Roy Cohn/Jack Smith: Two Views of being Homosexual in America

Authored by Daisy Lorenzo

A copy of an invitation received by William Harris from actor Ron Vawter for a special friends only performance of Vawter’s Roy Cohn/Jack Smith. The letter was sent on April 15, 1992. The image displays Vawter in his roles of Cohn and Smith.

Roy Cohn/Jack Smith is Ron Vawter’s depiction of two white, homosexual men who lead very different lives in the 1950s, but whom both died of AIDS related illnesses in the 80’s. Vawter (1994) uses his performance to focus on the “two powerful forces which shaped their lives: A Virus, and a society which sought to repress their sexuality” (0:10:36-0:10:45). This one-man show has been, thankfully, preserved with the help of filmmaker Jill Godmilow.

The original performance was separated into two parts: Roy Cohn’s speech being first, and Jack Smith’s shortened rendition of one his performances being the second. Godmilow, the editor of the recorded performance, decided to put clips of each performance together so that it seems to create a contrast of the lives of these two men, however, as the performance continues the audience begins to see the parallels between the two instead of the differences. This was done to place emphasis on the unifying factors that Vawter focused on (Godmilow, n.d.).

These two men had their own way to cope with how American society in the 1950s vehemently hated them based on who they loved. Roy Cohn chose to repress his homosexuality and deny any accusations to the point that he even publicly denied having AIDs, insisting it was liver cancer (Mower 1986). Ron Vawter’s performance gives a glimpse of how Cohn would’ve behaved during a speech in which he bashes homosexuals, using similar scare tactics and examples used today by homophobic individuals. The speech shows the conflict of Cohn’s homosexual identity versus the bachelor persona he adopted to appeal to the anti-communist right.

On the other hand, Jack Smith embraced his homosexuality and made it the center of his life as well as the focus of many of his works. Vawter dons a very flamboyant outfit and persona that doesn’t seem to care about what anyone may think of him. Jack Smith is unabashedly himself on stage which forces the audience to make the decision of whether they accept him or not by continuing to watch the performance. 

Both performances show two individuals who have been abused by a society that wants conformity of its people. Roy Cohn tried to be what American society wanted him to be and it warped him into a man that was always ready to strike at any weakness in order to hide his own leaving him a lifelong bachelor. Jack Smith shunned what society wanted of him and while it would never accept him, he was still able to find like-minded individuals that accepted and loved him wholly (Arcade, n.d.).

As Godmillow (n.d.) summarizes, “the performances are addressed directly to you, about yourself- whether you are gay or not gay… performances that ask with every breath, who are you in the face of this” (2). If we want progress, American society needs to change how it treats individuals of the LGBTQ+ community. While some progress has been made since the time of Cohn and Smith, more work needs to be done as the echoes of Cohn’s words still resonate with many people today.


Arcade, Penny. n.d. “The Last Days and Moments of Jack Smith.” Penny
Arcade. Accessed September 29, 2020.

Godmilow, Jill. n.d. “On Editing Roy Cohn/Jack Smith.” Women Film Editors. Accessed September 29, 2020.

Mower, Joan. 1986. “Roy Cohn, Ex-Aide to Joseph McCarthy, Dead at 59.” AP News. August 2, 1986.

Ron Vawter to William Harris. 1992. Postcard. Box 143, Folder 4228, Image 2. The William Harris Papers. Marymount Manhattan College. New York.

Vawter, Ron. 1994. Roy Cohn/Jack Smith. Directed by Jill Godmilow. Films Godmilow. Video, 1:29:32.

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