Stephen Metcalf is the host of Slate's culture podcast.
A famous photograph shows Roy Cohn and Steve Rubell sharing a moment of tenderness at Studio 54. It's the wee hours, and the two look like a Madonna and Child crossed with a most-wanted poster. Rubell was the founder of the disco, Cohn its lawyer. Rubell looks off into the crowd; he is smiling, exhausted but happy, a kid in a candy store he built himself. His head rests affectionately on Cohn's lapel. Cohn looks over him, directly into the lens; a stone killer.
By the time of the photograph, Cohn had run with the worst elements of American life – Joe McCarthy, Nixon, the mob, the gossip press – for thirty years, fixing, keeping secrets, trading favours.
Forced to assign affect to such a dead stare, you might say: He looks disappointed that his life mission, to make the world as ugly as Roy Cohn, will end in failure.
Cohn, widely considered the vilest human being my country has ever produced, may yet get the last laugh. In a few days, his protégé, Donald Trump, could be elected president of the United States. Before he met Cohn on the late-night circuit, Trump was nothing but a trust-fund scamp, son of a minor Queens developer. Cohn liked him, and hooked him up, socially and professionally, in Manhattan. The two bonded at Studio 54, where he and Trump became regulars. Here it is worth pausing, and recalling what the legendary discotheque meant to 1970s America.
Rubell's initial strategy had been to lure stars in after hours, after their duties as performers around the city were done with, then to let them party entre nous into the early hours of the morning. To make sure only famous and beautiful people entered the club, he set up a strict door policy. In other words, he set up the very first velvet rope. Michael Musto, the Village Voice columnist, has said, "The greatest achievement of my adult life was getting into Studio 54." He labelled Rubell a nerd tyrant, who, along with his infamous doorman-enforcer Marc Benecke, policed the rope. Benecke, Musto said, looked you up and down as if you were a "decaying rodent."
Rubell never imagined how Inside could become a kind of mania. For the ordinary person, the reason to get into the club was to be inside the club.
Inside, there were shaved barhops in gold lamé shorts and disco lights and, amidst the waft of a semi-public bathroom, celebrity canoodling, and at the end of the night, a giant quarter moon with a spoon (wink) attached descended from the ceiling, and then the ceiling exploded, and confetti fell on Fame itself: Liza Minnelli, Bianca Jagger, Truman Capote, Halston, Calvin Klein, Liz Taylor, Jackie Onassis, a scandalously young Brooke Shields, and, of course, Warhol. For the yearning to be Inside to become a mania, Outside has to be experienced as a kind of annihilation.
By 1977, the year Studio 54 opened, the sixties were finally dead. The baby boomers had graduated en masse, only to discover that real life, unlike Berkeley or Yale, was not a stage set upon which to enact a destiny. It was an overcrowded labour force into which they poured like just another human glut. Among their elders, the great post-war institutions (the universities, the labour unions, the foundations) had lost their legitimacy, were seen as self-serving bureaucracies staffed with "public men," i.e., self-serving bores.
In the darkness before the dawn of Reagan, and neoliberalism, people partied; and party people tried on a certain "fall of Rome" insouciance that in Rome throws off a certain dolce vita verve tinged with pathos, but in New York City just brings the rats out of the gutter.
"Leave your girlfriend behind and I'll let you in," Benecke would say to some nudnik standing in the cold. And you know what? He'd do it. With nothing to choose from but suburbia and petty fascism, a kid will choose petty fascism every time. Studio 54 made Cohn delirious. He'd spent his adult life trying to pretend he wasn't gay, turning his inner furnace of self-hate and denial onto genteel culture, on trying to bring down a supposed "meritocracy"; and now, sheer laziness and rot would do the work for him.
Close your eyes, now, and imagine Donald Trump walking into the Oval Office for the first time. It's Roy's kid, as minted in the sanctum sanctorum, the basement of Studio 54, the Inside of Inside, where only the most made men are allowed to go. For Donald, of course, winning the White House has always only meant one thing: Strolling past the ultimate velvet rope. For the rest of us, it means the worldview of Roy Cohn has gone universal.