Vanishing Act

Larry Cohn turned heads by making huge donations to St. Louis charities. Then he up and disappeared.

When Landmarks Association of St. Louis embarked on an ambitious plan to create a tourism-oriented architectural center downtown, Larry Cohn said he wanted to help and eagerly pledged $500,000. After two years of planning, Landmarks officials were ready to move ahead with what they call "Architecture St. Louis." They had an ideal location on Washington Avenue lined up and an initial payment in hand from Cohn. Just one problem: The check bounced, and Cohn was nowhere to be found.

William Wischmeyer, president of Landmarks' board of directors, sent a worrisome communiqué to association members on November 29, informing them that the 2005 pledge from Cohn (a board member himself) had fallen through. "Needless to say," Wischmeyer wrote, "this has left us in a crisis."

The letter didn't name Cohn, nor did it mention the bounced check, though that unpleasant news surfaced during a board meeting several months ago. The Landmarks Association is not the only organization where Cohn's disappearance has local fundraisers scrambling to find alternative financial plans.

Where the name Lawrence Landfield Cohn was once greeted with enthusiasm and the promise of philanthropic generosity, now there are only allusions to a troubled personal life. "I don't want to talk about Larry," says Alison Ferring, a major benefactor at the Center of Creative Arts (COCA), where Cohn was on the board of directors. "I just hope he's someplace where he can get some help."

Since 2004 Cohn has given $250,000 to his alma mater, Washington University, where he graduated with a degree in urban studies in 1981. In 2006 he gave $100,000 to FOCUS St. Louis. At the time, it was the single largest gift in the group's history. He also pledged $350,000 that year to Craft Alliance: The organization hopes to open a satellite gallery with studios at Grand Center. Craft's executive director Boo McLoughlin, however, says she doesn't know where or how to reach Cohn.

In an interview with the St. Louis Business Journal in April 2005, Cohn said he wanted to work closely with local nonprofit cultural and education organizations and assist them financially. At the time, the Business Journal reported, "his contributions to the community could end up totaling as much as $10 million to $15 million."

The 49-year-old lifelong bachelor grew up in Winnetka, Illinois, an affluent Chicago suburb. (His family's wealth stems from the success of CFS Continental, a major food-distribution company started by Cohn's grandfather.)

As a child he developed a fascination with St. Louis. He subscribed to both the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and declared himself a fan of Blues hockey and Cardinals baseball. Says childhood friend Doug Paxton, "He's one of those people that has always been a supporter of the underdog. Maybe he looked at St. Louis that way."

After graduating from Wash. U., Cohn led a restless lifestyle. He lived in the Berkshires for a time, then Phoenix, and all the while traveled frequently. Eddie Matney, a friend and former partner in a Phoenix restaurant, says Cohn liked to go to St. Louis during winter months to attend Blues games. Friends describe him as a hard worker who never flaunted his wealthy upbringing.

After going to California to earn a master's degree, Cohn decided to settle in St. Louis. He bought a condo in downtown Clayton's Park Tower in 2004 and became well known in fundraising circles. To the media and colleagues, he described himself as founder of a "boutique venture capital firm," Danube Investments. The company has been registered in Arizona since July 2000 but shows no signs of activity — at least not in venture capital projects. Cohn told the Business Journal that Danube had invested in a Los Angeles talent agency called DDO Artists. Agency representatives did not return messages seeking comment.

Cohn turned heads in January 2005 when, according to Post-Dispatch society columnist Deb Peterson, he presented COCA with $1 million during a dance program. Downtown developer Steve Stogel attended that particular COCA event and recalls that Cohn's gift made quite an impression on him. "To move to St. Louis and hand out a $1 million check was extraordinary," Stogel says. It's unclear whether COCA cashed that check. The Business Journal reported in April 2005 that the $1 million would be paid in installments. COCA Executive Director Stephanie Riven declined to discuss the pledge.

If anyone in the city's fundraising circles doubted Cohn's credibility, they didn't do so publicly. Apart from noting that Cohn had been hospitalized last year, Riven also declined to talk about him or his disappearance.

According to a statement sent to Riverfront Times from Cohn's personal e-mail account, "Mr. Cohn is currently undergoing treatment resulting from nearly a year of a series of serious illnesses. Your patience and well-wishes are greatly appreciated at this time. Mr. Cohn has been very generous with both his time and his monies to the St. Louis community. He hopes to resume his activities and his obligations just as quickly as possible."

Cohn's problems extend beyond unfulfilled promises to city charities. Grace Collins, a longtime friend whom he owes tens of thousands of dollars, went to police after she claims Cohn passed her a bad check for $3,000 in March 2007. Now Cohn faces a felony bad-check charge filed by in St. Louis County Circuit Court on December 12. That same day, a warrant was issued for his arrest.

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