Robert M. Morgenthau, the former Manhattan district attorney, who died this past summer, had many attributes of greatness. Among them was the fact that he never viewed himself as great. He would never have portrayed himself, even jokingly, as King of Israel or The Chosen One, as President Donald Trump did recently, although he came from an aristocratic Jewish family and had a sense that he needed to better the world during his time in it. That time stretched out; he died 10 days short of his 100th birthday. A modest man, shy really, he used the time he had to pursue justice, and, as a Jew, to keep memory alive.
Bob Morgenthau was my friend. We met, more than three decades ago, through his wife, the writer Lucinda Franks, a dear buddy. Now, with the “shloshim,” the 30-day anniversary of his death, just passed, this seems a good moment to reflect on who he was and why he will always be missed.
He was soft-spoken, near deaf in one ear, with a New York inflection and a huge appetite. At buffet dinners in my home, he would reload his plate with food several times, barely noticing that most everybody else had finished eating. Yet he was thin and lanky, never seeming to gain an ounce, maybe from the energy he expended as district attorney putting mobsters and drug dealers, crooked politicians, and corrupt corporate heads behind bars. By his own count he supervised 3.5 million cases through the years, overseeing the work of about 500 lawyers. They called him “the Boss,” and adored him. He enjoyed talking about his cases — always with great discretion — and hearing about those of others. Once, years ago, when I had jury duty, I was riding an up escalator in the courthouse while he was on a down one. He saw me and called out, “tell me about your case when it’s over,” as if my small jury service mattered. I doubt that many people on those escalators realized that the man in the well-worn raincoat, with slightly disheveled hair, was Mr. District Attorney himself.
Although he was not an observant Jew, Morgenthau was a committed one, following a family pattern. When his grandfather, Henry Morgenthau Sr., served as President Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during World War I, he raised $50,000 to help save the Jewish community in Palestine from starvation. Henry Morgenthau Jr., Robert’s father, became chairman of the board of the UJA after serving as President Franklin Roosevelt’s treasury secretary. He traveled around the country with Golda Meir on her historic fund-raising tour of the United States in 1948, mincing no words in pressing wealthy Jewish communities to contribute large sums for the nascent state. Bob Morgenthau continued in their footsteps. One of his criteria in voting for political candidates was how supportive they were of Israel.
Deeply devoted to the memory of the Holocaust, Morgenthau became the driving force behind creating the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City. As his wife Lucinda tells it, few Jewish philanthropists showed any interest in the museum project until Bob met with them separately, one by one. By the end of a single weekend, he had raised millions of dollars. There is a joke told that if one were to publish a book about people who said “no” to Robert Morgenthau, it would run about half a page with a tiny smattering of obscure names. Such were his powers of persuasion.
At his funeral, his youngest son, Joshua, described his father’s persuasive skills in a more mundane area. The family owns a farm in upstate East Fishkill, N.Y., which Josh runs. Among the goods it produces and sells are eggs. The farm, Josh said, brought out the “egg salesman” in his father, who loved calling food markets to check on their stock of Fishkill eggs. “This is Robert Morgenthau,” he would say in his deep voice. “How many cartons of eggs would you like this week?” He never lost a sale.
Another speaker recalled Morgenthau’s heroism during World War II. When his destroyer went down in the Mediterranean after being hit by Nazi torpedo bombers, Bob, the ship’s executive officer, gave his life jacket to one of the sailors and struggled to stay afloat without one for three hours. When asked much later why he did that, he said, laughingly, “I don’t know why. It was the stupidest thing I ever did.” But, of course, he knew exactly why. He was a man of impeccable principles, with a powerful understanding of right and wrong. Providing life jackets to those in need came naturally to him.
Bob Morgenthau’s life is one to contemplate as we head toward the most introspective days on the Jewish calendar.
Francine Klagsbrun’s most recent book, “Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel,” is now available in paperback.