The House of Morgenthau

   January 2023

The House of Morgenthau


On Morgenthau: Power, Privilege, and the Rise of an American Dynasty, by Andrew Meier.

Afamily sagas go, the tale of the high-flying Morgenthaus is hard to top. How many American clans can boast an ambassador in one generation, a Treasury secretary in the next, and, in the third, a legendary prosecutor of four decades’ tenure? Their story, as Andrew Meier tells it in Morgenthau: Power, Privilege, and the Rise of an American Dynasty, offers a rarefied vista of a century’s worth of U.S. history, with family members rubbing shoulders with Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and the Kennedys. Meier toiled for twelve years to make his thousand-page epic definitive, interviewing all the surviving characters and digesting countless pages of the letters and journals of these compulsive diarists dating back to 1842. At its best, the narrative is fast-paced and utterly absorbing. But too often the focus blurs, the narrative line tangles, punch lines don’t track, and the authorial judgment is merely conventional, its shopworn Democratic Party assumptions unexamined. The tale is great—but greater than the teller.

So let me summarize it for you.

A failure in Germany set the family’s American success story going. Ensconced in his Mannheim mansion, the self-made cigar magnate Lazarus Morgenthau viewed with dismay President Abraham Lincoln’s push for tariffs to protect U.S. tobacco growers, effectively closing the market Morgenthau’s costly stogies had won in California. One last giant shipment scheduled to beat the new levy landed a day late in 1862, turning an expected profit into a crushing loss. Nearly broke, Lazarus and his young family sailed for New York in 1866.

As one after another of his entrepreneurial schemes flopped in Gotham, Lazarus grew more grandiose and less sane, triggering a separation from his long-suffering wife and spells in an asylum. But while he floundered, his ten-year-old son Heinrich, now Henry, began to push upward, mastering English, shining in school, and starting New York’s City College at fourteen in 1870 before having to quit to help support his big family.

He scrambled as an errand boy, a bookkeeper, and a law-firm gofer, improving his mind with library books, his muscles with weight lifting, and his character with Ben Franklin’s Autobiography and a weekly relay of trendy Protestant preachers, all in the same self-help vein as his own “avant-garde Judaism.” He became a model self-made American, whose credo was “Be your own engineer,” forging your own fate. By 1874, clerking for a top lawyer and teaching English at an immigrant night-school, he could afford tuition at Columbia Law, graduating in 1877 and opening a law firm two years later. In 1883, this embodiment of self-reliance married a rich clothier’s daughter he’d met at an “Emersonian evening,” as a group of friends called their philosophical soirées—as much a career move as an affair of the heart.

Henry made his first real-estate investment even before his marriage, pocketing a quick profit in 1880 that set his course. He saw that Gilded Age New York, so charged with opportunity that any industrious man “can rise to as high a position as he chooses,” was expanding unstoppably into undeveloped areas. Seizing the moment, he bought a Harlem square block in 1887 and, four years later, four square blocks of Washington Heights for $1 million with a group of partners—land auctioned off two months later for a half-million-dollar profit in what the press dubbed “the great Morgenthau sale.”

This was a moment when a thousand hard-working immigrants a week were pouring into Gotham, all needing housing. Subway construction was supercharging the city’s outward expansion, and the steel frame and electric safety elevator were propelling it upward. Henry quit his law firm and founded the Central Realty, Bond & Trust Company, whose stock price doubled within three months of its listing in 1899. By 1904, having spanned Manhattan and covered the Bronx with elevator apartment buildings, Henry, at forty-eight, was one of New York’s biggest taxpayers and a member of half a dozen corporate boards, including Thomas Edison’s. Now rich enough to attend to status and meaning, he bought his way onto the Metropolitan Opera board and was the founding president of the new Free Synagogue, which preached a truly avant-garde Judaism in “progressive” sermons and lectures by the muckraker Jacob Riis and the settlement-house founder Lillian Wald.

That mix of progressivism and Judaism made the Free Synagogue an ideal venue for New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson, the speaker at a gala dinner in April 1911. With Henry presiding, Wilson emphasized his radical “progressivism,” as he called his top-down statism, stressing the moral obligations of businessmen to serve the common good, under government regulation and the threat of being shut down—or jailed. In December, now campaigning for the presidency and mindful of the new electoral power of America’s ethnic and religious minorities, to whom he was one of the first candidates to make a direct identity-politics appeal, Wilson accentuated the Judaism. Addressing some 3,300 leaders of New York’s seven hundred thousand Jews on “The Rights of the Jews,” he electrified his hearers by asserting his shared identity with them as citizens “who have become part of the very stuff of America” and by praising the Jewish “men of genius in every walk of our varied life” who have played “a particularly conspicuous part in building up [our] prosperity.” If you wonder why Jews have been Democrats for more than a century, here’s one reason.

Smitten, Henry offered Wilson a huge contribution and became his campaign finance chief. When the long-shot candidate won, Henry expected a cabinet seat—as Treasury secretary, he hoped—and he bridled at the lesser offer of the ambassadorship to Constantinople, considered a Jewish post out of respect for Ottoman anti-Christian bigotry. He accepted grudgingly and arrived in late 1913, in time to watch the unfolding of a tragedy within a tragedy.

Steaming across the Ionian Sea to meet him in August 1914, his second daughter and her family—including his two-year-old granddaughter, the future historian Barbara Tuchman—had passed a skirmish between British and German naval vessels, exchanging the first salvoes of those guns of August that marked the opening of World War I. In late October, when Turkey joined the war on the German side and the allied ambassadors decamped, Henry, representing neutral America, was left in charge of the affairs of the European nations.

In that capacity, he delivered a scathing note in May 1915 from Britain, France, and Russia to the grand vizier, condemning Turkey’s “crimes against humanity” in its ongoing massacres of its Armenian subjects. A month earlier, having heard rumors of intensifying outrages, Henry had questioned Talaat Pasha, one of the Young Turk trio that really ruled the country, over after-dinner cigars at the embassy. Talaat purred that the Armenians were merely being moved—on the very night that the massacres began. But as ever-more-graphic reports of torture, starvation, rape, and murder of people tied together and shot, burned, or drowned came to Henry, he grasped that “a campaign of race extermination is in progress under a pretext of reprisal against rebellion,” the Muslim Turks only half believing that the talented and long-oppressed Christian Armenians were rising against them in the war.

From afar, Henry had organized an American committee to rescue the Armenians and resettle them in the Western states, ultimately raising $10 million, and he made the genocide front-page news. But as Theodore Roosevelt wrote, the mass meetings and newspaper headlines were “sentimental but ineffective”; only military force would work. Henry knew this was true and that neutral America would not intervene. Nor would Turkey let the Armenians go. Of the perhaps 1.5 million Armenians who lived in the Ottoman Empire, more than half—and perhaps many more—were slaughtered. Dispirited, Henry came home in early 1916 and resigned soon after.

Though the ambassador’s son ultimately won the Treasury post his father had once coveted—and held it for twelve years—Henry Morgenthau Jr. had none of his father’s Emersonian self-sufficiency. He always seemed to anchor himself to someone else, as if otherwise he’d be adrift in his own life. Meier thinks he suffered from dyslexia before that condition had a name. Certainly that would explain why he floundered at prep school and, though he enrolled at Cornell twice, was a college as well as a high-school dropout. In his youth, he anxiously hung on the approval of his loving but hard-to-please father. As an adult, he was Dr. Watson to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Sherlock Holmes.

Machiavelli counsels us to prepare dikes and ditches to direct fortune’s streams should they flood upon us, but more often—like Henry Jr.—we are the playthings, not the masters, of chance. Yet luck favored Henry. To recuperate from an illness, his father sent him to a friend’s vast Texas ranch, where the twenty-year-old Jew from West Eighty-first Street fell in love with . . . farming. Accordingly, this child of privilege set off on a ten-thousand-mile cross-country odyssey to study farm methods and conditions, with an assistant to the secretary of agriculture for a guide. This was his real education.

At twenty-two, with money from his father, he bought a thousand-acre Hudson Valley farm and began planting orchards. A neighboring gentleman-farmer soon became, as Henry said, his “best friend.”

That was Franklin Roosevelt. What was chance for Henry was calculation on FDR’s part. The assistant secretary of the Navy, nearly nine years the young man’s senior, well knew Henry’s father as a lavish Democratic donor, and he immediately began wondering what use he could make of the son, a new recruit to the thin ranks of Dutchess County Democrats. Run him for sheriff? Make him a county committeeman? FDR was a tireless political operator, his Hyde Park house always bustling with cronies, and Henry Jr. became a regular.

So did the bride Henry brought home to the Fishkill farmhouse in 1916—Elinor Fatman, a granddaughter of one of the founding Lehman brothers. The two couples became inseparable—so close that when FDR struggled through his recovery from the polio he contracted in 1921, hidden from the public eye, his Morgenthau neighbors became almost a second family, sharing dinners, birthdays, and holidays. FDR trusted Henry to help carry him up the front stairs of Fishkill Farms, the paralyzed man joking as best he could to dispel the humiliation. Over six years, Roosevelt remade himself, coming out of the ordeal, Henry judged, “a completely new person,” stronger, braver, more compassionate.

Only just recovered, FDR ran for New York governor in 1928, with Henry handling his upstate campaign. Surprised to win, Roosevelt named his friend head of the Agricultural Commission and promoted him, after his 1930 reelection, to conservation commissioner. With the Great Depression weighing heavily, Henry started a work-relief program both figuratively and literally groundbreaking: he bused jobless young men from Gotham to Bear Mountain and paid them to build roads and plant trees—the rough draft of the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps.

FDR began eying the White House almost as soon as he became governor, and, upon his 1932 presidential victory, he named his friend head of the Farm Credit Board. With a swift efficiency the self-doubting Henry didn’t realize he possessed, he reorganized the nation’s credit system for capital-starved farmers. His old closeness with the president remained: the two had a standing Monday lunch, the envy of the cabinet, and FDR used Henry as a back-channel go-between in matters ranging from mistress management to the off-the-record negotiations that led to U.S. recognition of the Soviet Union, over the State Department’s protests. The two Eleanors—Eleanor Roosevelt and Elinor Morgenthau—remained inseparable, too, riding their horses in Rock Creek Park and crisscrossing the country on social-justice tours of schools, prisons, and even mines.

After FDR took America off the gold standard early in his presidency, Henry pressed him to try the crackpot Depression cure of the Cornell agronomist George Warren, who held that Washington could raise battered commodity prices by daily gold purchases that would steadily boost the metal’s price, a confusion of cause and effect. Every morning as the president ate his eggs, Henry and Warren would stand by his bed and set the price of gold with him, picking numbers at random—and once, famously, raising the price by twenty-one cents because FDR thought three times seven a doubly lucky number.

Convinced of Henry’s financial and administrative skill, the president, to his insecure friend’s astonishment, named him Treasury secretary at the end of 1933. He came to that office with two conflicting core beliefs. He swore by the New Deal’s myriad relief programs, yet he also favored a balanced budget and wasn’t sure America could spend its way out of the Depression. One tool he devised to help finance the New Deal was the U.S. Savings Bond, “baby bonds,” which let Washington borrow billions of dollars from ordinary citizens. But later, looking back over the whole New Deal enterprise, he ruefully concluded,

We have tried spending money. We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work. . . . I say after eight years of this Administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started. . . . And an enormous debt to boot.

Tellingly, Meier’s nine hundred pages of text omit this most famous of Henry’s statements.

FDR’s first inaugural address had blamed the Depression on the “money changers”—on capitalists in general—and in that vengeful spirit, Henry gladly used the IRS to punish those who weren’t paying their rightful share of the New Deal’s cost. Less attractively, in his role as FDR’s cat’s-paw, he weaponized the IRS against the president’s political enemies, pursuing Senator Huey Long, an FDR ally turned foe, with the fervor of Inspector Javert, and carrying out Roosevelt’s order to “ ‘get’ Moe Annenberg,” the Philadelphia Inquirer publisher, by sending him to prison for three years. Still nastier was his persecution of Andrew Mellon, a Treasury secretary under three former presidents, whose crime seems to have been being a rich, anti–New Deal Republican and who was posthumously exonerated. But the author Meier sees all this as “a defense of American democracy, against the rising tide of fascism and the attacks on the New Deal as no more than a vehicle for the personal fiat of Roosevelt”—as if these were the same, and as if the New Deal succeeded in curing the Depression any better than Secretary Morgenthau thought it did.

It’s worth noting that the IRS weaponization that Henry started—which continued through the Obama IRS official Lois Lerner’s harassment of conservative think-tanks and now promises to intensify with President Biden’s perhaps eighty-seven thousand new T-Men—suggests that the turning of free Americans into a nation of sheep, with government as their shepherd, could come to pass less benignly than Alexis de Tocqueville imagined. It’s possible to take away unalienable rights, not by forbidding their exercise but by making citizens afraid to assert them—a soft tyranny, but tyranny still.

Iwas the rise of hard fascism in Germany after Hitler became absolute ruler in August 1934 that increasingly gripped Henry’s attention and led to his finest hour. He had never forgotten his tour of the smoking trenches of Gallipoli when his father was ambassador during World War I or his shudder at the militaristic triumphalism he’d seen visiting the German commander’s headquarters there. Nor had FDR ever lost the distaste for “Kaiserism” and “Prussianism” that he’d developed during his six childhood summers in Germany. Contrary to the isolationist mood of the era, both men foresaw, as the president prophetically put it to the Treasury secretary as early as December 1934, that “If the Nazi inhuman policy should be extended to England because her back was to the wall, . . . the U.S. would, of course, go in and help England.”

After the isolationist Congress began passing a series of Neutrality Acts in 1935, forbidding the export of war matériel to belligerents, Roosevelt charged Henry with figuring out how to circumvent the statutes and the “appeasers” in the State Department to arm Britain and France. By the end of 1938, having learned to transship through Canada or label arms as surplus, he was negotiating with the French over the purchase of a thousand planes. When Congress dropped the prohibition against arms sales in 1939 but required payment in cash, Henry drafted the Lend-Lease statute, premised on the fiction that America was loaning near-bankrupt Britain billions of dollars worth of ships and matériel to be returned . . . someday.

Ahe was arming the European allies and retooling the nation’s slump-idled factories for war production—which FDR liked for the economic boost it was giving the country, the actual cure for the Depression—Henry also brooded over the plight of Europe’s Jews, especially after the Kristallnacht pogroms in November 1938 made the Nazi menace undeniable. But those few prominent American Jews who tried to persuade the president to relax the ultra-strict immigration quotas to allow a flood of impoverished refugees into unemployment-ravaged America made no headway. Though the flagship New York Times was receiving correspondents’ dispatches about Hitler’s planned extermination of the Jews from early 1940 on, the paper’s proprietors, fearful of being labeled too Jewish, cravenly printed no story until two crabbed paragraphs on Page Five in June 1942 reported the “greatest mass slaughter in history,” with seven hundred thousand Polish Jews killed by “machine-gun bullets, hand grenades, gas chambers, concentration camps, whipping, torture instruments and starvation.” But then came regular stories on the German “campaign to exterminate all Jews.”

Under Henry’s aegis, four intense young Treasury lawyers pursued a scheme throughout 1943 to save a remnant of European Jewry from Nazi extermination. Meier recounts their electrifying saga so badly as to make it almost incomprehensible, but its gist is this: In August 1942, Gerhart Riegner, a representative of the small but grandly named World Jewish Congress, asked American and British diplomats in Geneva to pass on to Washington information he had received from a top German industrialist about Hitler’s plan, fleshed out at the Wannsee Conference at the start of the year, for the “Final Solution to the Jewish question,” and indicating that Europe’s Jews were already being transported to Poland for mass slaughter. That part of the message got through, via the British, and by December, the broadcaster Edward R. Murrow told his radio listeners of Jews “being gathered up with ruthless efficiency and murdered . . . in extermination camps.”

But Riegner had a further message: that he could save the remaining Jews of Romania and France and thousands of Jewish kids elsewhere in Europe by paying bribes and ransoms, if only he could get the funds. The Treasury lawyers labored to set up the necessary machinery but found themselves stymied. After much sleuthing, they discovered that anti-Semites in the State Department were purposely stonewalling them, with the assistant secretary of state Breckenridge Long falsifying cables and lying to Congress. Secretary Morgenthau finally confronted Long and got FDR’s permission to act—but not until January 1944, when there were only two hundred thousand saved, compared to the more than six million who perished. Even less successful were the efforts of one of the young Treasury lawyers to get the Pentagon to bomb five key rail lines to halt the transport of Jews from Hungary to the Auschwitz death camp. That would divert resources from decisive operations, replied the assistant secretary of war John McCloy.

As the war ground toward an end, Henry began planning for the new world order. In July 1944, he hosted the Bretton Woods Conference to help shape the post-war economy. It hammered out a new gold-based exchange-rate system, anchored to the dollar, and it created the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. As Henry was the Treasury secretary, the reader might expect a few pages of economic analysis, especially given the dramatic policy clash between John Maynard Keynes, the head of the British delegation, and the assistant U.S. Treasury secretary Harry Dexter White. But Meier trivializes the conflict as a personality confrontation between the anti-Semitic Keynes and the “blunt and brazen” White, the son of Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants, originally named Weit and later notoriously and accurately charged with secretly aiding the Communists.

On the future of Germany, Secretary Morgenthau had sharp and vengeful views that sparked a forceful reaction that ended his career in government. The goal of a peace settlement, he thought, should be to “prevent Germany from imposing devastation and terror on a helpless Europe for the third time in a single century.” It wasn’t just the Nazi leaders who were guilty, though perhaps 2,500 of them should be summarily executed. Beyond that, as FDR once put it, “the whole nation has been engaged in a lawless conspiracy against the decencies of modern civilization,” thanks to the culture of militarism and Prussianism that both he and Henry Morgenthau had found so shocking when young. The task, as Henry saw it, was to change the German character, indeed to transform German culture so as not to “raise another generation of Germans who will want to wage war,” he said. And the way to do that, and also to ensure that Germany lacked the physical means of war-making, was to deindustrialize Germany: to close down its factories and mines, move its machinery to nations whose industries the Nazis had destroyed, and turn Germany into a humbled nation of farmers. “People who lived close to the land tended to be tranquil and peace-loving,” Henry wrote.

Opposition to the Morgenthau Plan was ferocious. Winston Churchill, Henry recalled, “turned loose on me the full flood of his rhetoric, sarcasm and violence,” dismissing the plan as “unnatural, unchristian, and unnecessary.” Secretary of War Henry Stimson deemed the plan “Semitism gone wild for vengeance” and warned that it “would arouse sympathy for Germany all over the world.” The Republican opposition seized on it as an issue, with New York Governor Thomas Dewey saying that it would “terrify the Germans into fanatical resistance” and supercharge their “fighting with the frenzy of despair,” at the cost of still more American lives. In confirmation, the Nazi war criminal Albert Speer later wrote from prison in Germany that “the Morgenthau Plan was made to order for Hitler and the Party.” FDR, exhausted by his final illness, backed away from it, and his successor, Harry Truman, rejected it, quickly maneuvering Henry into resignation in July 1945.

Fittingly, in 1947, Henry opened the final act of his public career by becoming the chairman of the United Jewish Appeal, raising money to help the 1.5 million Holocaust survivors in Europe and funding Zionists, who were settling refugees in Palestine and establishing a Jewish homeland there. As adept a fundraiser as he had proved an administrator, he was also just as realistic about force. When his UJA colleagues squeamishly resisted the pleas of the envoy of the future state, Golda Meyerson (later Golda Meir), for money for weapons, Henry minced no words. “The United Jewish Appeal is here for the purpose of saving the Jewish people,” he said, “and we can’t save the Jewish people unless the Jews in Palestine are able to defend themselves.” He sent Meyerson home with $50 million for arms, twice what she had requested.

With such celebrated forebears bestriding not just the national but also the world stage, it’s no wonder that Secretary Morgenthau’s second son, Robert, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York from 1962 to 1970 and then the Manhattan district attorney from 1975 to 2009, should have thought that his prosecutorial mandate stretched far beyond Gotham’s borders. This expansiveness is both the strength and the weakness of what Meier judges “a career without precedent in the history of American law enforcement.”

Morgy, as Attorney General Robert Kennedy nicknamed him, may have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but he also had steel in his spine and patriot’s blood in his veins. Foreseeing, as his third year at Amherst ended in 1940, that America would enter the war in Europe, he rushed to sign up for a new Navy officer-training program open to college juniors. Commissioned in September 1941, just after his college graduation, he reported to a Boston-based destroyer in time to hear the loudspeakers crackle on December 7 that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. He served as an executive officer on destroyers in three seas, with one craft sunk by a torpedo in the Mediterranean and another speared first by a torpedo in the Pacific and then by an armor-piercing bomb dropped by a kamikaze off Okinawa, neither of which detonated. Morgy won a Bronze and then a Gold Star and left the Navy a lieutenant commander. In his later career, he hired veterans. “The military,” one of his deputies explained, “takes the whine out of you.”

Morgy had known the Kennedys since childhood summer vacations on Cape Cod, and he gladly left the high-powered firm he’d joined after Yale Law to work on John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign for the White House. The new president named him the chief federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, where he oversaw banner-headline investigations, starting with the Italian Connection case, which brought down a giant, Mafia-run heroin-smuggling ring. His anti-Mafia campaign also swept up New York City politicians, with the water commissioner James Marcus and the ex–Tammany chief Carmine De Sapio jailed for kickbacks for steering city contracts to a Mafia-connected construction company.

Following the advice of his father to “make sure you get those thieves on Park Avenue—anybody can get the others,” Morgy trained his sights on white-collar crime. Crooked wheeler-dealers and promoters, he believed, were “as dangerous to society, if not more so, than the guys on the street with a gun or a knife.” Accordingly, he began investigating one of the 1960s’ top corporate raiders, Louis Wolfson. In 1966, he indicted and ultimately convicted Wolfson of selling unregistered stock.

Morgy’s investigators had pricked up their ears when Wolfson’s finance chief snapped during questioning that he didn’t understand why the feds were bothering, since Mr. F. would fix the case. And who was Mr. F.? It took three years and the help of a Life magazine reporter to get a full answer: he was Lyndon Johnson’s crony and fixer, the Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas—who had become Wolfson’s “consultant” for $20,000 a year and had discussed the securities case with Wolfson. Morgy warned Attorney General Ramsey Clark of a looming Life story on the Fortas–Wolfson connection, but it was the new Nixon Justice Department that dug the details out of Morgenthau’s files. Attorney General John Mitchell quietly conveyed them to Chief Justice Earl Warren, and Fortas resigned from the Court a week later.

Perhaps Nixon had gotten wind of Morgy’s investigation into whether and why the president himself had a numbered Swiss bank account—the prosecutor allegedly had the number—but Republican White House pressure on the Democratic U.S. attorney to resign grew too strong to resist, and Morgy left at the start of 1970. He became the drug czar in New York Mayor John V. Lindsay’s administration, but, as Meier reports, he was “distracted—more eager to play muckraker than bury himself in the drug-policy minutiae.” He jumped at the chance to run for Manhattan district attorney in 1974 and won handily.

Looking back on the whole of Morgy’s thirty-four years as DA, as Meier’s account allows us to do, we can see the signal weakness that dilutes the celebrated success. The emphasis on crime in the suites, as opposed to crime in the streets, is just another face of the DA’s distraction from the gritty reality of the ordinary crimes that were exploding in Morgy’s city—and destroying it, more than any white-collar crime could possibly do—in precisely the years of his “unprecedented” tenure.

Meier gives us the grim numbers. Murders, which had totaled 390 in 1960, skyrocketed 60 percent between 1970 and 1980—from 1,117 a year to 1,787—while a million New Yorkers fled the mayhem, disproportionately perpetrated by blacks. A decade later, annual killings hit their high of 2,245, while all crimes of violence averaged 226 instances a day. The DA’s first Page One case, the Washington Square Riot, provides a disturbing window into just what was happening.

On the evening of September 8, 1976, a gang of neighborhood teenagers, mostly white, poured into Greenwich Village’s Washington Square, wielding baseball bats, pipes, and chains. Shouting “Niggers out of the park!” they attacked any black person they met, leaving thirty-five injured and one dead. An ordinary lynching, you’d think. Yes, it was—but with a twist. For many months, the neighbors had been complaining that drug dealers and addicts, mostly black, had taken over the park and turned it into a place threatening to the Villagers accustomed to playing chess, walking their dogs, and taking their kids there. Locals had begged the police to clean up the intimidating disorder, with no effect. So when cops arrested nine local youths for the riot, their parents and neighbors marched on the station house with signs reading curb your junkies and shouting, “Don’t arrest our kids for doing your job!”

When the trial opened in January 1978, the prosecutor conceded that some rioters had participated “for what they thought was the legitimate purpose of driving the dealers out.” After all, the flood of drugs and its attendant disorder, which hadn’t held Morgy’s interest, was supercharging the era’s epidemic of violent crime. Nevertheless, said the judge rightly, as he sentenced the six rioters found guilty to prison, “There can never be justification for vigilantes.” But there can be explanation—in this case, the failure of law enforcement to do its basic job of protecting the social order, just as is happening today. In such a climate, it’s also understandable why, when Bernhard Goetz calmly shot four black teens who tried to mug him on the subway in 1984, New Yorkers acclaimed him as a hero out of Dirty Harry or Death Wish—an ordinary citizen with the guts to defend himself in a failed polity that forbids citizens to protect themselves against criminals that government refuses to lock up. A disgusted Morgy could convince a jury to convict Goetz only of carrying an unlicensed gun.

True, the social scientists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling had not yet been lauded for their now-famed “broken windows” articles, nor had John DiIulio yet argued that jailing the limited number of “superpredators” who committed the lion’s share of violent crime would make cities much safer. But Wilson and Kelling’s central insight—that policing to preserve public order discourages potential criminals from major lawbreaking, because they see that the authorities are vigilant—had been policing’s first principle ever since the 1829 founding of London’s Metropolitan Police. Gotham’s police manuals of the nineteenth and early twentieth century likewise emphasized the point that the function of the NYPD is to prevent crime by keeping order.

Moreover, Morgy’s predecessor as DA, Richard Kuh, had lobbied the state legislature to let cops use “stop and frisk”—the tactic of questioning and searching suspicious-looking characters to see if they were carrying guns or had outstanding warrants, later a key crime-prevention tool. So if Morgenthau had listened to the loud public clamor for safety and turned his intelligence and innovative zeal to new ways of fighting crime in the streets based on existing principles, he might have sparked two decades earlier the law-enforcement revolution that Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Police Commissioner William Bratton accomplished in the 1990s. But first he would have had to realize his error in thinking that jailing street drug-pushers is a waste of resources. Rather, it is at least as important as busting such wholesalers as the Italian Connection.

Instead of dealing creatively with what was under his nose, the DA went looking for cases that would let him to clean out criminals from whole industries in one grand swoop. He zeroed in on the trucking companies that served New York’s garment industry, moving cloth from the cutters to the Chinatown sweatshops where immigrant seamstresses would sew the shaped pieces together, and then bringing the finished goods to wholesalers. A cartel of Mafia firms forced all manufacturers to use their trucks, at inflated rates. So cowed were the victims that none would talk.

Eliot Spitzer, the assistant DA in charge of the case and later New York’s disgraced governor, bought a sweatshop out of bankruptcy with city funds and sent a cop named Ronnie Rivera, posing as its “Jewish Hispanic” owner, to staff and run it. Before long, an enforcer for the Gambinos, one of Gotham’s five Mafia families, showed up to explain the trucking rules—and the harsh penalties for breaking them. Spitzer sent operatives to bug the Gambinos’ office—a film-worthy caper—and the DA had the evidence to indict. The Gambinos’ canny lawyer managed to confuse the “Jewish Hispanic” on the stand so that the case ended in a deal. The Gambinos avoided jail but left the business and partly reimbursed the sweatshop owners for their extortion, to Morgy’s entire satisfaction, since he correctly foresaw that no one would take their place now that law enforcement had targeted the racket. With the Mob Tax ended, trucking competition took off and costs fell, and so did wholesale prices.

Reading Meier’s account of the 1992–93 Bank of Credit and Commerce International case—“the most ambitious and far-reaching investigation of [Morgy’s] career,” says the author—you might agree with the DA’s critics that “at a time of unchecked violent crime, [he] was merely wasting tax dollars.” You might resist the DA’s claim that his “jurisdiction is set by any dollar that crosses any bank in New York County” and wonder why he sent investigators to Pakistan, Abu Dhabi, and Saudi Arabia to scrutinize a bank with branches in seventy-three countries, a big presence in Washington, and only three offices in Manhattan. You might join critics in thinking that the case was “a global labyrinth of financial legerdemain so complex—of double- and triple-dealing—no judge or jury could ever make sense of it.”

Certainly a Manhattan jury couldn’t. They heard that the Pakistani-owned bank was a giant corrupt enterprise, a money-laundering operation for Colombian drug cartels, tyrants, terrorists, even the CIA. They heard of bribes to bank regulators and finance ministers across the globe. They heard of fraud in concealing BCCI’s illegal ownership of Washington’s big First American Bankshares and of charges that First American’s chairman, the Washington grandee Clark Clifford—a former secretary of defense, presidential advisor, and superlawyer—and his young law partner, Robert Altman, had facilitated the fraud and made millions off First American over fourteen years. Yet, after all this drama, the jurors acquitted. And readers might find Meier’s account as baffling as jurors found the case.

Finally, as fear of seemingly unchecked violent crime sharpened, a savage rape and near-murder that embodied Gotham’s worst nightmare filled the headlines, riveted New Yorkers, and led to a spectacular error that has shadowed not just the DA’s reputation, but that of the city’s entire law-enforcement establishment ever since. At 1:30 on the morning of April 20, 1989, a cop came upon a nearly naked twenty-eight-year-old woman, bound, gagged, and battered, smeared with mud and blood, writhing in a wet hollow in Central Park. With a fractured skull, a temperature of eighty, and three-quarters of her blood drained out, she had lain there near death for some time. A Wall Streeter named Trisha Meili, she became known as the Central Park Jogger. She later made a miraculous, though not a full, recovery.

Between 9 and 10 on the night of the assault, at least seven other people were attacked in the same part of the park by a gang of minority teens, with two victims knocked unconscious. Cops had started rounding up the gang by 10:30, and at dawn on April 20 they began questioning the five main suspects. With the video recorder running early the next morning, the boys, aged from fourteen to sixteen, began confessing that they’d gone “wilding” in the park. They’d robbed and beaten up people, and each claimed to have been an accomplice in the rape, though none admitted to being the rapist.

The newspapers also went wild about the “wolf pack”: “RAPE SUSPECT; ‘IT WAS FUN,’  ” said the Post; it was “like something out of A Clockwork Orange.” The Times countered that it was a “Lord of the Flies rape.” The trials, in two batches in the last six months of 1990, were tabloid material, too, with a prosecutor recounting how the boys, after their arrest, were whistling, screaming, and laughing raucously at the police station, “as though a party was going on.” The accused themselves admitted to kicking, beating, and having sex with the jogger. Jurors convicted all five defendants of the other park attacks, four of them of raping the jogger, and one of sexual assault. All five went to prison. “Justice has been done,” the DA pronounced.

Except that the prosecutors’ timeline of the night’s events out didn’t quite add up, and the semen found in the jogger and on her clothes didn’t match any of the defendants’ DNA. Toward the end of 2001—eleven years after the trial—one of the five got transferred to Auburn State Prison. The sight of him shocked a longtime inmate, Matias Reyes, who told a guard that, while he knew that the recent arrival had been convicted of raping the Central Park Jogger, that man didn’t do it: “That was me.” Indeed, it was. Reyes, the notorious East Side Slasher, had pled guilty to assaulting five women a few weeks after the jogger rape in a psychopathic spree of beating, stabbing, rape, and one murder, all near where the jogger had been attacked. As the DA’s investigators probed Reyes’s claim, they found that he had even committed a sexual assault two days before raping the jogger, with telling similarities between the two crimes. In the earlier attack, for which no one had been arrested, he had lost a cap at the crime scene that the cops still had—with strands of his hair, with his DNA, still on it.

Had jurors known of the earlier incident, the DA concluded, they would not have convicted. So he did not oppose the motion of lawyers for the so-called Central Park Five to set aside their convictions, which the judge agreed to do in December 2002. Still, in light of their confessions, their courtroom testimony, and their clear guilt in the other assaults, not to mention the damage to the reputations of the assistant DAs in the case and the cops connected to the earlier, unsolved assault, many close to the case still wonder if any or all of the five had somehow interfered with and harmed the jogger, either before, during, or after Reyes’s rape of Trisha Meili.

This denouement left a bad odor in the DA’s office, made only more noxious by Morgy’s choice of a successor when he decided to retire, at eighty-nine, in 2009. Instead of endorsing his widely respected deputy, he gave the nod to the outsider Cyrus Vance Jr., partly for the good old Morgenthau reason, said Morgy, that he knew Vance’s famous father, the former secretary of state. In the event, Vance proved a poor choice, one of those permissive DAs unwilling to enforce the law, especially against political rioters. Today, with Alvin Bragg in charge, it’s hard to imagine that the Manhattan DA’s office ever seemed august, as it did when Morgy was in charge.

These Morgenthaus were indeed powerful, privileged men—all that Meier’s title claims. But greatness is quite another thing.

  1.   Morgenthau: Power, Privilege, and the Rise of an American Dynasty, by Andrew Meier; Random House, 1,072 pages, $45.


This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 5, on page 25
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