyers. He brings $1 million in business into his firm each year, divided among divorce, estate, corporate and criminal cases. He balks at defending a drug charge, “unless it’s an obvious frame,” or anyone accused of killing a cop. Beyond that, he has no qualms about his clients—including some criminal suspects who Cohn admits may have Mafia connections. “A client’s cause,” he reminds, “does not have to be his lawyer’s cause.”

Cohn is currently handling jewelry magnate Luca Buccellati’s spectacular divorce, and he represented the fourth Mrs. Alan Jay Lerner in the boisterous breakup of her marriage 12 years ago. Cohn’s most famous split never got to court. He claims that Johnny Meyer, a confidential aide to Aristotle Onassis, asked him to be prepared to draw up divorce papers against Ari’s wife, Jacqueline. Onassis died before any action was taken.

Bachelor Cohn’s substantial fees underwrite a princely life-style. He rents an estate in Greenwich, Conn., is chauffeured around in a money-green Rolls and operates during the week out of a Manhattan townhouse. The door to his large bedroom has its own heavy lock and a Mickey Mouse nameplate reading simply ROY.

Inside is a surreal hodgepodge: an oak bed with mirror above, legions of toy soldiers and dozens of stuffed animals—including several Teddy-bear-size devils with prominent genitalia. His rooftop office with blue frog wallpaper is something of a shrine to the McCarthy days. Its walls are hung with plaques extolling Cohn’s “gallant fight against Godless Communism.”

Undeniably, Cohn does have admirers—he says he received more than 2,000 letters from viewers angered by Tail Gunner Joe. He acknowledges that he is also despised by many. At a recent charitable banquet, for example, he wound up sitting alone at a table for 10. “There is that moment of recognition,” says Cohn, “when you can tell if a person likes you or hates your guts. You develop a sixth sense about this sort of thing.”

One longtime friend is ABC news commentator Barbara Walters. Cohn considers her and fashion designer Carol Horn the important women in his life. “The fact that Roy and I are friends at all is an amazement to me,” muses Walters, who recalls that their relationship got off to a rocky start in the mid-1950s when they were introduced. Cohn promptly observed that she had attended a “Communist school”—Sarah Lawrence.

“We’ve always been violently opposed politically,” Walters says, “but we are friends. Roy has such a clean, clear mind, but he’s also very sentimental and softspoken with a good sense of humor.” The pressure to drop him, she concedes, “has been tremendous. It’s not easy being friends with Roy Cohn in my world. But damn it, if he was in trouble I’d help him, and he’d do the same for me.”

Cohn is also close to publisher Samuel I. Newhouse (“my best friend”), New York Mayor Abe Beame, columnist William Buckley—and G. David Schine, whom he still sees three or four times a year. Married and the father of six children, California-based Schine is a movie producer (The French Connection).

“The chief disappointment in my life,” admits Cohn, “is that I never got married and had kids.” He adds, “Like all mothers, mine wanted me to get married—as long as it wasn’t to anybody.” One consolation is his life in the public eye: “In this crazy year I’m giving fleeting thought to announcing my candidacy for mayor of New York—if only to aggravate the New York Times.”

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