For people who have been gone for almost 65 years, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg turn up in the news and pop culture a lot…and in some surprising ways.
Articles directly about the Rosenberg case are constant, especially in the wake of the 2016 campaign to exonerate Ethel (the subject of an upcoming biography, the rights for which St. Martin’s Press acquired in a six-figure deal). There are also frequent mentions of the Rosenbergs in connection to Roy Cohn and Donald Tump. Along with being Joseph McCarthy’s right-hand man, Cohn was the member of the Rosenberg prosecution team who colluded with the trial judge and encouraged Ethel’s brother and sister-in-law to concoct the false testimony that implicated Ethel and led to her conviction and execution. Cohn went on to become young Donald Trump’s lawyer, friend, and mentor, credited with teaching the future president his rabid, attack-dog style of dealing with political opponents.
A recent column in The Amsterdam News, an African American paper in New York City, made the case that our current President lacks a soul, citing evidence including Trump’s closeness to Roy Cohn, the “notorious U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor” in the Rosenbergs’ trial. Reviews of new productions of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer and Tony winning play Angels in America in cities including Vancouver (BC), Atlanta, Berkeley, Cleveland Heights and on Broadway, inevitably mention the epic work’s scenes of Ethel Rosenberg at Roy Cohn’s bedside as he’s dying of AIDS.
Often when Meryl Streep makes news (such as the announcement that she’s joining the cast of Big Little Lies), her portrayal of Ethel in the HBO version of Angels in America is noted. In an interesting connection, the long-time head of documentary films for that network, confirmed in a New York Times profile that as a child she accompanied her mother (who went to school with Ethel) to the massive vigil in New York City the night the Rosenbergs were executed.
Another recent Times mention of Ethel and Julius, albeit an unflattering one, appeared in a conservative opinion piece about the immigration debate ironically entitled, “A Modest Immigration Proposal: Ban Jews.” A review of a St. Louis staging of a play about two American Muslim women observed, “Claire’s case in some ways echoes the 1951 trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg…In that case, the Jewish prosecutor [Roy Cohn] was accused of excessive zeal in his efforts to convict the couple.” The website BigThink.com carried a story about the practice of countries re-naming streets around embassies to make political points. It noted that after the Rosenbergs’ executions in 1953, Hungary rechristened the location of the U.S. Embassy from its previous Hold Utca (Moon Street), to Rosenberg Házaspár Utca (Rosenberg Couple Street).
But it’s not just in these more obvious contexts that the Rosenbergs are cited. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a new show on Amazon getting a lot of buzz, mentioned Ethel and Julius. Shock-rocker Alice Cooper recently discovered that he owns a forgotten Andy Warhol print which may be worth millions, depicting the electric chair in which the Rosenbergs were executed. In Durham, NC, a modern dance production called Uncle Sam Wants You, included a scene in which performers reenacted grand jury testimony that preceded the couple’s trial while, “Manning's troupe repeatedly shifted in its circle of chairs, their postures indicating boredom, intense interest, or contempt.”
An interview with Cameron Folmar, the lead in a Washington, DC production of Santaland Diaries (the play based on David Sedaris’ profane and hilarious story about working as an elf at Macy’s one Christmas) revealed that both the writer and the actor share a minor obsession with the Rosenbergs. After the interviewer admitted to being versed in case minutiae, Folmar replied, “I think we may be kindred spirits because I could talk to you all day about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Jell-O carton; Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass; his pregnant wife who backed into a space heater wearing some kind of gauzy peignoir and caught on fire! I have stared at Sing Sing through the window of a train. OMG, we need to talk.”
As surreal as that exchange is, the website Comicsverse.com has what may be the most unlikely and bizarre recent mention in a review of Exit Stage Left. It’s a new comic re-imagining Snagglepuss, the Hanna Barbera cartoon character created in 1959: originally a pink, anthropomorphic mountain lion wearing a string tie and shirt cuffs, who longs to be a stage actor. In Exit Stage Left, set in 1953, Snagglepuss is a closeted gay playwright with a hit on Broadway.
“His hidden sexual preference from the media isn’t all that creates the interesting story, but also the political views of the time that tie in with it,” notes the reviewer. “A nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, McCarthyism, and more! This classic Hanna Barbera icon crosses into all new territory.”
These are just a smattering of the daily references to Ethel and Julius that appear online, in print, on camera and elsewhere. With connections to everyone from a cartoon cougar to the U.S. President, there’s no denying that 65 years after their executions, the Rosenbergs remain uniquely prominent in our culture.
Have you seen other interesting references to the Rosenbergs lately? Leave a comment to tell us about them.
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