Every now and then, an interview subject presents an almost surreal smorgasbord of topics. For instance: how many Americans would you be able to ask, “What happened when mob chief Joe Bonanno walked into your office and surrendered?” and “Tell me about the debutante cotillion you attended at the White House in 1938 for Eleanor Roosevelt’s niece”? Exactly one, I suspect, and that unique American would be Robert Morris “The Boss” Morgenthau ’41—boyhood pal of JFK, ex-Navy officer, failed candidate for governor of New York and, until his retirement last year at 90, the perpetual Manhattan district attorney, elected to office not once, not twice, but nine times.
Morgenthau is a figure of tantalizing paradoxes: a reedy patrician who became a gravelly-voiced, profane prosecutor; the scion of a wealthy family and graduate of Deerfield, Amherst and Yale who spent his career confronting every variety of urban depravity; a Jew, proud of his heritage, whose loss to Nelson Rockefeller in the 1962 governor’s race was once attributed to his not knowing what a knish was; a self-described “shy” person whose work placed him at the center of New York City’s raucous politics, linked him to some of the most notorious names of 20th-century America—and made him the model for the DA in the long-running TV drama Law & Order.
To meet this legend of law enforcement, I made my way to 52nd Street and the offices of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, the vaunted litigation firm where Morgenthau was hired in January 2010, three weeks after his retirement as DA. His secretary of 36 years, Ida, showed me into a room that seemed less an office than a U.S. history exhibit. Among war-bond posters and framed drawings of naval destroyers were photos of Morgenthau with LBJ, JFK and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as a handwritten 1936 note from FDR to Morgenthau’s father, Henry, then U.S. Treasury secretary and a close friend of the Roosevelts. One sepia photograph portrayed the future DA as a boy equestrian, astride a horse in full flight over a barrier. A more recent photo showed him looking distinctly great-grandfatherly with his two children—the younger is 20—from his second marriage to writer Lucinda Franks. I also spied a framed editorial from the Amherst Student of Jan. 22, 1940, introducing Morgenthau as the new editor-in-chief.
Eventually, the man himself arrived, natty in pinstripes and suspenders, taking a seat behind his desk and fumbling with an FM transistor hearing aid. “Nothin’ works!” he growled, tossing it aside. On his cluttered desktop, I glimpsed a printed-out schedule. 8 a.m. breakfast with Mayor Bloomberg, Gracie Mansion. 8 p.m. Tina Brown party for Marlo Thomas. At 91, Morgenthau is still in demand.
I told him how I’d prepared myself for our interview—by searching the New York Times archives for every article with his name in it. “My sympathies,” he chuckled. He was right. The archive dive ran to 4,881 articles, a richly documented (and strenuous) journey through Morgenthau’s life. A city has a life story, too, and for the next three hours, mixing serpentine digressions with the blunt and pithy remark, the ex-DA gave me a personal tour of his Manhattan, where he has lived all his life. Morgenthau has an amazing memory; he routinely quotes decades-old newspaper articles and judicial opinions verbatim. Whatever he couldn’t recall was quickly supplied via a shout to the outer room. (“Idaaaaa! What was the name of that destroyer—the one that blew up in New York Harbor during the war?”)
Morgenthau was born nine months after the end of World War I, and his earliest New York memories are of the city during Prohibition—his father, he said, “got a little moonshine now and then”—and of growing up on West 81st Street, half a block from Central Park. He recalls his Manhattan childhood, he told me, “with a lot of affection”: racing streetcars, waking at night to the rumble of the elevated train on Columbus Avenue, heading to the Polo Grounds to see the baseball Giants, going with his parents to Schrafft’s for ice cream. He and his pals spent afternoons exploring the maze of woodland pathways in the Central Park area known as The Ramble. “This was a much more personal city then,” he says. “The cop at 81st Street and Central Park West—he knew everybody. He’d say hello to you.”
An iconic New York City childhood, but not exactly a typical one. Morgenthau’s grandfather, Henry Morgenthau Sr., was a Manhattan real estate mogul, and amid the depths of the Depression, the grandson enjoyed a life of privilege. His parents’ friendship with the Roosevelts conferred novel distinctions: as a teenager, he roasted the first hot dog ever served to the British royal family, during a visit of King George VI to Hyde Park. Indeed, the very first Times article about the future DA strikes a distinctly ripped-from-the-society-page note. “Robert Morgenthau Has Trophy of Hunt,” announces the July 26, 1934, Times, reporting on a 200-pound grizzly the 14-year-old shot while spending his summer vacation on a dude ranch in Montana. “It was a .25-35 pump-action Winchester,” Morgenthau recalled with enthusiasm. “The gun that saved the West!”
That bear, stuffed and mounted, held a spot of honor by the fireplace in his room at Alpha Delta Phi fraternity—surely the most unusual conversation piece in the annals of Amherst frat furnishings. At Amherst, along with editing the Student, Morgenthau founded the Political Union (first guest speaker: Eleanor Roosevelt), majored in economics and political science and took a course in celestial navigation that stood him in good stead when he enlisted in the Navy upon graduating. An officer on the USS Lansdale, he was aboard the destroyer in April 1944 when it was sunk by German bombers. In the hours he spent adrift before being rescued, he found himself thinking intensely about what to do with his life if he survived. “I guess I started making promises,” he told me. “There I was, floating around the Mediterranean—and it sounds kind of corny now, but I decided to devote my life to public service.”
Morgenthau returned to go to Yale Law School and take his place among the best and the brightest. Named U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York by President Kennedy in 1961, he began building a reputation as a painstaking and indomitable prosecutor. He was never a courtroom lawyer, however. “Good trial lawyers grow like leaves on trees,” he likes to say, quoting his mentor, the late Supreme Court Justice Byron “Whizzer” White. White advised him that the true challenge was to run the best office. And by all accounts, Morgenthau did. Over the decades he would pioneer major upgrades to prosecuting cases in New York, from computerization to videotaped confessions and DNA analysis. In the process, he would oversee thousands of lawyers, not a few of whom would go on to fame or notoriety—Andrew Cuomo, Sonia Sotomayor and Eliot Spitzer, to name three—and become a kind of one-man networking maven. Morgenthau never planned to become a living legend. I asked him what he would have said if someone had told him in 1961 that 45 years and some three and a half million cases later, he’d still be New York’s prosecutor.
He laughed. “I’d have said, You’re out of your fucking mind!’”
Following Morgenthau’s footsteps over a half-century of prosecutions makes for a fascinating sociological trip. Crime comes in a thousand varieties, and each decade brought its own particular flavor. The early 1960s involved Morgenthau in Cold War intrigues straight from a John le Carré novel. One case put him on the trail of a Soviet spy, a femme fatale who was the mistress of the senior counsel to a Big Three automaker. Another involved two businessmen who sold appliances to stores on military bases in Europe and created a bogus European partner as a way to siphon off profits. A lawyer in Liechtenstein, a certain Herr Buehler, represented the ghost partner, and when he visited the United States on business, Morgenthau had him arrested and brought before a grand jury. “Within the hour, I have a call from the general counsel of the CIA. Says he’s coming up in an hour and a half to see me, if it’s convenient. Tells me he’s taking the company helicopter!” Herr Buehler, it turned out, represented a number of CIA operatives, and the agency wanted him kept out of the limelight. So they cut a deal: Buehler would turn over his documents on the corrupt businessmen, and Morgenthau’s office would leave him alone.
Throughout the 1960s, Morgenthau led a tireless crusade against what he still calls “La Cosa Nostra.” A 1964 Times photo shows him briefing his good friend Robert F. Kennedy, then the U.S. attorney general, on his investigation of the Genovese and Gambino families. He remains proud of the achievement. “We convicted more mobsters than anybody else in the country, including the Department of Justice,” he says. Some of Morgenthau’s 1960s cases reflect that decade’s fractious politics: prosecuting a black-liberation group plotting to blow up the Statue of Liberty, for instance, or having police arrest four editors of the New Left magazine Ramparts for having their draft cards burned in an image reproduced on the magazine’s cover (Morgenthau ultimately did not indict).
His tenure as a federal prosecutor came to an end in early 1970, when he was ousted by Richard Nixon. I asked about Ralph Nader’s public claim at the time that Morgenthau was “on the brink of recommending a number of prosecutions on very high levels.” True, Morgenthau said. “I was looking into Nixon’s representation of [Dominican dictator Rafael “El Jefe”] Trujillo. Trujillo had a Swiss bank account set up by Nixon, and I thought Nixon had a Swiss bank account too.” Morgenthau told me that his office was also investigating powerful Nixon supporters, including a major brokerage firm and the chairman of the SEC. “I got a letter from the assistant AG in charge of criminal investigations—who was a crook, subsequently indicted and convicted—directing me to drop that investigation.” He shook his head in disgust. “People forget. I mean, Nixon’s crew—these were a bunch of thieves.”
Morgenthau left, but he was by no means done fighting crime in New York City; in fact, he’d only begun. In 1974 he surprised political observers by agreeing to run for Manhattan DA, following the death of the legendary Frank Hogan. “I had no interest in being a judge,” Morgenthau says, explaining his decision. “I’m an activist. I don’t want to sit on the bench.” Moreover, his wife of 29 years, Martha, had just died, and with five children to care for, he needed a job that didn’t involve travel.
Taking office in 1975, he faced a city in dire distress. New York was bankrupt, and Washington refused to bail it out, prompting the famous Daily News headline: Ford to City: Drop Dead. Indeed, the city seemed to be dying. This was the decaying, graffiti-riddled New York reflected in such films as the Charles Bronson Death Wish movies, which depicted violent mayhem committed by roving predators. In Morgenthau’s first press conference, he vowed to fight the surge in violent crime that was overwhelming the city. But as the Times noted, he faced “a long, uphill struggle” and did so with an office both understaffed and underpaid: the starting salary for his prosecutors was $13,000, and more than once Morgenthau had to dig into his own pocket to help fund an investigation. Things would get worse before they got better. The “Son of Sam” shootings terrorized the populace in 1976 and 1977. A blackout in July 1977 triggered massive looting and violence and added to the image of a hopelessly demoralized city. At one point, a state senator accused Morgenthau of being “lax on pimps.”
I asked Morgenthau: was this the absolute nadir for New York? “Well,” he said, “it was pretty goddamn low.”
Manhattan in 1975 had 648 murders, he recalled with a wince—50 percent more than in Brooklyn. “People were afraid to go out at night. There was a lot of crime, and the thing fed on itself. The streets were empty, and that created more crime.” Coming home late at night, Morgenthau himself adopted a routine precaution. “I wouldn’t walk on the sidewalk. I’d run down the street, so no one could jump out and grab me.” It’s a startling picture: the city’s chief prosecutor, sprinting down his own street for fear of being mugged. Morgenthau would do his best to change things. But first he’d have to weather the crack epidemic of the 1980s. With police making 1,500 drug arrests a month in Manhattan alone, Morgenthau in desperation took to the pages of the Times, writing four op-ed articles on the topic in less than two years, beginning with his February 1988 plea, “We Are Losing the War on Drugs,” bemoaning “the sea of narcotics that inundates us daily” and demanding federal action.
The era of violence culminated in two notorious cases. In December 1984, subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz brought the Death Wish vision of New York to life, pulling out a revolver on the No. 2 express train and shooting four young black men he said were trying to rob him, wounding one of them critically. The shootings ignited a fierce debate that tore the city in half. When Morgenthau decided to pursue major felony charges against Goetz, including attempted murder, he received a flood of hate mail—“more hostility,” the New York Times reported, “than at any other time in his 24 years in public life.” The DA found himself squeezed between those who saw Goetz’s actions in the crime-ridden subway system as justified self-defense and those, including vocal black leaders, who complained bitterly that the shootings legitimized the targeting of black youths. The case dragged on through three rounds of indictments before ending in June 1987 with Goetz’s acquittal on 12 out of 13 charges. Morgenthau made no apologies. “This was a case that had to be tried,” he said at a press conference following the verdict. “The public was entitled.” The trial, he said further, “was fair to the people and fair to Mr. Goetz.”
Barely had New York weathered the Goetz controversy when it found itself confronting the horrifying case of the Central Park Jogger, a 28-year-old investment banker raped and beaten nearly to death one spring night in 1989. The assailants were initially believed to be a group of marauding teens who had beset the park that night in a spree of violence known as “wilding.” Police obtained confessions from five African-American teenagers, and Morgenthau’s office convicted all five. But a judge overturned those convictions in 2002 after a man named Matias Reyes, a convicted rapist and murderer serving a life sentence in an upstate prison, confessed to the crimes. When DNA analysis bore out his claim, Morgenthau recommended that the five convictions be vacated.
The Central Park Jogger case still bothers Morgenthau. He wouldn’t go into detail, because former defendants are currently suing the city, but he notes that while few people initially found Reyes’ claim plausible, he insisted on checking it out. “I said, ‘Let's get the DNA.’ And when that came back, and it matched the DNA from the Central Park Jogger, for my money, the game was over.” Not everyone agreed. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly lashed out against Morgenthau’s office, insisting that Reyes could not have acted alone. Morgenthau disagreed. He quoted to me at length from New York state law to explain the import of newly discovered evidence. The law is the law, he insists. “All the reporters back then were asking me, ‘What’re you gonna do?’ And I said, ‘For Chrissakes, read the statute!’ And except for one reporter, nobody would read it.”
The attack in Central Park entangled the city in a nasty web of violence, racism and fear, a dread-stricken atmosphere that Times columnist Bob Herbert described in a 2002 piece titled “That Terrible Time.” “New York in 1989,” Herbert wrote, looking back on the era, “was a city soaked in the blood of crime victims. Rapists, muggers and other violent criminals seemed to roam the city at will. Gunfire and the horrifying screams of the mortally wounded were common. Someone was murdered every four or five hours.”
Nowadays, such lurid descriptions are hard to believe. Manhattanites live in a clean, safe city, its former war zones transmogrified into glossy tourist sites; a city where high-profile crimes run to accounting frauds, stock schemes, international banking intrigues and other malfeasances of the Wall Street ascendancy. Morgenthau left office having helped reduce Manhattan’s murder total by nearly 90 percent, making it one of the safest places to live in America—safer than Boston, Omaha or Glendale, Ariz., for that matter.
The former DA says he was always reluctant to accept praise for reducing crime. “But I think we did a number of things right,” he adds. “I always said: it’s not the length of the sentence that matters; it’s prompt and certain punishment. And that’s what we concentrated on. Somebody committed a crime, we’d work to promptly arrest him, get him in front of a grand jury, prosecute him and put him in jail.” That made a major difference, he insists. “When I left office, you were twice as likely to be indicted and go to prison if you were arrested in Manhattan than if you were arrested in Brooklyn. We were down to 58 murders—and Brooklyn had almost three times as many.”
Dissertations have been written and academic careers forged in the attempt to explain the steep drop in violent urban crime in the United States over the past two decades—even as law-enforcement agencies and leaders have scrambled to take credit. Is it neighborhood policing? An improved economy? The so-called “broken windows theory,” which proposes that cutting down on minor crimes such as vandalism and panhandling will reduce general lawlessness? The answers remain elusive, nowhere more so than in Manhattan. I put it to Morgenthau: How did you do it? How does anyone manage a turnaround like that? What’s the secret?
He grinned, his ice-blue eyes narrowing a little bit. “Well, we told prospective murderers, ‘It doesn’t pay to commit murders in Manhattan.’ And I think they heard us.”
New York, Morgenthau likes to point out, is one of the most diverse cities on earth. For law enforcement, this can be a challenge—the languages, the crisscrossing turf boundaries, the cultural mélange. New York is also one of the most creative cities on earth, and what will strike anyone who plows through the Times archive is the stupendous array of strange cases Morgenthau’s office handled over the years—crimes that mixed ingenuity, stupidity, cupidity and the just plain weird. Like the Suntan Smuggler, who got a prison employee to sneak a tube of lotion into the Federal House of Detention, the Times of March 18, 1966, reported, in order to help him “attain a healthy, outdoor look” while “lolling on the outdoor recreation solarium” of the prison. There was the Frozen Lasagna Caper, in which detectives discovered a cache of $17,000 in $50 bills, stolen by two warehouse employees, between layers of frozen lasagna. The Mechanic from Hell, who charged $1,000 for replacing a coil. The Green Card Bride, who married 27 times. And then there was the Hell’s Kitchen case of the Check-Cashing Corpse, in which two elderly men were arrested after pushing a dead body, seated in an office chair, into a check-cashing store. Morgenthau chuckled mordantly, remembering it. “They were wheeling this guy right in, and he was dead! He was their buddy, and they were trying to cash his Social Security check. They dressed him up, they were moving his arms, the whole thing.”
Other cases were simply horrific. A dentist who molested women unconscious in his chair. A social worker who convinced a client to withdraw her life savings from a bank and then murdered her. Two men indicted for raping and torturing a nun, cutting 27 crosses into her. I asked Morgenthau: what does dealing with such depravity year-in and year-out do to your view of human nature?
He shrugged off the question: “I always tried not to get emotionally involved in any case. You lose your objectivity.” But he remembered the nun case well, he said. “She actually had been raped before and was in the care of a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist said that under no condition whatsoever would he permit her to testify to a grand jury. So we had to get an indictment with no witnesses. Then we had to negotiate a plea with no witnesses. I think we got 12 years. Pure bluff.” For a moment he seemed lost in thought. “You know, the tabloids were screaming for more. I talked to the Cardinal about it, Cardinal Cooke. He understood. But I got criticized for undue leniency.”
It wasn’t the first time Morgenthau was called lenient. His stance on the death penalty drew particular criticism. New York restored capital punishment in 1995, and publicly Morgenthau refused to rule out seeking the death penalty. Yet he never asked for it in any of his office’s cases, and over time it became clear he was conducting a prosecutorial filibuster on the matter, earning himself the epithet (from Times columnist Joyce Purnick) of “The Artful Dodger.” I asked him about it. Philosophically, he said, he was always opposed to the death penalty. “The only rationale for it was deterrence, and that didn’t work. So really the only thing remaining was vengeance—and vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. I just didn’t think it had any place in a civilized society.” He tapped the table emphatically. “When the death penalty reenactment bill was up, I talked to legislators, and you know what I told them? ‘You ought to amend this bill so that if it’s enacted, it provides for executions on the steps of the Capitol at high noon, with all legislators required to attend.’”
Seeming flustered, he rooted around on his cluttered desktop until something caught his eye. “What the hell is this?” he muttered, holding up a letter. “Idaaaaaa! Find out if I’m supposed to do this, will ya? Call Cuomo’s secretary!” With a satisfied “harrumph,” he tossed it aside. He’d swerved past a moment of introspection and found his mojo again.
For a lifelong prosecutor at the end of his career, there’s something bizarrely Proustian in the time-capsule roll call of names and cases down the decades. Take, for a random example, the swath of notoriety Morgenthau’s investigations cut through the 1980s alone: Claus von Bülow, the John Lennon murder, Joel Steinberg and Hedda Nussbaum, Tawana Brawley, Leona Helmsley, the Tompkins Square melee, John Gotti, Father Ritter and Covenant House… I wondered what it must be like to have Morgenthau’s scrapbook.
Not that the man himself is particularly Proustian about it. I invited him to assess the ups and downs of his long career. What would be his greatest triumphs? The inroads he made into the mob? His bold—and successful—1991 indictment of BCCI, a $20 billion bank with offices around the globe, for what he called “the largest bank fraud in world financial history”? And how about his greatest defeats? Would it be his three-time failure to get a conviction against ex-McCarthy wunderkind Roy Cohn? Or perhaps the Central Park Jogger reversal?
“I don’t believe in looking back,” he said quickly, declining the invitation. “I have no regrets.”
No regrets at all? Not even about not becoming governor? That nearly happened, after all. I reminded him of the newspaper story recounting an incident in the early 1970s, when Morgenthau and another lawyer ran into criminal court judge Irving Lang in the street at lunchtime, and Morgenthau joked to the lawyer, “See what hardworking judges we have here? Irving just bought a piece of fried chicken, and now he’s going right back to the bench.” And Lang laughed and retorted, “Bob, this is a knish, not fried chicken. If you knew that, you would be governor today.
Morgenthau chuckled, clearly enjoying the story. “No regrets,” he said again.
Well, except one, perhaps. “You know that series on TV—the one where the DA was supposedly based on me? I had lunch with the guy. Adam Schiff.” (In fact, that was the character’s name on Law & Order; the actor was Steven Hill.) “He was good. He went over a lot of things with me: How would you do this? How would you respond to that? And so on. I answered his questions. And I said, Adam if you ever decide to retire, let me know, because I want your job. He was reportedly getting $25,000 an episode. But he double-crossed me! They replaced him, and I never got the job!
I had to laugh. When Morgenthau retired as DA, the Times—in the last of the nearly 5,000 articles I looked at—noted that “after decades in public service, he intends to make a salary in the private sector that is more reflective of his stature.” You have to admire someone who decides, at 90, that it’s time to go for the big bucks.
I thought about Law & Order, a favorite show of mine for years, and how aptly it reflected what I’d learned about Morgenthau and his career. It’s all there: prosecutorial bluffs; the thrill of taking on powerful institutions and individuals, even the president of the United States and his cronies; the daily rub of political reality against personal beliefs; the pressure of the gruesome; the glare of publicity; and the relief provided by the mordant witticism. In 2000, Morgenthau indicted the rapper Sean Combs following a nightclub shooting. The day of Combs’ grand jury testimony, a mob of paparazzi gathered outside Manhattan Criminal Court, waiting for Combs and then-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez to arrive. As the Times reported, when a Lincoln town car with tinted windows pulled up, “cameramen and fans pressed forward for a precious brush with fame. But instead of an alluring young actress or stylish rap star who goes by the name Puff Daddy, Robert M. Morgenthau, Manhattan’s 80-year-old district attorney, stepped out. ‘Shoot,’ Mr. Morgenthau said, eyeing the crowd around him. ‘I meant to wear my dark glasses today.’”
I meant to wear my dark glasses. I could hear that line being spoken by the late, great actor Jerry Orbach, whose hard-bitten detective, Lennie Briscoe, typically uttered the sardonic quip that capped the teaser scene of each Law & Order episode. Shot on location in the city, the show was drenched in local color, spiced with tough-guy attitude and repartee and structured atop a recurring conflict that sums up the central paradox of Robert Morgenthau: how to rescue, again and again, an underlying idealism—“the timeless principles of liberalism and compassionate humanitarianism” that Mayor Robert F. Wagner invoked while endorsing Morgenthau for governor in 1962—from beneath the mountain of jadedness that New York dumps on it. How do you maintain illusions with no illusions?
It’s a question that even a nonagenarian may pause over. “We were of that postwar generation,” Morgenthau mused aloud at one point in our conversation. “We thought we could save the world.”
“Well, we didn’t.” He laughed, quietly. “We didn’t.”
Meanwhile, there were always cases to prosecute—millions of them, it turned out—a quick lunch to gobble down (“Idaaaaaa!”) and solace to be found in a prosecutor’s knowledge that while the instruments of avarice and cruelty may change with time, the melody remains the same. At his last press conference as Manhattan DA, Morgenthau forswore any and all valedictory poetry and served up instead a smile and a prosecutor’s parting wisdom: “If a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
Rand Richards Cooper ’80 is working on a book about late-onset fatherhood. This article won a CASE gold award for Best Articles of the Year.