I will admit there was a part of me that expected the familiar trademark tones of Dick Wolf’s Law & Order series to play overhead as I entered District Attorney Robert Morgenthau’s office. But instead, I was greeted with a warm handshake and a smile by the man who has worn the badge of the chief law enforcer of New York County for nearly thirty years.
Morgenthau is a New York, if not American, institution. There are few people who have survived public life for as long without so much as a scratch to their reputation. There are even fewer who have so deeply impacted their profession while acquiring only accolades and respect from friends and critics alike. And so, at 84, and with retirement nowhere in sight, Robert Morgenthau continues to lead New York-and in some views the nation-in the preservation of justice and the protection of its citizens.
Robert Morris Morgenthau was born in New York City on July 31, 1919, into a highly regarded family in both the political arena as well as in the Jewish community. Morgenthau’s father, Henry, would later serve under Presidents Roosevelt and Truman as the Secretary of the Treasury. But Henry’s son, Robert, claims to never have felt any pressure from his family to enter the political arena. “There was no expectation either way. At the age of 12 I wanted to either go to West Point or become a fireman.”
Nevertheless, as years passed and the world changed, it would be the global climate that guided Morgenthau’s future. “By the time I went to college in the fall of 1937, everything going on in Nazi Germany became the focus of my attention. I thought a lot about what Hitler was doing to the Jews and the minorities [in Germany]…I wanted to get involved and fight against Hitler.”
As Morgenthau continues his story of his grandmother’s first cousin who was seized and sent to Theresienstadt and ultimately to Treblinka where she would later be murdered, I cannot help but feel that it is as if I am hearing the emotional stories of my own grandfather, sharing his past for the benefit of my future.
In the spring of his junior year at Amherst College, Morgenthau was rejected from enlisting in the Army Reserve program because he had not yet finished college. But then, in the summer of 1940, “when I was studying law with my great-uncle, I had to visit the dentist in Manhattan. On the West Side Highway, I heard on the radio that the Navy had initiated a training program which accepted college students who had completed three years. I filled out an application at the Navy recruiting station which required my parents’ approval because I was under 21. I spent my 21st birthday aboard the battleship USS Wyoming in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.” It would be the beginning of a naval career that would shape his life and teach many of the lessons that would lead this young officer to a career in public service.
As Morgenthau recounts his military experience, his memory doesn’t falter for a moment. His stories flow with ease and color as if he lived them only yesterday. “I was on a destroyer in the Boston Navy Yard the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. I remember hearing the announcement over the ship’s speakers: ‘Pearl Harbor has been bombed by the Japanese…This is not a drill…Pearl Harbor has been bombed by the Japanese.’”
Morgenthau would spend the next four years on destroyers meeting people from all over the country and acquiring great responsibility very quickly. After being on active duty for only a year and half, by the summer of 1943 he became Executive Officer and Navigator of a destroyer supervising 299 men. But this would not be the end of his duties. “In order to hold even the lowest level of court martials you had to be a lieutenant or above, and since the captain didn’t want to do it, I became the court martial officer aboard the ship,” he explains. “It was there where I learned about plea bargaining. I didn’t know how to try a case, just to plea bargain.”
In a time when being Jewish was not always popular, Morgenthau was never ashamed of his heritage and practiced his faith openly and with pride. Although his military career had yielded only mild antisemitism, Morgenthau remained intolerant of any form of racial and ethnic biases around him. “I served under six captains, and several of them were openly bigoted against blacks. The highest rank that a black man in the Navy could achieve was Steward’s Mate First-Class. Only under my fourth captain, a good man, were black sailors assigned as gunners. After the USS Lansdale was torpedoed and sunk in the Mediterranean, some 40 of the officers and men, including four black steward’s mates, came with me to my new ship, the USS Harry F. Bauer. As Executive Officer, it was my responsibility to assign men to their battle stations, and I assigned these four men as pointer and loader on two 20-millimeter guns. The captain became furious, yelling, ‘You can’t put those niggers on guns.’”
Morgenthau stood his ground and the captain eventually backed off.
The D.A. recounts one episode aboard his ship that soon followed: “We had placed two crews on the guns, on a platform on either side of the forward smokestack, a white and a black crew. When kamikaze planes later attacked us, one plane was shot down directly above our ship. There was a lot of fire and smoke but when it cleared, the black gun crew was still at the gun, but the white gunners and gun captain had jumped 15 feet to the main deck. I recommended those two black men for the Silver Star. ‘Those steward’s mates were too scared to jump,’ the captain said, but he finally agreed to recommend them for the Bronze star.”
After the war, Morgenthau left the Navy with the rank of Lieutenant Commander and enrolled in Yale Law School, from where he would later be awarded a citation of merit. He would spend the next 13 years learning his trade at the firm of Patterson, Belknap & Webb, from where he would leave as partner in 1961. Morgenthau’s move from the private back to the public sector was swift and powerful. On April 19, 1961, Robert Morgenthau was sworn in as the new United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. It was a position that yielded great power and respect and one in which he would acquire the trust of the people of New York City. After years of diligent efforts in fighting the growing crime in New York, the people voted and elected Morgenthau New York County’s District Attorney for a term starting in January of 1975. And it is that very seat which he has occupied ever since.
In the years that would follow, Morgenthau would see the face of New York change in both its crime and culture. But there was much work to do for the new D.A. In 1975 there were 650 murders in Manhattan alone. Drugs like heroin in the ‘70s and crack in the ‘80s fueled these crime rates and the city’s fiscal crisis simply couldn’t provide the resources to combat it effectively. Manhattan responded and, by 2003, there was a reduction of 85% in the number of murders and instead of being number one among the counties, Manhattan was number four in the number of murders. But by the mid- 1980s, when the economy had picked up, so had white-collar crime feeding on greed. The district attorney’s office began the hunt and investigations into those involved in tax and securities fraud as well as corrupt unions and contractors. “Crime may have changed over the years, but crime is always important to the victim. I’ve never changed that perspective and I’ve tried to instill that in all the people who work for me,” Morgenthau explains.
To talk with Robert Morgenthau is to talk with history; his experience has allowed him to take stock of the world and commit himself to numerous causes and organizations over the years where he is able to leave his mark. While the Police Athletic League, Temple Emanu-El, the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, the ADL, and various bar associations have been recipients of his dedication and leadership, it is his most recent project at the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust that holds a special place.
As mayor of New York, Ed Koch assembled a commission that was charged to plan and strategize how best New York could memorialize those who had perished in the Holocaust. Koch asked Morgenthau to become the co-chairman of this commission, an assignment that the D.A. would take very seriously. And as if he needed convincing, Morgenthau says: “I just felt that if you wanted people to understand Israel, they had to first understand the Holocaust.”
The subsequent years would present the commission with many different options, but the final decision would be to give New York a museum that would commemorate, as well as celebrate, the history of the Jewish people through their times of struggle and success. It would be known as the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust and Robert Morgenthau would become its chairman. While most of New York’s Jewish community was eager to support this endeavor, many of what Morgenthau calls the “White-Shoe Jews” were not interested in Holocaust remembrances. They wanted to forgive and forget.
The mere conversation about the museum brings a glow to Morgenthau’s eyes that I hadn’t yet seen. It is a labor of love with a personal importance to him and one that he describes with great pleasure. “The museum has given people an opportunity to come forward and talk, to share. It’s given us a chance to remember the war and the Holocaust. People tend to remember them separately, but they’re interlocked. My generation was in the eye of the storm,” he recounts. “I think the Holocaust changed people’s outlook. People across the country saw what antisemitism taken to an extreme could do. I think it really shocked people and it had a major impact. Things changed after that.”
On September 17, 2003, the outdoor Garden of Stones was dedicated at the museum located in Battery Park. Designed by architect and artist Andy Goldsworthy, this memorial garden is a central feature of the new $60 million, four-story, 82,000-square-foot extension named the Robert M. Morgenthau Wing. The Morgenthau Wing was the first new construction after the attacks of September 11 and has become a major cultural center of Lower Manhattan. After recently visiting the museum, Mayor Bloomberg shared his thoughts: “This project began as the dust was still being settled, and quickly became an important part of rebuilding Lower Manhattan-bringing jobs and restoring a sense of normalcy. Robert Morgenthau’s tenacity sent a message that our spirit will not be crushed.”
This coming July, Morgenthau will be 85 years old. He is a father of seven, five from his first wife, Martha, who passed away and two from his current wife, Lucinda. His children have blessed him with five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. While most of his contemporaries have retired and some have even passed on many years ago, Morgenthau has yet to plan his retirement. His secretary and right-hand woman, Ida Van Lindt, has been with him since 1974. She is considered family, but still has called him “Boss” for the last 30 years. “He’ll run again; I don’t think he plans on going anywhere,” Ida happily tells me.
“I’m proud of every day here,” Morgenthau says. “And I’m proudest of a terrific staff of loyal and dedicated lawyers. I would hope that my successor one day would appreciate that and maintain an office on a nonpolitical basis. I never ask people what their politics are, it’s simply not important to doing the job right.”
We’re nearing the end of our interview and Ida comes in to remind the D.A. that he must leave for a doctor’s appointment. But make no mistake, Morgenthau is in perfect health, he’s merely having his ear examined. But before we’re through, there is one more thing I need to learn from this man of experience, stature and prominence.
“Do you watch Law & Order?” I ask. “I’m not a big TV guy,” he responds, “but I liked the Adam Schiff character (which was based on Morgenthau himself). I told him once when we met that I wanted to know when he was resigning because I wanted his job. You know he got paid something like $25,000 an episode?”
I nodded with a smile knowing that Robert Morgenthau was quite happy in his current starring role.
Morgenthau retired in 2009 after serving 35 years as Manhattan’s top prosecutor, overseeing some of the country’s most notorious criminal cases. Still, he insisted no case was more important than any other. “Every case is important to the victim,” he repeatedly said.
Morgenthau died in July 21, 2019 at the age of 99, ten days before his 100th birthday.