Benjamin Cohen (1894-1983)

Benjamin Cohen was an attorney who, in partnership with Thomas Corcoran (and sometimes James Landis), wrote key pieces of New Deal legislation, such as the Securities Act (1933), the Securities Exchange Act (1934), and the Public Utilities Holding Company Act (1935).  Cohen was a brilliant but shy man, whereas his legal partner and good friend Corcoran was gregarious and politically aggressive.  The seemingly odd couple became known as the “Gold Dust Twins.”

Benjamin Victor Cohen was born in Muncie, Indiana on September 23, 1894, to Moses and Sarah Ringolsky Cohen.  Moses and Sarah had been “the first Eastern European Jews to arrive in Muncie” and, with the help of Sarah’s father-in-law, Harris, founded a family business in general goods and later a flourishing scrap metal operation.  Moses and Sarah had five children in total, Benjamin being the youngest [1].

Although Jews were not accepted in all areas of civic life, the Cohen family did not experience a great deal of anti-Semitism.  Benjamin lived in a comfortable, upper middle-class home and would later have fond memories of his childhood in Muncie.  When he was 16, Benjamin moved with his parents to Chicago and finished his secondary education at University High School, and he began to shine academically.  From high school to the University of Chicago to the university’s law school, Cohen’s grade point average kept going up.  His law school grades were “supposedly the highest ever awarded by the University of Chicago.”[2].

After receiving his law degree, Cohen attended Harvard Law School for one more year of legal training, earning the Doctor of Juridical Science in 1916.  While there, Cohen took a public utilities course taught by the future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.  Cohen became a protégé of Frankfurter, who helped the young lawyer develop his legal career – which included a clerkship with federal circuit judge Julian Mack (1916-1917), a job at the United States Shipping Board during World War I (c. 1917-1919), advocating for a Jewish homeland at the Paris Peace Conference (1919), and working as a corporate attorney during the 1920s [3].

Cohen was brought into the New Deal on the recommendation of Frankfurter to Raymond Moley and others [4].  The administration was in need of legislative drafting assistance, and Cohen would prove an expert at the task.  He was in such demand that he kept moving between various agencies (sometimes for a regular paycheck and sometimes not), including the Public Works Administration, Federal Trade Commission, and National Power Policy Committee [5].  During World War II, he helped draft lend-lease legislation, served as a legal adviser at the U.S. Embassy in London, and was made general counsel for the Office of Economic Stabilization.  After the war, he served under presidents Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy [6].

Though Cohen had several love interests during his life, none led to marriage and he suffered through periods of great loneliness.  Through it all, he remained committed to public service and the principles of the New Deal, stating years afterward, “I may be stubborn, but my thinking has changed little since 1933” [7].  Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., wrote of Cohen: “Forever generous of time and of heart, incorruptible and wise, a great public servant and a truly noble man, Ben Cohen remains as a model of the intellectual who spends a life in public affairs without betraying his conscience or violating his ideals” [8].  Cohen died on August 15, 1983, at the age of 88.  He was survived by one of his sisters, Pearl C. Freund of Los Angeles, two nephews, and a niece [9].

Sources: (1) William Lasser, Benjamin V. Cohen: Architect of the New Deal, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002, pp. 7-8.  (2)Ibid., pp. 8-11.  (3)Ibid., pp. 13-37, and also see “Benjamin Cohen, New Dealer, Dies,” New York Times, August 17, 1983.  (4) See, e.g., Michael Hiltzik, The New Deal: A Modern History, New York: Free Press, 2011, pp. 88-92.  (5) See, e.g., note 1, pp. 84 and 107.  (6) “Benjamin Cohen, New Dealer, Dies,” New York Times, August 17, 1983.  (7) Ibid.  (8) Note 1, p. xiii.  (9) See note 6.