A decade ago, when Robert Morgenthau retired from his 35-year position as Manhattan District Attorney, the Museum of Jewish Heritage had an exhibit on his family’s outsize role in American politics and Jewish history. The wing of the museum hosting the exhibit, which was titled “The Morgenthaus: A Legacy of Service,” also carries the family’s name.
The last great scion of this dynasty died last Sunday at 99, a week shy of his centenary. Morgenthau was born in the Hudson Valley within a stone’s throw of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Hyde Park estate. His father served as Roosevelt’s Treasury Secretary, and his grandfather was the US ambassador to Ottoman Turkey during the Wilson administration.
The family’s roots in this country go back to 1866, part of an immigration wave of German Jews that created some of America’s best-known banks, department stores, denim jeans, Reform temples, and Our Crowd – the exclusive elite of the community whose lifestyle and wealth rivaled those of the Rockefellers, Morgans, and Carnegies.
Morgenthau was not religiously observant and his wife is not Jewish, but while The New York Times’ obituary described his heritage as “a family originally of German-Jewish stock,” following Algemeiner Journal’s calling out the Jewish omission in the original obituary, his role in Jewish history is filled with pursuits of justice for his people.
During the Second World War, Morgenthau signed up to fight in the US Military. He rose to the rank of lieutenant commander, winning a Bronze Star and Gold Star for surviving the torpedoing of the USS Lansdale by a Nazi submarine in 1944. He later went on to fight in the Battle of Iwo Jima. At the time, he promised God that if he survives, his life would be dedicated to public service. “I was not in a very good bargaining position,” he joked in a 1999 interview with the New York Post.
Along with his role as chairman of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Morgenthau used his position as District Attorney to restore artworks stolen in the Holocaust to their rightful heirs. This put him at odds with Ronald Lauder, then-chair of the Museum of Modern Art. In the end, the heirs of art leader Lea Bondi secured a $19 million settlement. As Morgenthau’s wife Lucinda Franks recalls, Lauder burst into Morgenthau’s office in 1998, demanding an end to the case. “It’s not my decision. It’s the law,” he calmly replied.
Another high-profile case involving Jewish history was his 1990 conviction of Egyptian Muslim extremist El Sayyid Nosair, who assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane in a Manhattan hotel.
Morgenthau was born into privilege, but aside from his childhood and education, his career is entirely the result of hard work and the support of voters. Morgenthau was appointed US Attorney for the Southern District of New York in 1962 by Attorney General Robert Kennedy. He stepped down in 1970 after clashing with President Richard Nixon. But then he won political redemption in 1974 when Manhattan voters elected him as the borough’s top prosecutor.
His long tenure included high-profile cases of white-collar crime, celebrities, a subway vigilante, and John Lennon’s assassin. His former staffers include Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Governor Andrew Cuomo, his predecessor Eliot Spitzer, Robert Kennedy, Jr., and current Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, Jr.
Through the century of service given by Morgenthau, one cannot ignore the Jewish legacy that he inherited. His grandfather spoke up for the Jews of Turkish Palestine during World War I, and his father confronted anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant voices within the Roosevelt administration to press for the rescue of Europe’s trapped Jews. The past three generations of Morgenthaus were not particularly religious, but when Jewish lives and memory mattered, they stood with their people.
By Sergey Kadinsky