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It Runs in the Family

Eytan Kobre

He was 90 when he left his three-and-a-half-decade career is His asManhattan’s longest-serving DA, building the agency into a legal powerhouse which prosecuted some ofNew York’s highest-profile criminal cases. But Robert Morgenthau is much more than a high-profile crime-buster. He’s the third link in a family of public servants dedicated to helping their Jewish brethren and leaving their mark on the history of the last century.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

morgenthausEven at age 93, and only three years into his retirement as Manhattan District Attorney, Robert M. Morgenthau is a name that gets instant recognition from New Yorkers. But, there are really two Morgenthaus. There’s the gang-busting, headline-garnering chief prosecutor inAmerica’s highest profile city, who was so iconic a figure that the lead character on a long-running entertainment show was modeled after him — with the part being played by a frum Jew from Monsey.

But there’s another Bob Morgenthau, scion of a storied political family, witness to many of the pivotal events of the last century, and devoted son and grandson of equally devoted public servants and Jewish philanthropists. It’s the desire to get to know this second, lesser-known Morgenthau that brings me this fine spring day to the offices of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, a law firm well ensconced in the stratosphere of theNew Yorklegal establishment, where Morgenthau is now on the roster. 

His three-and-a-half-decade career as Manhattan District Attorney was itself a capstone to an already eventful life, full of things like running twice for governor of New York, a position his great-uncle — Herbert Lehmann —held for four terms, serving as a deputy mayor of New York under John Lindsay, and serving for eight years as the United States Attorney for New York’s Southern District, the plum post in the nation’s federal legal system.  For anyone else, all of these things would be reason enough for celebrity, but in a life as colorful as Bob Morgenthau’s they appear almost as mere footnotes to his bio.  

As Manhattan’s longest-serving DA, he built the agency into a legal powerhouse, with a staff of over 500 lawyers — alumni include a current Supreme Court justice, the current and a former New York governor, and dozens of sitting federal and state judges — and a budget of more than $80 million. During his tenure, Morgenthau’s office prosecuted many of the most famous cases of the day, including a record-breaking verdict against international bank BCCI for fraud and money-laundering with the resulting fines topping $800 million; the breakup of the Gambino crime family’s control of New York’s garment industry; and the saga of Bernie Goetz’s vigilante shooting of four assailants on a New York subway car. 

Mr. Morgenthau came to his post as DA in 1974, and went on to win nine consecutive elections, the last one at age 86 (because, he said, “I’m too old to retire”), with 99% of the vote. That Soviet-style percentage is a bit deceptive, though; he fought off a fierce challenge in the Democratic primary, winning only 59%. He finally stepped down in 2009, noting drily that he’d “recently figured [he’d] served 25 years beyond the normal retirement age.” Did I just say Bob Morgenthau is retired? Scratch that. Although his ‘of counsel’ status at the Wachtell firm seems to imply he’s on a reduced schedule, this man clearly doesn’t know the meaning of ‘retired,’ and his cluttered office is proof positive of that. Just in the course of our short time together, he breaks to field work-related calls from Charles Rangel and William vanden Heuvel, two legendary names inNew Yorkpolitics. Perhaps Mr. Morgenthau is afraid to take even a short break from the action because, as his older brother told him when he left the DA’s office, “It’s a bad time to be looking for a job.”  


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