Tony Kushner’s original impulse that led to Angels in America was an idea for a musical based on the life of Roy Cohn (1927-1986). The idea had come from reading an article in the leftwing The Nation that seemed to gloat over Cohn’s death from AIDS, prompting Kushner to wonder, as a very leftwing gay man, if he could find some sort of solidarity in someone he considered a major villain of the 20th century.
Roy Cohn first gained national prominence as legal counsel to Red-hunting Senator Joseph McCarthy (a job he beat out Robert Kennedy to win) at the tender age of 24, on the recommendation of J. Edgar Hoover. He had received his law degree from Columbia when he was 20, and had already played a significant (decisive, in his opinion) role in the espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. It was his desire to get special treatment for his friend and fellow McCarthy aide David Schine that led to McCarthy’s public shaming in the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. After resigning from McCarthy’s staff, Cohn went into private practice in New York City, where he became a political and social celebrity. He dated the young Barbara Walters, had a client list that included Donald Trump, mobsters Carmine Galante and John Gotti, and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. A registered Democrat throughout his life, he worked mostly with conservative causes and served as an informal adviser to many politicians, including Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, whom he considered a friend.
His legal career was always considered somewhat shady. Beginning in the 1970s, Cohn repeatedly faced Federal and state charges of professional misconduct and financial improprieties, without conviction. The editor of the conservative National Review called him “an ice-cold sleaze.” Finally, in 1986, he was disbarred for unprofessional conduct and lost his license shortly before his death from AIDS.
For Cohn, despite a history of gaybaiting that went back to his time with McCarthy (more Federal employees lost their jobs during the “McCarthy era” for suspicion of homosexuality than for suspicion of Communism), Roy Cohn was also an active, closeted gay man. In 1984 he was diagnosed with AIDS, but until his death on August 2, 1986, he insisted that he was suffering from liver cancer, even as he was taking part in the clinical trials for AZT at the National Institute for Health in Bethesda.