One of the things that surprised me when I began researching my family history was finding out how much history there is in my family. I don’t mean personal information about my relatives, such as where they lived or what they looked like. I mean public history, the things you can read about in history books.
I had one of these surprises a few years ago when I was talking to my Uncle Jay about his Army career. Jay was in the service from 1954–1956, and after basic training he was stationed
in the Aleutian Islands at Fort Richardson near Anchorage. I’d heard many of his Army tales before—about his misery on an Arctic bivouac, his utter inability to field-strip his rifle, and his relentless quest to get out of the infantry by securing a clerical berth—but I wanted to hear these stories again so I asked him about them one night. He was reaching the end of the episode where he gets out of the infantry when he said, “and I ended up with a quartermaster clerical job, actually with G. David Schine.”
“Huh? What?” I asked. “Who was that?”
Jay explained that Schine had been Roy Cohn’s friend and had been involved in the scandal that ultimately toppled Senator Joseph McCarthy. He didn’t explain much, because Jay doesn’t ordinarily pack a story with factual detail. He just gives you the broad outlines, and if you want the details, you have to go find them yourself.
Which is what I did.
G. David Schine was a handsome and privileged youth, the scion of a hotel magnate. He met Roy Cohn in 1952 when Schine published a crude anti-Communist tract, which was subsequently distributed in his father’s hotels. Their friendship bloomed, and Cohn recruited Schine to serve on the staff of Senator Joseph McCarthy. His duties included a tour of Europe with Cohn, where the two scoured the libraries of the United States Information Agency, looking for books they thought were written by Communists.
In 1953, Schine was drafted, and Cohn went to bat energetically for his friend. Using his clout as a Senate staffer, he pestered Army officials for special favors on Schine’s behalf. He requested a commission for Schine, light duty, an avoidance of overseas postings, and extended leave so that Schine would be available for work on McCarthy’s Subcommittee on Investigations. Cohn was a gay man, and many thought that he and Schine were lovers, but the record is unclear on this point. Cohn may have been infatuated with Schine, but there’s no evidence that their relationship ever went beyond mere friendship.
Cohn eventually irritated the Army chain of command, which grew increasingly resistant to his demands. Enraged, he threatened to “wreck the Army,” and this impolitic utterance touched off the scandal that toppled McCarthy. The Army accused McCarthy and Cohn of improperly pressuring it on Schine’s behalf. The senator and his aide responded with the counter-accusation that the Army was holding Schine’s fate “hostage” to obstruct McCarthy’s investigation of Communists in the Army. More accusations followed; the Army published a report that was highly critical of McCarthy and Cohn. McCarthy’s Subcommittee on Investigations was convened to adjudicate the dispute. The hearings were broadcast live on television, a novel medium at the time, and Schine and Cohn appeared on the cover of Time.
The hearings were a disaster for McCarthy. Television was not a good medium for the senator—he came across as thuggish, dishonest, and ruthless. Millions witnessed his clash with Army counsel Joseph Welch, the one that ended with Welch’s famous reproach “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” McCarthy never recovered from this debacle. Americans would not forgive him his bullying and assaults on the Army. With his reputation in tatters and his popularity at an all-time low, the Senate voted for his censure. McCarthy retained his seat, but his heyday was over. He began drinking heavily and contracted hepatitis. Three years later he was dead.
Jay didn’t know David Schine
well personally, and their brief acquaintance shared service at the Alaska General Depot didn’t alter the course of either man’s life. So why does it matter, then, that my Uncle Jay knew G. David Schine?
It matters because the story of Cohn and Schine piqued my interest and influenced the way I was beginning to see Jay’s early adulthood. Cohn and Schine were an unusual pair—Cohn hot-tempered and flamboyant, Schine reserved and polite. Cohn in particular fascinated me, and the more I learned about him, the more I wanted to know. I read his memoir, ghost-written by Sidney Zion. I read pieces by Nicholas von Hoffman, like this one from The Nation and this one from Life. Cohn was odious and sleazy, a true piece of work, but also magnificently charismatic and complex. He began to exert an influence on the story I was telling, even though he wasn’t directly involved in it.
Before entering the Army, Jay was also acquainted with another person of some renown, the actor Wally Cox. Acquainted is perhaps too strong a word—Jay telephoned me after this post first appeared to say that he had merely seen Cox perform a sort of psychodrama at a meeting of something called the Dynamic Psychological Society. (More on that, perhaps, in a future post.)
Wally Cox was a well known figure in the early days of television, appearing in the Philco Television Playhouse, the sitcom Mr. Peepers, and numerous other television shows and movies. Cox was also friends with Marlon Brando, and so I had another odd pairing, that of the brooding, electric Brando and the nebbishy Cox.
Inevitably, I began to think of another peculiar pair: Jay and his friend Stanley. Stanley was a fixture in Jay’s life for decades. They met as boys in Pittsburgh, then lost contact when the Kubrin family moved to Los Angeles following World War II. They met again in early adulthood when both young men were living in Manhattan, lost contact once more, then reunited in their thirties when both were living in Los Angeles.
I never met Jay’s friend Stanley, but from what I’ve heard he was quite a character. Hyperactive and destructive as a child, he grew into a mercurial, obsessive-compulsive striver—a man of shady business practices, voracious appetites, explosive outbursts, bisexuality, addictions, and probable mental illness. My uncle, it must be said, also has his idiosyncrasies, although they pale in comparison to Stanley’s. Still, when you add them all up—arachnophobia, jangled nerves, a mania for counting, and a tendency to brood and ruminate—you get a noteworthy and peculiar fellow.
So I ended up with a story not of one man, but of many. Character study is an interesting pastime, and it’s even richer when you can examine one personality and his foil. It’s better still when you have many pairs, receding into the distance like a figure standing between two mirrors. There’s something about multiples that engages the mind.
© 2012 – 2014, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.