Who was Roy Cohn?

Last Updated on March 10, 2022 by Dave Farquhar

Roy Cohn is a polarizing figure in 20th century American history, with some spillover into the 21st. He is best known as a lawyer, but he was also chairman of the board of Lionel, the maker of electric trains, during the 1960s. I will assume that’s why you’re here, before getting into the other things Roy Cohn was known for.

Roy Cohn didn’t think his involvement with Lionel Corporation, the famous toymaker, warranted even a footnote when he was writing his autobiography. But the infamous lawyer and political operative wasn’t just a lawyer, he was also a corporate raider, even if he wasn’t a particularly talented or successful one.

Roy Cohn’s famous uncle

who was Roy Cohn
Better known as a lawyer and political operative, Roy Cohn dabbled in corporate raiding, buying Lionel out from under his cousin. Here he is pictured in 1964, the year he sold his remaining shares in Lionel after resigning as chairman the year before.

Roy Cohn’s father was Albert C. Cohn, a justice on the New York State Supreme Court. But his father wasn’t his only famous relative. Cohn’s great uncle was Joshua Lionel Cowen’s grand nephew. Cowen founded Lionel, the famous maker of electric trains. In 1958, Cowen was 80 years old and ready to retire.

The company’s best years were behind it when he made that decision, but the bigger problem was finding a successor. His son, Lawrence, had worked for Lionel since 1929 and been its president since 1946. But for whatever reason, Joshua didn’t trust Lawrence to run the company on his own. So in 1959, a year after he retired, he sold his 55,000 remaining shares in the company for $15 each, without telling Lawrence what he was doing. Indeed, Lawrence was out of the country at the time.

The way Cohn told the story, Cowen and one or two other family members who owned stock approached him and asked for advice on turning around the company.

And before long, all of them were selling their shares to him for $15 each.

Between buying his relatives’ shares and shares available on the open market, Cohn was able to acquire 200,000 of the company’s available 700,000 shares, enough to gain control of the company out from under his cousin.

What became of Lawrence Cowen

Lawrence resigned in October 1959 and sold his shares to Cohn, also for $15 each. Lionel agreed to keep him on as a consultant, but in 1962 he sued Lionel because they never paid him. In March 1960 he resurfaced as chairman and CEO of Schick, the maker of electric and safety razors. He said it wasn’t his only offer, but he took the job because Schick and Lionel used the same distributors and sold to many of the same retailers. Even though his obituary said he stayed there several years, he departed in October 1961. He was also a director at L.E. Waterman Co. and Airex Corp.

Lawrence Cowen died in 1970 at the age of 63.

Joshua Cowen died age at age 88 in 1965, bored and in failing health, largely estranged from Lawrence and interested mostly in talking about his company’s early days, or his daughter, Isabel. There is little indication he was aware of the goings-on at Lionel after he sold out.

Roy Cohn and Lionel

Although he got himself elected chairman, Lionel was never anything more than a side project for Cohn. He had less experience running companies than his cousin did, and showed little interest in learning.

Cohn went on a cost-cutting rampage, closing the sales offices in Chicago and San Francisco, and consolidating the New York operations to a small office at 200 Fifth Avenue. He fired various key figures, including Frank Pettit, the mastermind behind much of the product line in the 1940s and 1950s. Pettit landed at Tyco, and his influence on their product line is clear.

Lionel didn’t always give credit where it was due, as the story of its smoke pellets illustrates. But it provided stability and by and large its employees enjoyed working there. Under Cohn, that was no longer the case. The mood of the company, according to interviews conducted by Roger Carp, associate editor of Classic Toy Trains magazine, became dark. Infighting between the surviving factions became the norm.

In the words of Lenny Dean, an employee of the service department, recorded in the July 2003 issue of Classic Toy Trains magazine, Cohn and John Medaris, the president he appointed, seemed intent on minimizing the train lines while fattening their own wallets. Art Zirul, who worked for a Lionel subcontractor in the 1940s and 1950s, said in an interview in the October 1991 issue of Classic Toy Trains magazine that it was a corporate raid. Cohn’s intent was to perform a hostile takeover, run the stock price up, then dump his shares.

Indeed, in 1964 Lionel sued to get out from under its contract with Medaris, calling his compensation wasteful and excessive, noting there was no reason for a company that had closed its offices outside New York to provide him with a private jet.

Plundering the company legacy

The new chairman had no regard for the company’s history. Lionel had an extensive museum, including one of a kind pieces that had been produced decades earlier as proof of concept. The most famous were the large Super 381 and Brute locomotives. He saw the museum and archives as merchandise that could be liquidated for some quick money. In early 1960, he ordered the museum to be liquidated. The operator of the museum saw that he had no choice and carried out the orders. He had been running the museum for three decades, and he died months later.

Cheapening the Lionel product line

Lionel Space and Military train
The brightest spot in Roy Cohn’s legacy with Lionel is its space and military-themed trains. These trains became a popular niche and make one wonder what other good ideas he might have come up with, had he cared to try.

The cost-cutting showed in the product as well. Rather than painting the cars, the majority of cars were molded in garish colored plastic, and metal parts were replaced with plastic whenever possible. The resulting product was lighter and flimsier.

As much as the MPC era of the 1970s and early 1980s gets derided, most of what was wrong about the MPC era was also true of the Cohn era. The major difference is that at least people remember MPC.

That’s not to say that the only thing this era has to show is Cohn’s plundering of a once-great company. One of his ideas caught on with collectors, even if they didn’t turn the company’s flagging fortunes around. The space and military line of trains was the highlight of the Cohn era. That product line retains a following to this day.

The most visible, and maybe the saddest reminder of Cohn’s cost cutting measures was the 1963 catalog. He printed it in black and white. This showed he had no understanding of the company or the product line. The colorful trains were always the point. Or maybe he knew exactly what he was doing and nothing was sacred. With Cohn, you never know.

The failed attempts at diversification

Cohn also tried to grow into a conglomerate. This meant diversifying into other lines of toys like slot cars and science kits. But it also meant acquiring other lines of business, including aerospace firms. Lawrence Cowen had tried the same thing, but preferred fishing equipment, sporting goods, and outboard motors as acquisition targets. Neither was successful. It may have run the stock price up briefly, but giving a bad manager more products to mismanage didn’t result in any long term benefit for the company.

The end of Roy Cohn and Lionel

Cohn’s reign of terror ended in 1963. By then, he had dumped 72.5% of the shares he owned, leaving himself owning three percent of the company. Most histories of Lionel say he was forced out. But he’d been dumping his stock, which means he wasn’t in this for the long haul.

In early 1963, he started negotiating to sell his remaining shares to Abraham M. Sonnabend. In November 1963, he resigned from Lionel’s board of directors, making way for Sonnabend to be elected to the board. This was illegal because Sonnabend didn’t yet own any shares in Lionel. The initial agreement was for Cohn to sell out for $350,000, but the cost of the complex deal increased over time. The deal to sell Cohn’s remaining 55,000 shares to Sonnabend for $415,000 closed January 17, 1964. Less than a month later, on February 11, 1964, Sonnabend died at age 67 while vacationing in Florida.

While $415,000 might seem like a modest sum, and it was half what he paid for them in 1959, adjusted for inflation, that’s $3.7 million in 2022 dollars. Presumably the profit came from his earlier transactions.

By the time he departed Lionel, the damage was done. In 1967, just three years after it rid itself of Cohn, Lionel was in bankruptcy. In 1969, the cereal company General Mills bought the product line and merged it with MPC, a maker of model kits it also owned.

Cohn’s legacy at Lionel

I have seen various attempts in train forums to attempt to sanitize Roy Cohn’s legacy. I can only think of two possible reasons for this. One could be ignorance. The other could be political motivations.

Whatever you think of Roy Cohn’s politics and ethics as a lawyer, he was at best incompetent at running his uncle’s company. At worst he was downright malicious.

And I will interject that most of what has been written about Roy Cohn and his time running Lionel was written by Roger Carp. Let me tell you how I met Roger Carp. The first time I spoke with him was on the phone. He read something I wrote on an obscure forum, and he managed to track me down and call me at work to ask me if he was wrong about something. For the record, he wasn’t.

Carp has spent decades locating former Lionel employees or their families and getting them to tell their stories. He’s heard and recounted plenty of stories of Roy Cohn. It’s hard to find anyone saying anything good about him except that the space and military trains happened under his watch. Had anyone who worked for Roy Cohn at Lionel wanted to vindicate him, Roger Carp would have found that person and would have printed what that person had to say. But it’s been 30 years and he’s still looking.

I’m sure Kalmbach, the publisher of Classic Toy Trains, would love to print that story. It would be a huge seller. It would have been an even bigger seller if they could have printed it sometime around 2018.

Roy Cohn’s legacy: in conclusion

So let’s get back to Roy Cohn. He took over his uncle’s business, ran up the stock price by using scorched earth tactics, sold the artifacts, fired or laid off the key figures who had made the company great, and he made his money even though they kicked him out before he had managed to completely burn it to the ground.

Even when Fisher-Price management was bumbling their way through trying to figure out how to manage Lionel competitor Marx in the 1970s, they did a better job than Roy Cohn.

Who was Roy Cohn outside of Lionel?

Roy Cohn died of AIDS in 1986, although he insisted until his death that it was liver cancer. Over the next 30 years or so, he receded into history, remembered as a key figure in the Red Scare, and a fixer for the rich and famous and the mafia.

His name regained prominence around 2017 when one of his former clients gained elected office and spoke well of him. At that point, Roy Cohn apologists, which had been scarce for decades, popped out of the woodwork. And in the years since, there’s been a concerted effort to sanitize his image.

The most common argument is that Roy Cohn was Jewish. This reveals the motivation. Racists think it’s harder to say that your cause is racist or anti-Semitic if one of the heroes of your movement happens to be Jewish.

The problem with that argument is that Roy Cohn helped facilitate his client’s efforts to discriminate against minorities when deciding whether to rent to them. That’s a phenomenon called the Up South. And having a Jewish lawyer does not undo the anti-Semitic rhetoric that his client encouraged during his political campaign. The rhetoric was subtle, but that was by design.

The Rosenbergs

Roy Cohn may have been Jewish by bloodline, but that did not stop him from selling out other minorities or even his fellow Jews when it benefited him. He rose to prominence by prosecuting the Rosenbergs, a Jewish couple convicted of spying in the early 1950s.

Julius Rosenberg was indeed guilty of spying. Declassified Soviet intelligence that surfaced in the 1990s proved that. But he wasn’t a good spy. What he gave them wasn’t related to the atomic program, and it wasn’t useful for anything else either. No doubt he deserved to lose his job and spend time in prison for what he did. But it is also possible he would have been more useful as a double agent. Sending him to the electric chair for what he did was excessive.

Ethel Rosenberg also went to the chair. The case against her was flimsy, and a result of Roy Cohn committing witness tampering. Sending her to the chair left there two sons orphans, and the state had a hard time finding anyone willing to adopt them. They had to use their adoptive parents’ last name in order to function in society.

If you say you believe in family values, Roy Cohn is a lousy hero.

One of the tenets of Judaism is that every human being has infinite worth. Roy Cohn did not live his life like someone who believes that statement.


Roy Cohn was also gay. That was how he contracted AIDS. But while he was drumming up fear of communists, he was also drumming up homophobia. As part of his political operations, he would out people when he had something to gain, frequently resulting in them losing their jobs and committing suicide.

But even if you think that the Red Scare was a good thing, and you hold a favorable opinion of Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.), Roy Cohn played a pivotal role in McCarthy’s downfall. Most people credit Edward R. Murrow’s investigative work with ending McCarthy’s career, but it was Roy Cohn’s misconduct as an attorney that set up the fall. He presented a doctored photograph during a Senate hearing in 1953 that ultimately led to McCarthy being censured.

Cohn enabled McCarthy. He also brought him down. He should be despised by both conservatives and liberals today. But we’ll get into that in a minute.

Unethical behavior as an attorney

In 1975, he entered the hospital room of one of his clients, put a pen in his hand, and raised a piece of paper to his hand, and tried to pass off the result as a valid amendment to his will, making himself and the clients granddaughter beneficiaries of his estate. The court ruled the marks on the paper were not a valid signature, and the New York State supreme Court disbarred him in 1986 citing unethical and unprofessional conduct.

He died of AIDS later that year.

Why whitewash Roy Cohn’s legacy?

Apologizing for Roy Cohn is a claim of innocence by association. It is a form of the I’m-not-racist-I-have-a-black-friend argument. But thinking highly of Roy Cohn does not excuse Holocaust denialism or the dramatic increase in hate crimes against the Jewish population in the United States since 2018. If anything, using Roy Cohn as a license to be racist is itself racist.

And it needs to stop. For a group that comprises 0.19% of the world’s population, Jewish people have had an inordinately positive impact on society. Joshua Cowen’s electric trains brought joy to millions of children. Louis Marx’s toys did the same. Julius and Milton Forcheimer’s Dorfan trains came to a tragic end, but they proved to be a major force in innovation.

And that’s just one industry. I can find you examples anywhere else you want to look too. Anything from medicine to the computer industry to hardware stores.

Rather than disliking a group because they seem different from you and more successful than you (whether those perceptions are real or imagined), a constructive approach is to learn from them. Life isn’t a zero-sum game. Their success doesn’t have to come at the expense of your failure. And your success doesn’t come at the expense of their failure. The two thing are independent events. Especially if you aren’t directly competing with them.

Late in life, Jack Tramiel, an Auschwitz survivor for you Holocaust deniers, said that he was glad that other people were able to find ways to use his products to make money. I owe my career to that man. So do countless other Gen X IT professionals. I’m glad I had a chance to tell one of his sons that, a few years ago. When I see losers waving their Nazi flags in the Jo-Ann Fabrics parking lot on the weekends, I think of Jack Tramiel. Had Hitler succeeded in killing him, the world would be a worse place. How many more Jack Tramiels did he kill?

Understanding why that person you don’t like is successful and applying those lessons to your own life is a good way to make yourself more successful. And it’s a way that makes the world a better place, not worse.

Make the world a better place. Don’t be like Roy Cohn.

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