Robert Morgenthau was born beneath the long shadow of his family.
His father, Henry Morgenthau Jr., was treasury secretary under both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman — and is considered one of the architects of Roosevelt’s Great Depression-fighting New Deal (as well as the only Jew to be next in line for President of the United States). His grandfather was an ambassador under Woodrow Wilson in what would later become Turkey.
The much younger Morgenthau, however, insisted on making his own mark, ultimately earning election as Manhattan’s district attorney in 1975, and not giving up that office until he turned 90.
Along the way, he was connected to some of the biggest historical names of the 20th century — as well as a few of its most controversial moments — much of it while maintaining a home in Riverdale.
Morgenthau’s story found its end July 21 when he passed away at Lenox Hill Hospital. He was 99 — and just 10 days shy of his 100th birthday.
His passing earned remarks from some of the highest reaches of state and federal government, including one U.S. Supreme Court justice who spent five years under him in the DA’s office. Sonia Sotomayor, a proud Bronx native, talked not of his life in New York City, but instead on how one night in 1944 forever changed him.
“In World War II, Robert M. Morgenthau saved lives,” the associate justice said, in a statement. “After Nazi torpedoes had sunk his ship, he swam — without a life jacket — for hours with his shipmates until an American battleship spotted them.
“As he floated in the icy Mediterranean, he made a promise to ‘The Almighty.’ He promised that, if he were saved, he would ‘Try to do something useful with my life.’”
He kept that promise, Sotomayor said.
“Few people devoted themselves so completely and honorably to public service as Bob Morgenthau did,” said the justice, who first joined the DA’s office in 1979. “Equally important, he mentored and guided so many, including me, to follow his example. The country and the world have lost a shining light in our constellation of good and decent people.
The Manhattan district attorney is a local office, but Morgenthau turned it into one that earned attention nationwide. From the good — bringing down mob bosses and corrupt city officials — to some cases he wished he could take back, like the conviction of the “Central Park Five” in the 1989 rape case that made headlines from coast to coast.
He even served as the inspiration for New York district attorney Adam Schiff, a character played by actor Steven Hill, in the first 10 years of the hit NBC television series “Law & Order.”
But getting to the DA’s office wasn’t a straight path for Morgenthau. He was an early supporter of then Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy, earning appointment as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York soon after Kennedy moved into the White House.
Morgenthau used that office, however, as a springboard into the 1962 gubernatorial race, challenging Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. Morgenthau lost convincingly, and Kennedy re-appointed him to his old U.S. Attorney role.
Morgenthau remained there until after Richard Nixon was elected president in 1969. He would take one more stab at governor — this time not making it out of the primary — before the death of Manhattan district attorney Frank Hogan opened up that seat for the first time in more than three decades.
Morgenthau won the seat and never looked back.
Sotomayor would not be the only soon-to-be famous name to work in Morgenthau’s office.
He also mentored two future governors — Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo — as well two Kennedys, John Jr. and Robert Jr.
“What an extraordinary man,” Cuomo told WAMC’s Alan Chartock, according to a transcript provided by the governor’s office. “In this day, where politics is demeaned and political officials people say are not of the same caliber that they used to be, this man is a man for the history books.”
Cuomo later ordered all flags in the state to fly at half-staff beginning July 24, calling Morgenthau the “gold standard of prosecutors and the model public servant.”
Morgenthau was serious about the law, but he was just as serious about his faith. Although both his wives — the late Martha Pattridge and Lucinda Franks — are Christian, Morgenthau raised all seven of his children in the Jewish faith.
He was a member of the New York Holocaust Memorial Commission in the 1970s with Gov. Mario Cuomo and Mayor Ed Koch that eventually led to the construction of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City.
Morgenthau also led the charge to rescue works of art that had been stolen from Jews leading up to World War II by blocking a pair of Egon Schiele paintings from returning to Austria after they were displayed as part of a late 1990s Museum of Modern Art exhibit.
Besides his wife of 42 years, Morgenthau is survived by two sons — Robert Pattridge Morgenthau and Joshua Morgenthau — and five daughters: Joan Wadsworth, Anne Grand, Elinor Morgenthau, Barbara Lee and Amy Morgenthau.