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.

Collins declined to discuss the matter. She referred questions to her attorney Richard Huck, who says the check was supposed to be a partial repayment for personal loans Collins made to Cohn. The St. Louis attorney says somehow Cohn ran out of cash, so Collins loaned him her credit card and cash. Asked how a man who could give thousands to charitable organizations could end up in personal debt, Huck says, "I don't know the answer to that, other than there seems to be some evidence he went through significant assets of his."

Organizations where Cohn had been active say he stopped showing up in late 2006, without offering any explanation for his absence. Never did he let on that he was in financial trouble. In fact, Craft Alliance's McLoughlin says Cohn signed a pledge letter in April 2007. Such letters aren't legally binding but are generally used to back up verbal commitments and spell out terms of payment. By May of last year, Cohn owed his friend Collins enough money — $160,000 — that she had him sign a promissory note. Cohn backed the note with his condo, which he signed over to Collins in June.

Others who knew Cohn personally refused to talk about him. Landmarks' executive director Carolyn Toft says that she has known Cohn for "more than a decade." Still, she declined further comment. Instead, she replied via e-mail: "He has supported some wonderful work in this community — initiatives that would not have happened without his enthusiasm and his generosity. I am indeed sorry that he is no longer able to participate in Landmarks' vision for Architecture St. Louis, but we are pursuing other funding sources."

Wischmeyer says that Landmarks, a nearly 50-year-old organization, operates on a shoestring, with six staff members and an annual budget of about $300,000. Architecture St. Louis was an ambitious project that would have meant new offices, exhibition space and a 50-seat meeting room, all on the ground floor of the Lammert Building on Washington Avenue.

Cohn seemed the natural benefactor for such a project. Even his personal e-mail address gives a nod to Ed Mays, an insurance and banking magnate who, before the Great Depression, housed his companies in a new art deco skyscraper (the Continental Life building at Grand and Olive). Mays lived in a penthouse on its top floors.

Considering Cohn's love for St. Louis, Phoenix-based cousin Lee Cohn was surprised to hear that people were looking for him. The two last saw each other in October during a dinner at Larry Cohn's mother's home in Winnetka. Terri Cohn did not return repeated phone calls.

If Larry Cohn has in fact left St. Louis for parts unknown, it wouldn't be the first time he's baffled friends and family. "Larry," says Lee Cohn, "had a background of doing stuff nobody could figure out."

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