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A Tribute to Lynn Cohen, 1933-2020

Actress Lynn Cohen attends the 2011 Lilly Awards at Playwrights Horizons in New York City. (Bruce Glikas / Getty Images)

Most fans first saw Lynn Cohen 20 years ago in Season 3 of Sex and the City, in an episode called “Attack of the Five Foot Ten Woman.” After rearranging all of Miranda’s mugs, Magda’s first order of business as the new cleaning lady is to advise Miranda to make more pies. Her second is to replace Miranda’s vibrator with a statue of the Virgin Mary

Magda might have been introduced as a loveless scold on paper, but after ten years of playing her on television and in film, Lynn’s performance elevated Magda to an extension of Miranda’s family. Behind the scenes — on sets around the world, and especially at home in New York — Lynn frequently welcomed new friends into an extended family of her own.

I first met Lynn more than a decade ago in Poughkeepsie. I was interning for New York Stage and Film’s 2007 Powerhouse Season, which NYSAF produces every summer to incubate new work in development. I was assisting on a reading Lynn was doing with Sybille Pearson, Leigh Silverman, and Kathleen Chalfant. 

Theater professionals almost always work together on one project and then never again, but you get to know each other fast. Lynn was the queen of that kind of at-will intimacy with new blood. She went straight for the youngest people in the room to get all the gossip, and immediately befriended me and my best friends from college. She called us “my guys.” Lynn would admit the next generation into this posse on a rolling basis. Jennifer Lawrence became one of her guys, too.

Lynn loved her husband Ron fiercely, a devotion she often expressed by teasing him relentlessly. In an interview after their collaboration on Rivka Bekerman-Greenberg’s play Eavesdropping On Dreams in 2012, Lynn describes meeting Ronny 150 years ago, before offering a second opinion on the length of their relationship: “We try to keep it very loose.” 

Actress Lynn Cohen and her husband Ronald Cohen celebrate at a party for the premiere of “The Jimmy Show” on December 12, 2002 at Kanvas Bar & Lounge in New York City. (Myrna Suarez / Getty Images)

Ron and Lynn’s marriage lasted 56 years, which Lynn spent practicing her comedy routine as an incorrigible flirt. “You think you reach a certain age and you never have to worry about wearing a wetsuit,” she quipped on The Couch, winking conspiratorially at CBS New York’s John Elliott. Lynn thought most of her fellow actors were drop-dead gorgeous, and wasted no time saying so. (When her Hunger Games costar Stephanie Leigh Schlund tried to excuse Lynn’s flattery as Lynn just being sweet, Lynn didn’t miss a beat: “I am sweet, yes.”) She was always flirting with someone, and if you were in her crosshairs, it was you. 

Lynn was a commanding presence, a feminine powerhouse with a physical mastery of technique that she refined continuously. Her age contributed to her energy, granting her exclusive access to characters with decades of life experience. She was so youthful and sassy and probing and funny in person, it was sometimes easy to forget that she was also doing next-level work at a breakneck pace well into her 80s. Whether she was playing Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in Spielberg’s Munich or Philip Seymour Hoffman’s mother in Synecdoche, New York, Lynn’s past work steadily earned her offers of future work. IMDB lists half a dozen of her projects that are still in post-production and haven’t been released yet. Right up until the end, she was booking gigs back-to-back-to-back.

Lynn was a born comedian, but her profound range was grounded in critical thinking about the human condition. She would acknowledge humor’s relationship with suffering on a dime. One of our mentors described Lynn as “holding court” whenever she’d join us for lunch, but she’d interrupt her own clowning to stress just how much an education in drama would help us anticipate life’s unforgiving surprises. She’d hug us three at a time, laughing to punctuate her opinions, but she was careful with her advice.

Lynn happened to be an actor’s actor and a director’s actor, but her fluency with language and nuance hinted that she was in it for the writing. She knew more about new work than most emerging playwrights and screenwriters, and dedicated the better part of her life to workshopping writers’ earliest drafts. She loved female-driven stories almost as much as she loved female-driven creative teams, and she devoted her career to honoring women who were determined to survive. “Women always have to fight for everything,” Lynn would say, hoping to encounter the same traits in scripted characters that she practiced for decades herself: “Intelligence, sexuality, strength, ‘til the day you die.”

I thought of Lynn as my role model for how to age, so I don’t fully know how to describe my first reaction to her death — there’s grief, clearly, but there’s no sadness. I only feel lucky. She lived a towering life, full of achievement and love and joie de vivre, and her legacy requires celebration. 

A proper tribute to Lynn wouldn’t be complete without a nod to her impeccable timing. Of course she died on Valentine’s Day. Of course she died on an unforgettable day to lose someone you love.