Review: Morgenthau

Morgenthau: Power, Privilege, and the Rise of an American Dynasty, Andrew Meier. New York: Random House, 2022.

Summary: An account of the 153 year history of four generations of the Morgenthau family and its impact on real estate, politics, diplomacy, and law enforcement.

Lazarus Morgenthau probably never should have migrated from Bavaria, where he invented a cigar box that made his fortune, for a time, before the business failed. He moved his family to America where other members of the Jewish elite had made fortunes after similar migrations. For Lazarus, all his schemes failed, from a wine import business to elixirs to cure various ailments to his Golden Book of Life. He spent the latter part of his life in and out of insane asylums. It might be that his principle purpose was to land his progeny in America, who would have a profound influence in many fields over the next hundred years.

Andrew Meier’s lengthy account of this family dynasty begins here. What follows are three full-length biographies of the leading family figure in each of the next three generations: Henry, Sr., Henry, Jr., and Robert Morgenthau, concluding at the end of the latter’s life in 2019.

Henry, Sr. built the family fortune in New York real estate. Meier takes us through the growth of his empire from his first acquisitions up through the relationship with Adolph Ochs and his acquisition of the properties that made up Times Square, and the headquarters of The New York Times. In 1912, his genius in fund-raising for Woodrow Wilson resulted in his being offered the ambassadorship to Turkey, the “Jewish seat.” It was not his first choice, but he distinguished himself in history in his efforts to advocate for and document the Armenian genocide.

Perhaps his greatest challenge was to help launch his son Henry, Jr. in life. Henry, Jr. seemed to lack a clear ambition other than becoming a farmer, which his father helped him to do in acquiring land in Duchess County. This put Henry, Jr. in touch with Franklin Roosevelt, a friendship that endured from Roosevelt’s rise as governor of New York through his presidency. He was a kind of “fixer” for Roosevelt–on farm matters in upstate New York, and later, at the Treasury. This seemed the saddest part of the book because the “friendship” seemed one of providing Roosevelt pleasant company at weekly lunches, but not asserting his own ideas or personality. Perhaps, like his father, his most significant work may have been advocacy for Jews in Europe as Hitler’s genocidal plans took shape. The US State Department and Roosevelt had been intransigent in opposing vigorous measures to help refugees, but Morgenthau probably managed to rescue 200,000 and help awaken the country to the Holocaust. The latter part of his life was the saddest in many ways as he lost his wife, was dumped by Truman, and spent the latter part of his life living lavishly with his second wife, considered “this thing he married” by his children.

I found the third part of the book the most interesting in many respects. Robert Morgenthau was an authentic war hero, offering exemplary leadership when his ship was attacked. He tried politics but failed in two runs for governor. Working with the Kennedy campaign, he won the appointment as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. He took on organized crime when the FBI refused to acknowledge its existence. He also set his sights on Roy Cohn (an associate and mentor of Donald Trump), who became the “White Whale” he could never convict. When Nixon took office, he won office as the District Attorney for New York, a position he held until 2009. He was most known for the prosecutions of organized crime (the Gambino family) and the BCCI banking firm, which he believed was channeling money to Iran for development of nuclear weapons. The latter featured high powered American figures including Clark Clifford. It was a case that may have been pursued at the Federal level. For Morgenthau, if it came through New York, it was his jurisdiction.

He built a modestly-staffed department into a powerhouse, increasing the hiring of women and minorities, funding its operations in part with the fines he won. He often opted for plea bargains for fines in lieu of prison sentences–he had no appetite for sending people to prison–except for five youth accused of assault, rape, and murder of the Central Park Jogger. They were part of a “wilding” incident that night and, when apprehended, eventually confessed to the crime and were convicted and sent to prison. Except that DNA evidence, a relatively new technology at the time, linked none of the boys to evidence collected and was set aside. Several years later, new evidence matched with a man already in prison. Morgenthau admitted the mistake and reversed the convictions, albeit too late for the boys, who later recovered an award in court. It was the major stain on his record, lessened by his integrity when new evidence came forward.

This is a massive work, really three major biographies woven into a single account of a powerful family. One gains a sense of the distinctive character of the leading figure of each generation–Henry, Sr., the shrewd, incisive, and courageous businessman turned ambassador; Henry, Jr., the modest steady friend of Roosevelt who found his voice representing Jews caught in the Holocaust; and Robert, the resolute, ambitious prosecutor with a deep sense of integrity and justice that extended to the white collar criminals who often escaped prosecution. This book will carry you through the winter months, introducing you to a family who played a key role, often behind the scenes, over one hundred years in a variety of American institutions, centered around New York City,


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley.

3 thoughts on “Review: Morgenthau

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: October 2022 | Bob on Books

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