Harry Cohn’s official studio portrait, 1936

Harry Cohn’s official studio portrait, 1936

Harry Cohn: Man, Mogul, and Myth


A Hollywood mogul, Harry Cohn founded Columbia Pictures and ran the studio for nearly four decades. Under his watch, Columbia grew quickly, earning a reputation for profitability and artistic achievement within the film community.

“I may be known as a crude, loudmouth son-of-a-bitch, but I built Columbia. I started it with spit and wire and these fists. I stole, cheated, and beat people's brains out. Columbia is not just my love; it’s my baby, my life. I’d die without Columbia.”

– Harry Cohn, 1946[1]


In 1940, film producer William Perlberg was nervous. In a September column of the notorious Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, Perlberg had been quoted as being rude and dismissive of Columbia Pictures President Harry Cohn. Hopper had claimed that, after a film project had failed, Perlberg had said “‘I told you so’ to Mr. Harry Cohn.” Perlberg wrote to Hopper claiming that he had “never said ‘I told you so’ to anyone in the business, especially Harry Cohn” and asked if she would “be sweet enough to correct the false impression.”[2] Again, in 1953, Hopper was accused of something similar. This time, Ann Rosenthal of the William Morris Agency wrote that her client, Edith Sitwell, had been accused in Hopper’s column of mocking Cohn and his reputation of being a “terrifying” studio head. “Cohn terrifying? On the contrary, people are usually terrified of me,” Sitwell had allegedly declared. Rosenthal pleaded with Hopper to “rectify the account” in order to “avoid an unpleasant situation.”[3] Perlberg and Sitwell had good reason to be nervous and upset with Hopper’s reporting. Her statements had, in one way or another, put them on record as dismissive of one of Hollywood’s most powerful and feared moguls.

Of all the famed original Hollywood moguls, none have achieved such mythic and notorious reputations as Harry Cohn (born July 23, 1891 in New York City, NY; died February 28, 1958 in Phoenix, AZ). Nicknamed “White Fang” by screenwriter Ben Hecht after an intense verbal sparring match, Cohn’s image has been dominated by his “vulgar” manners, legendary temper, and near-dictatorial management style. A man of extremes, another of his nicknames, “King Cohn,” illustrates how he stretched the role of the Hollywood film mogul to its maximum. Sometimes labeled a “tyrant,” “genius,” or “madman,” Harry Cohn was all of these things and more. To understand the various dimensions of Cohn’s life, one must deconstruct his mogul persona. As an entrepreneurial businessman, Harry Cohn believed that his most important role in life was that of the head of Columbia Pictures. Accordingly, Cohn the man, the mogul, and the myth were fused together in a complex construction. His reputation as a fierce and frightening mogul stems from the fact that Cohn mastered the profession better than most of his rivals.

Born into an uncertain and financially strained life, Cohn struggled to be his own boss, utilized his familial and ethnic connections to break into the film industry, helped found Columbia Pictures, and ran the studio for nearly four decades until his death in 1958. Under his watch, Columbia grew quickly, earning a reputation for profitability and artistic achievement within the film community. Cohn was able to succeed in Hollywood due to his participation in the studio system that he has sometimes been condemned for promoting. Harry Cohn was the “tough” movie mogul par excellence. His business model (the Cohn version of the studio system) allowed him to “make” actors and actresses, attract writing and directorial talent, and earn lucrative financial and artistic rewards for himself and his studio. Along the way, Cohn’s personality shaped, and sometimes harmed, his career in Hollywood. Always believing that a mogul must be tough, unwavering, masculine, and dominating, Cohn ruthlessly protected his authority and vision at Columbia. His story is an impressive one of entrepreneurial drive, resilience, hardship, and accomplishment. The successes of Harry Cohn are evident in that his studio, Columbia, became and to a degree remains synonymous with Cohn. This biographical entry on Harry Cohn traces his life, the development of his business philosophy and his impact on the Hollywood studio system, and the mogul personality that so defined Cohn while he lived and continues to define his legacy after death.

Family and Ethnic Background

Harry Cohn was born on July 23, 1891 in his family’s crowded Yorkville apartment in New York City. He was the third of four children to be born to Joseph and Bella Cohn, Jewish emigrants who struggled for survival in New York’s Upper East Side. While both Jewish, Cohn’s parents came from different cultural backgrounds. His father, who ran a tailor shop that specialized in police uniforms, was German, while his mother was from Russia (geographically located in modern day Poland). Little is known about Cohn’s early life in Yorkville, primarily because, as an adult, Cohn worked diligently to hide his past and refused to answer probing questions about it. It appears that Harry Cohn was extremely close to his mother and lacked a strong relationship with his father. Even though Joseph Cohn was an authoritarian in his household, Bella Cohn seems to have exerted a “fierce independence,” especially when it came to issues regarding her children.[4] Years later as the head of Columbia, he pleaded with his mother to move to California, but she refused. When she died in 1935, at the height of Columbia’s early successes, it was one of the few times Cohn’s employees saw their boss devastated and emotionally vulnerable.

While he had a ceremonial Bar Mitzvah, Cohn rejected the religious devotion of his mother very early on in his life and avoided religious holidays and customs. Within the Cohn household, the German heritage of Joseph Cohn ranked superior and the children were encouraged to identify as German, not Russian. While at home, Harry Cohn learned to speak German, although he would distance himself from his German roots later in life. Of the four Cohn sons, only Max, the eldest, attended college. The other three, Harry, Nathan, and Jack, quit school in their early teenage years to work. In the end Harry maintained a close but somewhat contentious relationship only with his brother Jack. While he never liked to talk about these early years, Cohn’s biographers maintain that his “true” education occurred after he left school and began to “hustle” his way through New York City.[5]

Leaving school at age fourteen, Harry Cohn maintained a strong entrepreneurial spirit from the very beginning. He detested traditional time-discipline employment and found it unbearable to take orders and directions from others. Cohn eventually met Harry Rubinstein, a pianist and vaudeville artist, and convinced him that the two could team up and construct a traveling act. With new stage names, “Edwards [Cohn] and Ruby [Rubinstein]” premiered in 1912 in what would prove to be a brief and unsuccessful career. As the manager of the duo, Cohn quickly determined that, while he enjoyed singing, “audiences would not pay to hear him.”[6] This confession characterized the economic realism that Cohn would retain throughout his career. Despite the pleasures some things might offer, Cohn was committed to social and economic progress. If he could not conceive of a project as an economic success, then it was illegitimate. He would apply this same mentality at Columbia, where stars, scripts, and films would be shelved or canceled if Cohn believed they lacked financial futures.

Shortly after “Edwards and Ruby” dissolved, Cohn embarked on a career as a “hustler.” An alleged favorite “hustle” involved Cohn traveling to small towns where he convinced locals to challenge him to a game of bowling. Cohn would supposedly masquerade as a wealthy amateur looking for some fun; in fact, he was a skilled and talented bowler who claimed to have never lost a game.[7] Eventually, these hijinks proved to be insufficient and Cohn was financially compelled to seek gainful employment. While Rubinstein continued to play piano at local hotels and restaurants, Cohn took a job as a trolley conductor which he thoroughly hated. He did not take direction well and insisted on pocketing more than fifteen percent of the fares he collected. Almost immediately, Cohn began plotting an escape. By 1917, he had concluded that motion pictures would be a permanent and financially rewarding industry in America. Cohn’s older brother, Jack, had already come to the same conclusion and was working for the founder of Universal Pictures, Carl Laemmle. Harry believed the path was wide enough for him to travel as well. Most importantly, Cohn believed that the film industry was one profession in which he would never have to work for a “boss” again. While it took some time, Cohn was correct: years later, he was fond of saying that, at Columbia, “I am the king here. Whoever eats my bread sings my song.”[8]

Business Development: Columbia and the Cohn Studio

Harry Cohn’s entry into the film industry had much to do with the trajectory of his brother, Jack. While Harry experimented with Broadway, Jack Cohn worked his way through the ranks at Carl Laemmle’s Independent Moving Pictures Company (IMP, and later Universal). By the time Laemmle established Universal City in Southern California, Jack had inaugurated the highly successful Universal newsreel program and was in charge of editing for Universal. Throughout his tenure with the company, Jack mastered the economics of the film production business, which would later frame his relationship with Columbia and Harry. By 1917, Harry had abandoned his career as a trolley conductor and returned to music, this time throwing his energy into song plugging, where he innovatively began using film footage, instead of traditional slides, to plug songs. Capitalizing on his brother’s influence with Carl Laemmle, Cohn arranged a meeting to sell his musical shorts to Universal. Laemmle was impressed by the product, but also by the energy of Cohn, and offered him a job as an administrative assistant at the new California studio.[9] With his acceptance of the offer, Cohn entered the film profession in earnest, a business he would remain wedded to until his death.

Cohn’s move to California also established a new geographical relationship with his brother that would remain permanent as well. While Cohn would delve deeper into the production of motion pictures in Los Angeles, Jack remained in New York, where he focused on the economic aspects of the industry. Columbia and the Cohn brothers would have to navigate this East vs. West relationship carefully, for it often placed Jack and Harry in harsh combat with one another. Shortly after Harry arrived at Universal, Jack began discussions with Joe Brandt, an executive secretary at Universal, about starting an independent film studio. It was decided that Brandt, who had more experience and respect in the industry, would be president of the new film company, while Jack would head the financial handling of the enterprise. By all accounts, neither Brandt nor Jack initially considered including Harry. Hearing of the plans, however, Harry became his own booster. Brandt and Jack, Cohn argued, were part of the eastern financial end of the industry but they lacked experience and skills overseeing actual film production. Harry’s two years at Universal, short as they may have been, allowed him to make important Hollywood contacts which the new company would need. According to Cohn’s biographer, Harry combined his two greatest skills, “hucksterism and hustle” to work his way into the new company. In 1919, C.B.C. (Cohn-Brandt-Cohn) Film Sales Corporation was founded; Joe Brandt became the president of the company, Jack Cohn oversaw the financial end of the company, and Harry was given charge of production. Both Brandt and Jack would remain in New York, while Harry was left to find production space and offices in Hollywood. Within the hierarchy of the triumvirate, Harry Cohn was the least powerful. As they saw it, Brandt and Jack merely had to “watch” over both the business and the behavior of Harry, whom Brandt described as having “manners that reflected his brash Broadway past.”[10] Harry perceived things differently. In California, he had the freedom to maneuver within the company, to prove his production abilities, and to stake his claim within the film industry. His ambition was impressive: in a matter of years, Brandt would be out of C.B.C. and Harry Cohn the majority stockholder.

Cohn gained much of his education in the basics of film production on Hollywood’s “Poverty Row,” a stretch of Gower Street just south of Sunset Boulevard. Geographically, this was where many struggling film producers would travel to shoot short one- and two-reel films. The area gained its nickname due to the rapid turnover in production buildings and the consistently low quality of the films that were shot there; to many, it was understood to be the industry’s “valley of death.”[11] During the early 1920s, Cohn struggled on Poverty Row as he sought to elevate the status of C.B.C. In 1923, Cohn was a booster of a name change to the young studio, eventually persuading Joe Brandt and his brother Jack to adopt the new name of “Columbia.” For Cohn, this had as much to do with image as it did cachet. Indeed, “a studio called Columbia, the personification of America as a woman whose most famous representation is the Statue of Liberty,” Cohn reasoned, “would be unique” and rival “Paramount’s mountain and Universal’s globe.”[12] C.B.C. needed an image with commanding presence, and so it adopted the Columbia logo and title screen that would remain virtually unchanged for decades. Cohn’s experiences in Poverty Row filmmaking taught him the virtues of thrift, economics, and profit in film production. Moreover, it allowed him to make important contacts with actors, actresses, writers, and directors who, like him, were working hard to fight their way out of the periphery and into the mainstream of Hollywood. Cohn was skillful in the construction of his Hollywood network: he emphasized his German and Jewish roots to reach out to fellow Hollywood Jews, but would also downplay those parts of his past to attract others. In time, these contacts, like Frank Capra, would be called upon to work for Columbia in relationships of mutual benefit.

From nearly the beginning, Cohn envisioned his role as the studio head to be supreme in the triumvirate that was early Columbia. He considered the decisions he made on location in Los Angeles to be the most important for the studio; Jack and Brandt often only heard about them after the fact. Cohn also began to develop a reputation in Hollywood that Brandt found unfortunate. Brandt worried that the image of the company would suffer from Cohn’s unsavory behavior, which was often vulgar and sometimes ruthless in his dealings with contractors, stars, and directors. While it is still shrouded in mystery, it appears that in the late 1920s, a plot began to brew amongst Jack Cohn and Brandt that sought to remove Harry Cohn from the company. Brandt was certainly no fan of Harry, but it seems unlikely that he was the principal leader of the attempted coup. He was already contemplating leaving the film industry due to failing health, and it seems far more likely that Cohn’s brother, Jack, was behind the plan, which would prove to be the first and last attempt to depose Harry Cohn from Columbia.

In 1931, Jack Cohn began to organize a substantial bank loan from the Bank of Italy (the future Bank of America). His contact at the bank was A.H. Giannini, brother of the bank’s founder, A.P. Giannini, who was based in Los Angeles. Reading between the lines, Giannini believed that Jack or Brandt was attempting to raise enough capital to buy Harry out of the company. And, while Giannini knew all three men, he had become closer with Harry, who visited him frequently in Los Angeles and had convinced him that he was the most instrumental to the fate and success of the young Columbia. Giannini tipped off Harry, who moved quickly. Rather than confront Jack, Cohn worked to beat him at his own game. He applied that same year for a personal Bank of Italy loan with Giannini and raised additional funds from outside sources (including his bookies) to raise the $500,000 ($6.1 million in 2010 USD) needed to buy out Brandt.[13] The action occurred swiftly: growing tired of the developing conflict between the Cohn brothers, Brandt sold to Harry and, by 1932, the Los Angeles Times announced that “discord” amongst the three men had resulted in a new “realignment of Columbia Pictures, by which Mr. Harry Cohn” had become “president.”[14] Harry Cohn never went on record about the attempted coup of his brother, but he was never challenged again. Jack Cohn would remain integral in Columbia’s future, but always in a secondary role. The relationship between Jack and Harry would remain strained until Jack’s death in 1956. From 1931 onwards, Columbia Pictures would be associated with Harry Cohn and few others; he had achieved the supreme authority that he needed to be a genuine mogul.[15]

From the beginning, Columbia was fundamentally different from fellow studios. As Thomas Schatz has shown, the “genius” of the studio system had much to do with production and distribution. Major studios like MGM and Paramount owned theater chains across the nation. Thus, they maintained guaranteed sites of distribution for their product, regardless of its quality.[16] This was a luxury that Columbia would never have. A late entry into the film industry, Columbia never had the option, or the capital, to establish rival theater chains. For Cohn, this dramatically shaped Columbia’s business model. The studio would need to focus on quality films to make both impact and profit in Hollywood and theaters around the country. His Poverty Row roots forced Cohn to strategize and concentrate on his “three P’s: product, profit, and percentage.”[17] In the early years of the studio, Cohn mastered strategies that would sustain and elevate Columbia. He maintained contacts with rival studios and often bargained with them to loan out high-caliber star talent (like Clark Gable) for Columbia films, established relationships with talented directors, and actively campaigned for Academy Awards for recognition within the industry. Thus, many of the films made at Columbia under Harry Cohn were different from rival studios; they sought to elevate the studio’s reputation through artistic and financial success, thus shaping the nature and strategies of the studio. For example, in the 1930s, MGM released over 120 films; Paramount released over 40; and Universal (considered a lower-tier studio) released just shy of 40. Columbia, by comparison, would release barely 20 films during the same decade.[18] This was typical of Cohn’s studio: Columbia would focus on quality, not the routine high-volume production strategy of rival studios. This was most clearly demonstrated through the relationship between Cohn and Columbia’s most successful and acclaimed director throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Frank Capra.

The artistic and economic collaboration between Cohn and Capra has achieved legendary status in the history of Columbia. Some scholars of the studio and of Cohn even refer to the relationship as its own organic source, the “CapraCohn,” of the studio’s early lifeblood. Neal Gabler has gone so far as to state that “no other studio was as dependent on a single artist as Columbia was on Capra.”[19] Hyperbole aside, it is hard to overestimate the impact of Capra in the success of the studio, especially during its desperate early days as an independent film studio. Capra arrived at Columbia in 1927 as a relatively unknown director in Hollywood. According to his autobiography, Capra “heard [Cohn] every day, storming through the halls, bawling out employees for leaving the lights on, smoking, and drinking coffee.” The first encounter between the two men was formative. Late in 1927, Cohn appeared on the set of a film Capra was working on, demanded to know why production was moving slowly, and threatened to rewrite Capra’s script. The young director confronted Cohn, informing him that if he was not given “complete control over the whole film-writing, directing, editing,” then he “would walk out.” Cohn backed down and began to pay more attention to Capra, one of few Columbia employees who had challenged him.[20] After several more meetings and “psychological tests,” by 1928 Cohn had invested much of his hopes in Capra.

Capra referred to Cohn as the “Crude One,” yet they had much in common with one another. Most importantly, they both conceived of themselves as outsiders in Hollywood: while Cohn desperately sought power and recognition from other Hollywood elites, Capra yearned for artistic recognition as a film director. Recognizing a common interest, Cohn uncharacteristically bestowed immense power to Capra, who worked with little oversight on his pictures. Over time, Capra would develop a unique genre (which some term “Capraesque”) in which he fused “romance, social differences, political conversion, and the triumph of goodness into a myth of America as not just a melting pot but a crucible in which everything becomes gold.”[21] As the Great Depression raged on, Capra’s films had resonance with American audiences, and aided in bringing Columbia handsome returns. For Harry Cohn and his film studio, Capra meant hope and opportunity. While Capra was candid in discussing the messages of his films in later years, it is unclear if Harry Cohn was also a proponent of Capra’s populist vision. While he likely had an opinion on the messages of these films, he did not vocalize them. Capra offered to bring Columbia artistic and economic respectability, and this seems to have been Cohn’s primary objective. Through his films of the mid-1930s, Capra allowed Cohn to leave behind the Poverty Row identity that had defined the company since its inception. He became the “star boss” of the studio whose growing reputation benefited Cohn and Columbia.[22]

Respect and recognition first arrived for Columbia with Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), a film that transformed the image of Columbia and Harry Cohn. Capra was inspired by a short story that he had read in the Saturday Evening Post, in which an heiress embarked on a bohemian journey with a strange painter that changed her life completely. Working closely with screenwriter and friend Robert Riskin, Capra had difficulty garnering interest for the project. At Columbia, most producers failed to see the practicality of the picture, and Capra was unable to convince major film stars to endorse the script. Only one person believed in Capra’s new picture: Harry Cohn. Admittedly, he had his doubts about the script, but Cohn trusted Capra. He confessed later in life that he had had a “hunch” that It Happened One Night would be a success, but he also had little choice but to gamble on Capra. Columbia needed a vehicle for respectability within the industry and Cohn had already placed his major bets on the director. At Columbia, Cohn silenced all opposition to the film and was central in the acquisition of star talent for the picture. Without major names for the key characters, both Cohn and Capra reasoned that the film might be doomed. As he had grown accustomed to doing, Cohn plotted to “borrow” talent from his rival studios. When he learned that Louis B. Mayer was frustrated with Clark Gable, who had reportedly been “insubordinate” with MGM, Cohn inquired as to his availability for It Happened One Night. In the 1930s, “To be sent from MGM to Columbia was more than punishment; it was disgrace,” and Harry Cohn knew this.[23] Mayer agreed and “punished” Gable by sending him to Columbia for the project. For the lead female part, Cohn and Capra had more difficulty. Several actresses had passed on the part until Cohn and Capra began to think of Claudette Colbert, who had recently renegotiated her contract with Paramount and was now legally allowed to work for rival studios at her discretion. Contacting her agent, Cohn offered her the part. As a way of turning him down, Colbert countered with fantastic salary and scheduling demands. To do the picture, she required a $50,000 salary ($1.8 million in 2010 USD), more than triple what she had been receiving at Paramount, and refused to work more than four weeks. In truth, Colbert hated the script and the role; the egregious demands were her way of declining the role. Wanting her for the project, Cohn called her bluff and accepted the demands, shocking Colbert entirely. While she may have been a rising star in Hollywood, Cohn knew how negotiations worked; backing out of the picture after her demands were satisfied would be detrimental to Colbert’s reputation. After a good amount of “hustle,” Cohn had captured a cast with star power for Capra.

On the set, it was clear that the major players resented their commitment. On the first day of shooting, Gable emerged with an unenthusiastic “Let’s get this over with,” while Colbert remained moody throughout the first half of the production. Slowly, however, they warmed to the picture and began to see its artistic potential. After significant changes in the script, It Happened One Night told the story of Ellie Andrews (Colbert), a snobbish, wealthy girl who was on her way to New York City to be reunited with her estranged husband, whom her father disapproved of. Along the way, she encountered newspaper reporter Peter Warne (Gable), who convinced her to allow him to follow her and chronicle her story. Eventually, her disdain for Peter turned to love and Ellie’s life changed course. In the final scene of the film, she abandoned her father and a life of wealth for Peter, for whom she had developed true affection. While many maintained that the plot was simplistic at the time, it held great resonance in the United States of 1934. As Neil Gabler has argued, It Happened One Night connected with audiences because “the film’s theme… bridged class divisions during the Depression and suggested that the rich had a good deal to learn from those in the trenches.” When released in February, 1934, the film exceeded expectations. More than tripling the $300,000 budget for the film ($40.8 million in 2010 USD), it was a financial miracle for Columbia. Moreover, It Happened One Night promised to win artistic respect within the industry. At the seventh annual Academy Awards in February, 1935, Cohn and Columbia finally shed their Poverty Row reputation. In an unprecedented sweep, It Happened One Night won all the major categories, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Actor. The New York Times reported that it was the most “distinguished night for a film studio” to date.[24] The awards meant much to Cohn, who had actively campaigned for them, for “not only did it legitimize his claim to acceptance in the film industry, but it also strengthened his position with the East.”[25] As the second most powerful member of Columbia, Jack Cohn wielded considerable financial power in New York. With resentment from the 1931 attempted coup still fresh between them, Harry was anxious to demonstrate his superiority and took personal responsibility for the film and its success. As he would argue, only he could have supported the script, secured the talent, and campaigned on the film’s behalf so successfully. While Jack Cohn and Columbia executives in New York could crunch numbers, only Harry Cohn could make movies. After this success, Cohn had more leverage in his financial demands from the East. This allowed Columbia to expand dramatically; by the end of the 1940s, the company had more than quadrupled its 1930s film output.[26]

It is impossible to fully analyze Harry Cohn’s business model and style without examining his personality. As he saw it, the Hollywood film industry was a fiercely competitive world in which writers, directors, and rivals were aiming to bleed him dry. Thus, the system demanded a sense of “toughness,” and Cohn worked hard to maintain a self-described “son-of-a-bitch” image, which eventually won him the nickname “White Fang” from his friends and foes.[27] While he was president of Columbia, Cohn maintained an autocratic system of management that was consciously constructed to produce, at least from Cohn’s point of view, quality and efficiency from his employees. For some, this reduced Cohn to a simplistic and vulgar tyrant. He was fond of ethnic, racial, and gendered epithets, which he often used for shock value. To a certain degree, Cohn refused to shed his Yorkville persona completely; he loved to think of himself as the tough kid from New York who had to struggle and fight to maintain his place at Columbia. More realistically, however, Cohn was what Neal Gabler has described as a “master strategist.” His image and personality was one that was rigidly constructed and regulated for effect.[28] Of all the moguls, Cohn performed the role of the mogul, the “boss,” with the most seriousness. In 1933 he traveled to Italy at the request of Benito Mussolini, who had been much impressed with Mussolini Speaks, a documentary chronicling the Italian dictator’s rise to power made earlier in the year. Cohn had authorized the project, believing that Mussolini’s story was dramatic and compelling (his admiration centered more on Mussolini’s supposed “toughness” than his actual policies).

The meeting with Mussolini changed Cohn significantly and altered his personality. Cohn remembered that Mussolini’s office was “so overwhelming that anyone entering it would feel simultaneously awestruck and insignificant.” Mussolini, physically unimpressive to Cohn, dominated his guests before he uttered a word. Upon returning to Hollywood, Cohn constructed a new office that replicated the Italian dictator’s. (Cohn would display a portrait of Mussolini on his desk until Italy joined the Axis powers in 1936. Interestingly, Cohn appears to have said next to nothing about Germany’s Adolf Hitler, whose authoritarian style was even greater than that of Mussolini.) The office was designed with the utmost care and consideration. For the entering guest, they would first enter an outside waiting room, where Cohn carefully timed his visitor’s waits (the longer they waited, Cohn reasoned, the more nervous and powerless they became). After advancing to the inner secretary’s office, visitors would then wait for the electronic door to be buzzed open by Cohn himself, who operated the controls at his desk. Once inside, they would then have to advance to the distant and elevated desk of Cohn, which was placed in front of Columbia’s Academy Awards (Cohn made sure his desk was elevated so that he would always be “looking down” at his guests). The experience was carefully constructed to overwhelm, intimidate, and impress visitors, guests, and employees.[29] In his role as mogul, Cohn sought to replicate the authority of a dictator, but he did so because he believed it best guaranteed quality and profit for Columbia. While Hitler and Mussolini utilized their authoritarianism to serve their ideologies, Cohn used his to serve his own interests: studio power and economic gain.

Yet his personality could and often did interfere with the fortunes of Columbia, the most telling example being the demise of the relationship between Cohn and Frank Capra. After Capra had achieved artistic acclaim for films such as It Happened One Night (1934), Cohn’s attitude toward the director changed. In 1936, while vacationing in London, Capra learned that, unbeknownst to him, Cohn had been advertising a new Columbia film allegedly directed by Capra. The film was a low-budget comedy which was a “clunker” compared to Capra’s previous films. After confronting Columbia executives about the matter, Capra took his complaint to Cohn. To his surprise, Cohn chastised Capra’s insolence and reminded him that, although some thought that “Capra is Columbia,” in truth it was Harry Cohn’s studio. Capra then attempted to break his contract, which Cohn refused; Capra pursued a legal challenge to Cohn’s inflexibility. After months of litigation, Capra eventually gave up, largely because Cohn had made sure that no other studio in Hollywood would hire him until the matter was resolved.[30] He returned to Columbia to direct two more films and fulfill his contract, but his relationship with Cohn was all but ruined. Offered a renewal of his contract, Capra declined, and by the early 1950s had embarked on his own independent career divorced from Columbia and Cohn. Neal Gabler has argued that the incident was largely the result of Cohn’s ego. For him, Capra’s growing power as a director was “threatening to the authority” of Cohn.[31] Although he usually operated within an overall strategic framework, Cohn sometimes let his emotions interfere with the welfare of Columbia. His constant need to validate and demonstrate his mogul authority sometimes had disastrous results. Since he was so guarded about his personal life, it is difficult to determine where his near obsession with authority stemmed from. Certainly, his childhood roots in impoverished New York must have had much to do with this. And, although he tried to escape his Jewish identity, it is hard to imagine that Cohn would have been oblivious to the rampant anti-Semitism that permeated the United States and the world in the mid-twentieth century. These aspects of his life may well have made him feel vulnerable and motivated his need for control, authority, and dominance.

A similar situation unfolded in 1946, when director Charles Vidor sued Cohn for release from his Columbia contract. Unlike Capra, Vidor also threatened to reveal the “abusive language” and “workplace hostility” that he had experienced under Cohn. Since marrying Doris Warner LeRoy, the daughter of Warner Brothers founder Harry Warner, Cohn had allegedly been harassing Vidor and accusing him of sabotaging Columbia. Rather than handle the matter internally, Cohn taunted Vidor and dared him to go public with his accusations. Unfortunately for Cohn, he did. The case made headlines in the Los Angeles Times, and Cohn’s “bad words” became the subject of testimony in the trial.[32] For Cohn, Columbia, and the Hollywood community, it was his greatest blunder and embarrassment. Eventually, Louis B. Mayer of MGM intervened and arranged for a private settlement to end the public charade. These episodes have sometimes allowed others to paint Cohn as a reckless mogul, but they were rare in comparison to his usual demeanor. On the whole, Cohn played the studio game well, but was capable of sometimes asserting his authority more than necessary. Shortly after his relationship with Capra fell to pieces, he confided that he had to be stubborn and protective because “Columbia is my baby, my life. I’d die without Columbia.” Although this sometimes made him a “loudmouth son-of-a-bitch,” from his perspective it was his paternal responsibility to protect the company that he loved so much.[33] That “protection” was framed in both self-serving motivations (wealth and power for Cohn) as well as more altruistic ambitions (protection for his family, employment for his workers, and artistic entertainment for American audiences). Often however, the former could dominate the latter, and Cohn sometimes failed to separate his own pride from that of his studio.

Throughout his career, Harry Cohn envisioned himself as one of Hollywood’s most talented “star makers.” After the success of It Happened One Night, Cohn would take credit for the celebrity of Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable; it had been his studio that had elevated their careers and his connections and actions that guaranteed the casting decisions. Such judgment was, of course, a bit disingenuous. Both Colbert and Gable had careers before their brief tenures with Columbia. But it would be difficult to refute Cohn’s “star making” abilities in regards to his two greatest achievements, Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak, both of whom reached dizzying heights of celebrity at Columbia. Born Margarita Carmen Cansino in 1918, Rita Hayworth first arrived at Columbia in 1937. Upon giving her a contract, Cohn insisted that her name be changed. Cansino, often taking direction from her manager-husband Edward Judson, complied and began the transformation into Hayworth. In addition, Cohn believed Hayworth looked too “ethnic” to be a true star. With the help of Helen Hunt, the hair stylist at Columbia, Hayworth underwent “a long and painful process” in which “each hair [on her forehead] had to be removed individually, then the follicle deadened with a charge of electricity.”[34] In the end, Hayworth’s appearance, including her “graceful” new brow, enhanced her potential with Cohn and Columbia. Now able to play “non-ethnic” parts, Hayworth’s star capital grew quickly. After a fierce publicity campaign and mild cinematic achievements, Cohn began to receive requests from other studios for Hayworth and “loaned” her out selectively. In 1944, Hayworth’s celebrity exploded with Cover Girl, in which she chronicled a young chorus girl’s dramatic rise to stardom (coincidently, Hayworth’s mother had performed with the Ziegfeld Follies early in her career). The film also aided in solidifying the erotic appeal of Hayworth, who, since a 1941 risqué Life article, had been considered a “bombshell.”[35] Throughout her rise (and eventual fall) in Hollywood, Cohn played integral roles in Hayworth’s development.

Even after her celebrity was achieved, he made sure to maintain a personal relationship with Hayworth. Shortly after the release of Gilda (1946), arguably one of her most enduring and successful films, Cohn heard that she had become depressed due to a negative review from a critic. He wrote to her asking “why would you weigh the opinion of a couple of probably impotent guys against the hundreds who have seen the picture and told you that you were absolutely great? I am very excited by your performance in GILDA. Pretty soon everyone in the country is going to be. You should be dancing in the streets, baby. I am.”[36] The letter typified the relationship Cohn maintained with his “love goddesses” like Hayworth and Kim Novak. Once groomed by Cohn, the professional/personal distinction fell apart. They became prime investments to Cohn, and he protected them fiercely from what he considered to be career or personal mistakes. When Hayworth married Orson Welles in 1943, Cohn protested. When she later left film for a marriage with the socialite Aly Khan, Cohn felt personally betrayed and refused to correspond with Hayworth until she apologized to him.[37]

Similarly, Kim Novak found herself personally and professionally managed by Cohn. Born Marilyn Novak, she too was ordered to change her name. Unlike Hayworth, she initially refused. In the end, “Kim Novak” was a compromise between her real name and Cohn’s preference of Kit Marlowe. Novak later recalled that her relationship with Cohn was dramatic and emotional. She remembered that Cohn only referred to her as “Novak” (some at Columbia recalled overhearing Cohn refer to her most commonly as “that fat Polak”), and when she began dating Sammy Davis Jr. in the 1950s, Cohn intervened and put an end to the relationship. Cohn even prohibited her from riding her bike to work, because he believed her to be “too valuable an asset” to Columbia.[38] But Novak, emblematic of many of Cohn’s relationships, also developed affection for the overbearing Cohn. When she heard news of his death in 1958, she rushed into her dressing room on the set of her current film production and was despondent for days. Over the years, Cohn earned unfavorable reputations with many actors and actresses, but to those who he had “made,” it was far more complicated. Not only did he aid in their successful careers, but many could not help but admit that, even at his worst, Cohn maintained a certain charm in his personality as well. As with most other areas of his business model, there was a method to the madness of Cohn’s authority and domination.

The Personal Cohn: Family, Religion, Politics, and the Mogul Image

The personal life of Harry Cohn is difficult to separate from his role as the Columbia mogul. Whether it was his familial relationships, politics, religion, or his sex life, Harry Cohn sought to incorporate his image and life in one coherent package. For him, being a mogul was a lifestyle; it transcended the gates of the Columbia studios and strongly affected the ways in which he lived his personal life.

Harry Cohn’s first marriage was to Rose Barker, whom he married in 1923 as he was just staking his claim on the young Columbia and Hollywood. Barker had first encountered Cohn in the late 1910s during one of his trips to New York. A relationship emerged, but Cohn soon lost interest. After Rose married another man (a wealthy New York attorney), Cohn’s interest in her resumed. He persuaded her to visit California and soon convinced her to divorce her husband and become Rose Cohn. The marriage was marred by trouble from the start. Rose vehemently resisted the social life of Tinseltown. By 1940, Cohn had set his sights on a young actress named Joan Perry, who had recently arrived on the Columbia lot. In Perry, Cohn saw the “young, stately, attractive, refined, and gentile” qualities that he desired in a “professional studio wife.” His attraction for her was largely motivated by his desire to assimilate with other Hollywood moguls, who were fond of displaying their “American” credentials via their wives, mistresses, and lovers; that Perry lacked any “ethnic” roots certainly made her that much more appealing to Cohn, who was loath to mention his Jewishness. In 1941, he traveled to Reno, Nevada to divorce Rose Cohn and married Joan Perry less than three days later. While there would be many infidelities in the marriage on Harry Cohn’s part, it successfully met the requirements he envisioned. Together, the couple had two sons, John and Harry Jr. (born Harrison, he legally changed his name to Harry Cohn, Jr. in 1956) and two daughters, Jobella (who died in infancy) and Catherine. By all accounts Cohn was a stern but doting father.[39]

The sex life of Harry Cohn has become part of the larger myth that is “King Cohn.” Neil Gabler has gone so far as to state that, of all the moguls, “the most notorious and insatiable sexual predator was Harry Cohn.” While this most certainly borders on hyperbole, enough actresses and employees of Columbia have recalled various levels of sexual harassment with Cohn to indicate that he was indeed sexually promiscuous. Jonie Taps, Cohn’s longtime personal assistant, recalled that he relished the “intrigue” of new affairs with young Columbia actresses.[40] Adultery, especially with celebrity actresses, was sanctioned by Cohn’s worldview. In the first place, he demonstrated a consistent misogyny throughout the course of his life that was rather harsh, even for the times. Of the actresses who worked for him, Cohn respected only those who he defined as “classic ladies” (like Loretta Young) or “love goddesses” (like Rita Hayworth). “Classic ladies” received protection and respect from Cohn, who refrained from cursing and repeating vulgar jokes in their presence, while “love goddesses” became the object of his affection and kindness. Outside of those categories, Cohn saw only “mothers and broads.” Many a starlet recalled having sex with Harry Cohn, sometimes in their dressing rooms, only to be ignored by the mogul afterwards.[41] While many have unfairly assumed that the brash and vulgar Cohn “seduced” all of his conquests, he was also known for his charm, handsome appearance, and penetrating eyes. Many of his mistresses over the years developed genuine affection and infatuation with him, especially during his later years in Las Vegas. In addition to his own energetic sexuality, however, it is important to consider Cohn’s image as a Hollywood mogul. He was anxious to compete and gain acceptance in the small world of moguls that dominated the film industry. The major moguls, including Adolph Zukor (Paramount) and Louis B. Mayer (MGM), maintained mistresses as near status symbols within Hollywood society. In an effort to prove his belonging, his masculinity, and above all his mogul “toughness,” Cohn envisioned himself as the man of Columbia. This impacted his sexuality as well. Marriage and sex were altogether separate for Cohn, the latter often proved to be more about power than anything else.

While he was born into a Jewish family, Harry Cohn never identified as a Jew. Although Neal Gabler considered Cohn to be one of the “Jews who invented Hollywood,” his behavior, comments, and attitudes suggest that Cohn acted as if he “wanted to escape being Jewish.” Indeed, many of his peers remembered Cohn as being quasi-anti-Semitic. When Louis B. Mayer once asked him about contributing to a relief campaign for Jews during the Holocaust, Cohn remarked, “Relief for the Jews?! How about relief from the Jews? All the trouble in this world is caused by Jews.”[42] In 1945, Cohn accompanied other film moguls to Europe, where a publicity campaign took him and the others to Buchenwald, where some Holocaust survivors still remained. Unlike other moguls on the trip, he made no comments on what he saw. Cohn contributed to relief privately and quietly but maintained an image of disassociation from Jewish culture in Hollywood once he had achieved preeminence. He was no ally of ethnic Jewish actors or actresses, whom he often refused to hire because they looked “too Jewish.”[43] Nor did he observe the Jewish High Holidays. Indeed, Cohn “made a point of coming to the studio on Yom Kippur and was flabbergasted that anyone would take religious observance seriously.”[44] Like many other things in his personal life, he saw his Judaism as a threat to his career. Running Columbia and achieving success in the film industry always would come first. Cohn’s second wife, Joan Perry Cohn, had devoted herself to Catholicism after her marriage to Harry. Her zeal was so intense that, shortly after Cohn died in 1958, Joan had him baptized Catholic. At his funeral, “there was nothing about the service to suggest that the deceased had been born a Jew.”[45] As with most other things in Cohn’s life, religion was subservient to his mogul image. As he constructed the mogul persona, Cohn purged elements of his personality that harmed his hyper-masculine image. Vulgarity was something that Cohn valued, and his anti-Semitic statements were part of this. Distancing himself from Judaism also allowed him to distinguish himself from the other moguls he admired. Although he received admission to the film industry in large part thanks to his Jewish roots and connections, Cohn maintained that his career and success were attributable to his “toughness” alone. “Tough” and “Jew” were two labels that Cohn never viewed as compatible.

According to his biographers, Cohn was an apolitical man. Bob Thomas wrote that Cohn “became a Republican, not out of any conviction, because he was completely apolitical. All rich men were Republicans; hence Harry Cohn was a Republican.”[46] Likewise, Neal Gabler found that politics were irrelevant to Cohn, who “believed most devoutly that power governed human affairs” (which also helps explain his early admiration for Mussolini, who, above all, represented power to Cohn).[47] For the most part, these statements ring true. Cohn never became involved with political parties or campaigns to a serious extent, yet he did offer and subscribe to his own blend of Americanism. While scholars have accused Cohn of indifference in World War II, he did in fact support patriotic causes.[48] Often, Cohn supported charities in oblique ways. Instead of allowing Columbia to participate in a fund for soldiers’ entertainment overseas, Cohn simply wrote a check for the amount the group believed they could garner with Columbia’s participation. Indeed, while Cohn kept Columbia a neutral company in war and politics, he personally promoted a strong sense of nationalism. When George Stevens, an employee at Columbia, left to fight in the war, Cohn alerted his secretaries that “Stevens is leaving the end of the week to enter the Service of his Country. Anyone to whom you assign his office, must take it with the understanding that he will vacate it when Mr. Stevens returns.” Under no circumstances would Stevens be “denied his office” after his “national duty” had been completed. Cohn seems to have had no great affection for Stevens before this memo, suggesting that he was motivated to retain the Columbia employee more for his services in the armed forces than at Columbia.[49] And, although he attempted to keep his name hidden from the group’s rosters, Cohn’s name appeared in the 1944/1945 Free World Association’s Hollywood membership list. This group promised to “fight against Fascism and Communism in the United States” and promoted the “interdependence of all peoples in the modern world.”[50] While his political interests certainly were camouflaged, Cohn was a booster for Americanism. One screenwriter recalled Cohn questioning him about his ethnic background. When the man answered “I’m an American and a Jew,” Cohn replied “I like that. American first.”[51] In his mind, American implied a degree of rugged toughness, so he worked hard to portray himself as such. In the process, this identity construction required him to downplay his German roots.

Despite his preference for an apolitical persona, Cohn could not avoid the politics of the Cold War in Hollywood, which often blindsided him and his studio. In one of his first confrontations with anticommunism in postwar Hollywood, Cohn found himself forced to defend We Were Strangers, a 1949 John Huston film about revolution in Cuba. The attack, unsurprisingly, came from Hedda Hopper, who by 1949 had achieved a powerful position in the Hollywood gossip circuit and had already demonstrated her proclivity for venomous red-baiting within the film industry.[52] Writing to Cohn, Hopper claimed that We Were Strangers was “cleverly disguised propaganda to advance the Communist party line” and expressed her “shock” that Cohn would allow such a picture to be released “at a time when the Communist party is attempting to persuade the people of other nations, particularly those of Latin America, that the United States is an imperialistic nation, and their enemy.” Hopper went on to accuse John Huston of being a “consistent supporter of Communist causes and programs” and warned Cohn that he had a “duty to the nation” to purge Communists from his employment.[53] Hopper was soon joined by the California Federation of Women’s Clubs, of which she was a member, in calling for the film to be boycotted.[54] Cohn supported Huston and the film. He wrote back to Hopper stating: “I read what you had to say about [We Were Strangers]. You’re wrong, Hedda. I just read the Daily Worker and it panned the picture. But please, no retractions.”[55] Unlike other studio heads who catered to Hopper for good publicity, Cohn punished her by favoring Louella Parsons, her chief rival, with scoops and stories.[56]

While Cohn fought back against Hopper, he met his limits with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), the anticommunist committee that, by 1950, had been engaging in a “witch hunt” in Hollywood. At Columbia, HUAC set its sights on Sidney Buchman, a popular screenwriter who had been a member of the Communist Party USA in the 1930s. Cohn, aware of Buchman’s past, nevertheless groomed him to be his second in command at Columbia and eventually viewed him as “a son figure.”[57] Buchman had likely earned the affection of Cohn as a result of his success as a screenwriter as well as his own background, which was one of class struggle, similar to Cohn’s. Subpoenaed by HUAC in 1951, Buchman agreed to testify about his own past but refused to speak of others. Cohn supported him until compelled by Columbia’s board to terminate his contract; the screenwriter would remain blacklisted in Hollywood until the 1960s. The events shattered Cohn. According to Cohn’s longtime personal assistant, “Harry would have protected Sidney [Buchman] with his life.” The power of HUAC led Cohn to “lose the sense that his world could be bent to his will.”[58] Although he largely blamed the New York office for abandoning Buchman’s defense, Cohn also admitted personal defeat. It was one of the first times that the mogul had been powerless to achieve his will. Until his death, Cohn bitterly resented the fate of Buchman and bemoaned his inability to protect him.

Throughout the early 1950s, Harry Cohn began to fall in love with Las Vegas. By 1954, he was flying to the desert gaming town with his close personal assistant, Jonie Taps, nearly every other weekend. Taps recalled that Cohn loved Vegas for its “naked greed, lights, noise, action, and its women.” Cohn was rumored to be close to numerous women in the desert metropolis, as well as notorious Vegas (and Hollywood) gangsters like Johnny Roselli.[59] The trips made Cohn feel energetic and young. As the 1950s progressed, so did his interest in the town. His waning energy for Columbia was inversely related to the rise of his desert excursions. A private man to employees, friends, and family, Cohn revealed to Taps on these trips that he had to make the most of the few years he had left. Indeed, by 1955, Harry Cohn began to fixate on his death.[60]

Cohn was convinced that he would die at age sixty-seven. It had been the age of his mother’s death and, in 1956, his brother Jack also died at the same age. The loss of Jack weighed heavily on Cohn; in many ways, despite their contentious relationship, Jack and Harry had been central to each other’s careers and lives. With him gone, Cohn sunk into a deep depression, which also helps explain his much-needed escapes to Las Vegas. To protect his studio image, Cohn kept his medical problems private and hidden. The first indication that he was unwell came in 1954, when Cohn underwent surgery for throat cancer. While few knew the nature of his hospital stay, his behavior as the mogul of Columbia was never the same afterwards. His hours shortened, his confrontational persona softened, and his presence on film productions grew rare. A consummate entrepreneur and businessman until the end, Cohn confided to his wife that he worried about news of his health being leaked to the press because it would “make Columbia’s stock plummet.”[61] He never stopped believing that, in the film business, the outer shell of the mogul was most important. A tough exterior remained his goal until his last days.

In 1958, at age 66, Cohn’s premonitions about his death caught up with him. Returning from a meeting in New York, Cohn suffered a heart attack mid-flight. He refused to allow the plane to land early, convinced that the news would send Columbia into a tailspin. Instead, he clung to life on oxygen until the plane reached Los Angeles. The prolonged time without medical attention weakened his heart. Cohn struggled on for two more months. At the end of February, Cohn retreated with his wife for his last vacation in Phoenix, Arizona. During a dinner banquet on the 28th, Cohn overdosed on nitroglycerin tablets (taking six pills instead of his usual one). By early morning, a coronary occlusion had brought him near death. Finally allowing for an ambulance to be called, Cohn was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix. Before he could reach the hospital, he died. His last words to his wife were uncharacteristic of the tough mogul he had constructed himself to be. “Too tough,” he reportedly told his wife Joan, “It’s just too tough.” He was just five months shy of realizing his premonition of death at 67. Within an hour of his death, Joan Cohn insisted that his corpse be baptized.


Reporting on the death of Harry Cohn, the Chicago Daily Tribune noted that his passing transcended the death of an individual man. Columbia had been, the paper noted, the “last of the ‘One Man Studios.’” His death signaled the end of a system; the “final mogul” had fallen. The article detailed the life of this mighty mogul in ways that would have flattered Cohn. The Columbia boss had overcome his “New York roots” to become one of the premier “star makers in Hollywood.” Tellingly, none of his obituaries highlighted Cohn’s ethnic past; there were no mentions of his German and Russian parents, or their Jewish backgrounds. Cohn’s hard work to diminish these aspects of his life had apparently been successful. Famous celebrities like Rita Hayworth, Kim Novak, Claudette Colbert, and Humphrey Bogart, the article claimed, had been discovered and “brought to stardom” by Harry Cohn.[62] Similarly, the Los Angeles Times highlighted the business and industry accomplishments of Cohn. He had been “a large-scale businessman, and if, like most businessmen, he did not choose to succumb or go under, he was sometimes capable of reacting strongly, even harshly.” Cohn’s image had become that of the fighter and the “tough” mogul; his “harshness” had achieved mythic status, as had his drive for “success” in the film industry. As his obituaries detailed, these qualities were two sides of the same coin for Harry Cohn.[63] Cohn’s constructed image dictated that he negotiate between two personas: he aimed to be the “toughest, most brutal executive in Hollywood” while also being the “man of good taste, judgment,” and success.[64] Immediately after he had died, his legacy became defined by this complexity. At his funeral ceremony (which was held on a Columbia production stage) Clifford Odets, a film director who had worked for Cohn, delivered a eulogy that attempted to sum up the complex character of Harry Cohn. Columbia, Odets noted, had been “Harry Cohn’s Cathedral. This is where the fierceness of the flame that was within him burned some and warmed others.” Odets went on to describe Cohn as a “master of his business,” but admitted that even his closest friends had “felt his anger, his defiance, his stubbornness, and his pride.” In the end, Harry Cohn was larger than all of these things, however, for his “breadth and size were of an older day that we shall not see again.”[65] In the end, Cohn’s story became one of struggle and accomplishment. Rising from his urban roots, Cohn had come to Hollywood, toiled amid the desperation of Poverty Row, and fought hard enough to become one of the most respected and feared moguls of the film industry. It was a final story that Cohn would have been pleased with.

It is extremely difficult to separate Cohn from the labels of man, myth, and mogul. He was all of these things and intertwined his roles carefully and consciously. As an entrepreneur, however, his life story is truly remarkable. Utilizing his familial, ethnic, and religious connections, Cohn wedged a place for himself in an industry that quickly became competitive and cutthroat. Playing the part of the mogul, Cohn contributed significantly to the building, success, and endurance of Columbia. He knew how to recruit talent, “make” stars, and run a film studio that, regardless of the costs, was a model of efficiency, profit, and artistic achievement. Many of the films that Cohn had personal involvement in, including It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Gilda (1946), and From Here to Eternity (1953), have stood the test of time and become classics in American cinema. One cannot separate Cohn from Columbia or its films; this was Cohn’s goal as the Hollywood mogul par excellence. In this, he succeeded. So connected were Columbia and Cohn that, in 1966, nearly a decade after Cohn’s death, director Elliot Silverstein felt a need to reassure an anxious Milton Berle that the studio had changed. Recalling his past dealings with Harry Cohn, Silverstein wrote that Berle should “be assured that we will take the time necessary to make you comfortable and take advantage of the fact that we have you in the film. I sensed a little from your tone that you may think I am going to throw you in front of the camera and expect it all to happen in one take. HARRY COHN IS DEAD!”[66] After nuanced reflection, one surmises that Harry Cohn would have been pleased with this reputation as well.


[1] Quoted in Neal Gabler, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (New York: Random House, 1988), 177.

[2] William Perlberg to Hedda Hopper, Sep. 12, 1940. Folder 2064. Hedda Hopper Collection (hereafter HHC), Special Collections, Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills, Calif. (hereafter AMPAS).

[3] Ann Rosenthal to Hedda Hopper, Feb. 18, 1953, folder 394, HHC, AMPAS.

[4] Gabler, An Empire of Their Own, 155.

[5] Gabler, An Empire of Their Own, 158.

[6] Bob Thomas, King Cohn: The Life and Times of Hollywood Mogul Harry Cohn (1967; Beverly Hills, Calif.: New Millennium Books, 2000), 20.

[7] Gabler, An Empire of Their Own, 158.

[8] “They Ate His Bread and Sang His Song,” New York Times, March 5, 1967.

[9] Gabler, An Empire of Their Own, 160.

[10] Bernard F. Dick, The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row: Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993), 32–34.

[11] “Poverty Row Rolls in Gold,” Los Angeles Times, June 23, 1929.

[12] Dick, The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row, 41.

[13] All current values (in 2010 USD) are based on Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2011, using the Consumer Price Index. (accessed August 1, 2012).

[14] “Columbia Set-Up Changed,” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 3, 1932.

[15] Dick, The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row, 52–57.

[16] See Thomas Schatz, The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era (New York: Henry Holt, 1988).

[17] Dick, The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row, 119.

[18] For a complete index of Columbia film output per decade, see Len D. Martin, The Columbia Checklist: The Feature Films, Serials, Cartoons, and Short Subjects of Columbia Picture Corporation, 1922–1988 (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1991).

[19] Dick, The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row, 89; Gabler, An Empire of Their Own, 165.

[20] Frank Capra, The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography (New York: Da Capo Press, 1971), 82–83.

[21] Dick, The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row, 95.

[22] “Star Boss,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 14, 1937.

[23] Gabler, An Empire of Their Own, 171.

[24] “Miss Colbert Wins 1934 Screen Prize,” New York Times, Feb. 28, 1935.

[25] Gabler, An Empire of Their Own, 173; Thomas, King Cohn, 89–91.

[26] See Martin, The Columbia Checklist.

[27] Norman Zierold, The Moguls (New York: Coward-McCann, 1969), 209.

[28] Gabler, An Empire of Their Own, 153.

[29] Dick, The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row, 72.

[30] “Capra Ends Dispute, Returns to Work,” New York Times, Nov. 27, 1937.

[31] Gabler, An Empire of Their Own, 175.

[32] “Bad Words, but They’re Expressive, Cohn Testifies in Vidor Film Suit,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 12, 1946; “Judge Blisters Hollywood for Foul Language,”Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec. 14, 1946.

[33] Gabler, An Empire of Their Own, 177.

[34] Thomas, King Cohn, 167.

[35] “Rita Hayworth,” Life Magazine, August 11, 1941.

[36] Harry Cohn to Rita Hayworth, March 19, 1946, folder 379, Harry Cohn Letter, AMPAS.

[37] Hedda Hopper chronicled the feud meticulously. See Hedda Hopper, “Looking at Hollywood,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 19, 1949.

[38] “Bye-Bye Bike,” Los Angeles Times, May 22, 1955.

[39] Interestingly, Cohn’s paternal nature could also extend to those outside his immediate family. After the death of his brother Max’s wife, Cohn insisted that he and Rose raise Max’s two daughters, Leonore and Judith, until he had recovered. This turned into a long-term arrangement, and Cohn was genuinely devoted to his adopted nieces. Leonore Cohn would later marry Walter Annenberg and become a well-known philanthropist and Chief of Protocol under President Ronald Reagan.

[40] Gabler, An Empire of Their Own, 246–248.

[41] Dick, The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row, 6–7.

[42] Gabler, An Empire of Their Own, 168.

[43] Zierold, The Moguls, 200.

[44] Gabler, An Empire of Their Own, 284.

[45] Dick, The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row, 189.

[46] Thomas, King Cohn, 60.

[47] Gabler, An Empire of Their Own, 152.

[48] Thomas states that “Cohn was suspicious and difficult to reach for wartime charities” and that he often expressed no sympathy to his employees who left to fight in World War II. See Thomas, King Cohn, 226–228.

[49] Cohn to Duncan Cassell, Feb. 17, 1943, folder 3544, George Stevens Papers, AMPAS. After the war, Stevens would become a prominent, Academy-Award winning director.

[50] Free World Association of Hollywood, “1944/5 Membership Roster and Statement of Principles,” folder 96, Mark Sandrich Papers, AMPAS.

[51] Gabler, An Empire of Their Own, 168.

[52] On Hopper’s conservatism and anticommunism, see Jennifer Frost, Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism (New York: New York University Press, 2011).

[53] Hedda Hopper to Cohn, 1949, folder 394, HHC, AMPAS.

[54] Virginia E. Williams to Cohn, May 9, 1949, folder 1209, HHC, AMPAS.

[55] Cohn to Hedda Hopper, Nov. 17, 1949, folder 394, HHC, AMPAS.

[56] Zierold, The Moguls, 209.

[57] Dick, The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row, 65.

[58] Gabler, An Empire of Their Own, 404–405.

[59] During Roselli’s 1943 trial for racketeering, Cohn admitted his relationship with the gangster had been a long-standing one. “Harry Cohn Testifies Roselli is Good Friend,” Los Angeles Times, 1943.

[60] Gabler, An Empire of Their Own, 408–410.

[61] Gabler, An Empire of Their Own, 426.

[62] “Harry Cohn, 66, Movie Mogul, Dies in Arizona,” Chicago Daily Tribune, February 28, 1958.

[63] “One of Filmdom’s Greatest,” Los Angeles Times, March 1, 1958; “Hollywood Notables Pay Harry Cohn Final Tribute,” Los Angeles Times, March 3, 1958.

[64] Gabler, An Empire of Their Own, 180.

[65] Odets’s eulogy is available in Dick, The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row, 193–194.

[66] Elliot Silverstein to Milton Berle, March 4, 1966, folder 45, Elliot Silverstein Papers, AMPAS.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Harry Cohn: Man, Mogul, and Myth
  • Coverage 1891-1958
  • Author
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date May 23, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2018