Rolodex is a who’s who of high-powered Washington

Attorney Sheldon S. Cohen’s Rolodex is a memento of Washington politics.
Capital Jewish Museum Collection, Gift of Laura Apelbaum

What do Bill and Hillary Clinton, former Israeli President Ezer Weizman, former presidential wife Lady Bird Johnson, trial attorney Edward Bennett Williams and singer Wayne Newton have in common? They’re all in Sheldon S. Cohen’s Rolodex.

Cohen, a high-powered Washington tax attorney who died in 2018, had the contacts for those and many other luminaries at his fingertips. The Rolodex will become part of the collection at the Capital Jewish Museum.

“My dad was a super lawyer. He was somebody who was a lawyer’s lawyer,” said Laura Cohen Apelbaum, Sheldon Cohen’s daughter and former executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, who donated the Rolodex. “It was kind of a boutique-y, elite-type practice for special tax problems, so this Rolodex was just amazing,” Apelbaum said.

“Over the past two-and-a-half years, I’ve spent a lot of time kind of organizing his stuff and trying to give it to places that would appreciate it. I had seen that one of my siblings had put my dad’s Rolodex in the garage, and it kind of bothered me,” Apelbaum said.

After learning that the museum was looking to add a Rolodex to its collection, Apelbaum rescued the dusty Rolodex from the garage, wiped it off and began to flip through it for the first time.

“This Rolodex had two side-by-side compartments. I’ve never seen a Rolodex like this,” she said. “Usually, they’re just one stack, and this was kind of like a mega-Rolodex. I have never seen anything that big.”

Cohen headed the IRS in the 1960s, and was known as the commissioner who computerized the agency. President Lyndon B. Johnson received hate mail when he appointed Cohen in 1964. “There was a card in the Rolodex with various numbers at the White House,” Apelbaum said. “There were a lot of LBJ contacts. There was Lady Bird’s number and address. In the early ‘90s when the Clintons were in office, and there were a lot of cards of the Clintons and different people that worked in the Clinton administration.”

He was involved with the Jewish Theological Seminary and Adas Israel Congregation, Jewish Social Service Agency and Camp Airy.

No one has counted the number of cards in the Rolodex. Apelbaum thinks there are a few hundred.

“My dad was born in D.C., he grew up in D.C., he went to D.C. public schools and he went to [George Washington University]. So, to me, the Rolodex represented this unique intersection of living in D.C., where your local life intersects with national politics and international politics,” Apelbaum said.

The Rolodex is at the Capital Jewish Museum collections facility where it awaits conservation work and digitization.

“It’s a very Washington thing, very casually having numbers like the chief of staff of the White House on a Rolodex,” said Jonathan Edelman, curatorial assistant at Capital Jewish Museum.

“It’s, in a lot of ways, normal in Washington, but it also is what makes Washington so unique and the story of the D.C. Jewish community so unique.”

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