• Industry

Forgotten Hollywood: Harry Cohn, President of Columbia Pictures

“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.” That’s Harry Cohn, President of Columbia Pictures in 1946 as quoted in “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood” by Neal Gabler.

The controversial studio head of Columbia Pictures Corporation, yesteryear’s Harvey Weinstein, started his tyrannical rule in Hollywood in 1919 and continued it till his death in 1958.

Cohn was always a hustler. According to the “International Film Encyclopedia” by Ephraim Katz, Fred Klein and Ronald Dean Nolan, he dropped out of school to become a chorus boy, fur salesman, pool hustler, shipping clerk and streetcar conductor, and then made himself a living by plugging songs for a sheet music company. He then followed his brother Jack to Hollywood and ended up as the personal assistant to Carl Laemmle who ran Universal Pictures. Unwilling to be subordinate to any boss, he and his brother started the CBC Film Sales Corporation with a friend, producing low-budget films on “Poverty Row,” a catch-all phrase for a number of struggling B-movie companies of the time. CBC would later become Columbia Pictures, with Cohn as its president and production chief.

Columbia under Cohn thrived as his drive, aggression and ruthlessness eventually grew it into one of the biggest studios in Hollywood by making stars out of Frank Capra, Gary Cooper, Rosalind Russell, Rita Hayworth, Barbara Stanwyck and James Stewart, and releasing films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gilda, Lost Horizon, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, The Awful Truth, It Happened One Night, The Bridge on the River Kwai and From Here to Eternity, many of which garnered several Academy Awards. He also set up Screen Gems at Columbia which successfully produced television shows.

But Cohn’s dictatorial and bullying ways made him the most hated man in Hollywood. He had a hair-trigger temper and used crude and vulgar language with impunity, including ethnic and racial slurs. He took meetings from his desk that was built to be much higher than the other furniture in the room, in order to intimidate his guests, an idea he copied from Mussolini who he visited in 1933. The desk was in front of his display of Oscars. From there, he would berate and scream at his visitors, earning himself the monikers ‘White Fang’ and ‘King Cohn.’ Many of them were kept deliberately waiting; he buzzed them in to the office himself when he deemed they had waited long enough.

Cohn ruled his stars with an iron fist, changing their names, supervising their makeovers for a more glamorous persona, and bugging their dressing rooms and the soundstages. Reporter James Bacon, a young reporter for the AP sent to Hollywood from Chicago said at the time, “I went from covering Al Capone to covering Harry Cohn. Cohn was by far the meanest. He’d keep tabs on all the writers. He used to fire people all the time – usually on Christmas Eve.”

And then there was his famous ‘casting couch.’

Cohn wasn’t the first Hollywood mogul to demand sex for favors, but he was the most notorious. Gabler says in his book: “… the most notorious and insatiable sexual predator was Harry Cohn.” While stars like Hayworth, Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford made enough money for Columbia to refuse his advances despite endless harassment – Hayworth was even fined for insubordination – others weren’t so lucky. Starlets were commanded to the special room outside his office for regular afternoon trysts or summoned to his yacht; refusal meant he fired them and destroyed their careers.  

Writer Richard McBride in an interview tells the story of how actress Jean Arthur quit the business because of Cohn’s sexual harassment. “She said that when she was under contract to Columbia in 1945, the female stars’ dressing rooms were in a row, with a dark hallway connecting them. There was a secret entrance, and studio chief Harry Cohn would come in there and attack the actresses. Jean decided to kill Harry Cohn. She thought she could shoot him in the hallway and get away with it. But she told me that instead she walked the backlot for three hours and decided to quit the business instead.”

Cohn was obsessed with Kim Novak. He groomed her to stardom, making her change her name, lose weight and dye her hair blonde. When she refused his advances, he had her watched, and when she started dating the Black actor Sammy Davis, Jr., he was furious because she threatened his box office as Black performers were still segregated in the industry in 1957. In his 1967 book “King Cohn: The Life and Times of Harry Cohn,” author Bob Thomas writes, “A call was placed to his [Cohn’s] friends in Chicago and an attorney was placed at his disposal. The attorney went to see Davis in Las Vegas. No threats of physical violence were made. Davis was presented with the simple alternatives: end his romance with Kim Novak, or find himself denied employment in any major nightclub in the United States.” Davis complied and married a Black woman two days after breaking up with Novak. Some reports said he paid her to do so. The “friends in Chicago” referred to in the quote were the mobsters Cohn was rumored to have ties with throughout his career. Other accounts say Davis was threatened with blinding in his other eye or broken legs if he did not comply.

Professor Ian Baldwin of the University of Nevada, writing on immigrantentrepreneurship.com, gives a couple of examples of Cohn tripping over his ego and ruining his relationships with two of his most famous directors. Capra, who had made his reputation with hit films like It Happened One Night for Columbia, was riding high and Cohn did not like that. He advertised a low-budget ‘clunker’ as directed by Capra. Capra took umbrage and complained to Cohn. Cohn reminded Capra that he was the boss, Capra tried to break his contract, Cohn refused to let him out of it, and Capra sued. But then no other studio would work with Capra, a situation engineered by Cohn. Capra had to drop his suit and stick out his contract with two more pictures, but he refused to re-sign with Columbia.

King Vidor also sued for release from his contract, and Baldwin explains how Vidor stood up to Cohn’s bullying by threatening to expose Cohn’s ‘abusive language’ and ‘workplace hostility.’ Newspaper headlines ensued as testimony in the case was revealed in the press. Louis B. Mayer stepped in to arrange a settlement, but the case was painted as Cohn’s ‘greatest blunder and embarrassment.’

In the book “Beyond Columbo: The Life and Times of Peter Falk” by Richard A. Lertzman and Dr. William J. Birnes, Peter Falk tells the story of meeting with Cohn for a job. It was well known that Falk had lost an eye to cancer at age 3. The meeting didn’t go well. Cohn told Falk, “Mr. Falk, for the same price, I’ll get an actor with two eyes.”

Cohn was married twice. His first marriage to Rose Barker lasted 18 years; his second one to actress Joan Perry, within two days of his divorce from Barker, ended with his death in 1958 in Phoenix, Arizona of a heart attack. He was 66. The funeral at Columbia’s studio on Sunset and Gower drew 2,000 mourners. An apocryphal story says they all came to make sure Cohn was really dead. But Red Skelton commented on the record: “It proves what Harry always said: Give the public what they want and they’ll come out for it.”