How Harry Cohn Used CIA Tactics To Find Dissent Within Columbia Studios

Harry Cohn's tenure as president of Columbia Pictures (1919-1958) was a far cry from the #MeToo era. Nicknamed "King Cohn," according to History, he ruled over his silver-screen empire like a power-mad and paranoid monarch, demanding sex from would-be starlets and summarily firing anyone who dissented from his dictatorial ways.

Cohn went down in history as one of the men who cemented Hollywood's notorious "casting couch," per History — a system that more or less endured until the days of Harvey Weinstein. Cohn may not have been the first studio executive to trade sexual favors for a plum role, but under his leadership, the practice became common.

In fact, Cohn's habit of resorting to CIA methods to root out dissent began with his treatment of those actresses. Rita Hayworth, who signed a contract with Columbia but insisted she'd rejected Cohn's advances, told The New York Times that Cohn made her professional life miserable, giving her only one take to shoot a scene and bugging her dressing rooms. "I came back to Columbia because I wanted to work and first, see, I had to finish that g**dam contract, which was how Harry Cohn owned me!" Hayworth told the Times. "Yeah, they were rugged, rugged times."

Cohn spied on everyone, from starlets to leading men

But it wasn't just the women who suffered under Cohn's rule. Practically anyone who worked for Columbia had to labor under Cohn's watchful eyes — and ears. He installed microphones and loudspeakers in buildings across the studio grounds, sometimes jarring unsuspecting actors out of their performances to comment on what he was hearing, according to History.

And Cohn (above, left, with Eddie Cantor) had other dressing rooms besides Hayworth's bugged, per Reel Rundown. Under the illusion that the dressing rooms offered privacy, some of Cohn's employees were surprised to find themselves canned for what they'd said in confidence.

Meanwhile, Cohn's drive to spy on Columbia did not lessen with age, as Bob Thomas reports in "King Cohn: The Life and Times of Harry Cohn." When he picked his plot in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, he reportedly bragged, "It's right by the water, and I can see the studio from it."

Cohn's paranoia put him in John Wayne's crosshairs

Among the actors Cohn considered his "property" was, briefly, John Wayne. As Randy Roberts recounts in the book "John Wayne: An American," a young Wayne had signed a contract with Columbia to make Western B movies and was on set one day when Cohn faced off with him: Cohn had heard that Wayne went after an actress with whom Cohn himself was having an affair.

According to Roberts, Cohn roared a hypocritical order to Wayne: "When you're at this studio, you keep your pants buttoned." Wayne denied the accusation, but that didn't stop Cohn from badmouthing Wayne all around town, causing work to suddenly dry up for the future matinee idol. Once Wayne learned the reason he wasn't working, he reportedly showed up at Cohn's office and manhandled the studio chief in a fit of rage, per Roberts. He also vowed never to make another picture for Columbia for the rest of his career, a promise he kept even after Cohn's death.

Whether #MeToo will bring an end to the abuses of powerful men in Hollywood remains to be seen. But Cohn's dark legacy of alienating talented performers stands out as a cautionary tale to this day.