'Morgenthau': The story of New York City royalty - review

In Morgenthau, journalist Andrew Meier draws on exclusive access to family archives to provide a magisterial, informative, engrossing, largely laudatory chronicle of an American dynasty.

 MANHATTAN DISTRICT attorney Robert M. Morgenthau (L) at a press conference in New York, 2009.  (photo credit: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
MANHATTAN DISTRICT attorney Robert M. Morgenthau (L) at a press conference in New York, 2009.
(photo credit: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Members of an elite group of German-American Jews dubbed “Our Crowd,” the Morgenthaus, Mayor Ed Koch declared, were “the closest we’ve got to royalty in New York City.”

In Morgenthau, journalist Andrew Meier, the author of Black Earth: A Journey through Russia after the Fall, draws on exclusive access to family archives to provide a magisterial, informative, engrossing, largely laudatory chronicle of four generations of an American dynasty.

Meier focuses on four Morgenthau men. Lazarus Morgenthau emigrated from Mannheim to New York City with his wife and 11 children in 1866, after making and losing a fortune manufacturing cigars. He died bankrupt. 

As the population of New York City surged, Henry Sr., one of Lazarus’s sons, became a pioneer in the establishment of real estate trusts, making millions of dollars buying land in Harlem and Washington Heights, razing tenements and building apartment houses. Finance chair for Woodrow Wilson’s presidential campaign in 1912, he served as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and publicly denounced Turkey’s massacre of Armenians. 

The owner of Fishkill Farms in Upstate New York, Henry Jr. was appointed US secretary of the Treasury by Franklin Roosevelt, his neighbor and friend. During his 12-year tenure, he helped finance the New Deal and America’s participation in World War II

Downtown Manhattan's skyline is seen in New York City, US, August 21, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/ANDREW KELLY/FILE PHOTO)Downtown Manhattan's skyline is seen in New York City, US, August 21, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/ANDREW KELLY/FILE PHOTO)

Robert Morgenthau, Henry Jr.’s son, served with distinction as a naval officer during the war. As US attorney for the Southern District of New York and nine four-year terms as Manhattan’s DA, more than three and a half million prosecutions bore his name, including high-profile cases involving Mafia dons; Tammany Hall bosses; Republican and Democratic power brokers; the Iranian Alavi Foundation; the Bank of Credit and Commerce International; Bernhard Goetz, “The Subway Vigilante”; the Washington Square Park Riot; and the Central Park Jogger.

The role of religion, ethnicity, Israel and Zionism in the Morgenthaus

Except for Lazarus, an irrepressible dreamer and schemer, Meier portrays his subjects as principled public servants. And he analyzes the roles that their religious and ethnic identities, as well as Zionism and the State of Israel, played in their personal and professional lives.

More interested in an ethical code than religious doctrine, Henry Sr., Meier reveals, joined Rabbi Stephen Wise and several other “Old Crowd” elders in establishing The Free Synagogue, a free and democratic house of worship, open to Jews and non-Jews, rich and poor. Committed to fighting against child labor, religious and racial prejudice, and the evils of “commercialism,” The Free Synagogue opened a branch and a school on the Lower East Side.

Unlike Rabbi Wise, Henry Sr. opposed Zionism. Even if, somehow, Jews prospered in Palestine, he feared they would “become prey to the cupidity of some great power” when the military might annihilate them. On a trip to the Holy Land in 1914, as he surveyed what settlers had accomplished in a few short years, Henry acknowledged it might “be a great thing for the Jews to have a real haven of Tolerance” – only to note that there was little hope of accommodation among Turks, Arabs, Kurds and Jews. 

Despite moments of quietude – the most sacred experience he had ever had were in the Cave of the Patriarchs – the US, not Palestine, remained his Promised Land.

That said, during World War I, ambassador Morgenthau organized shipments of gold to feed and clothe 40,000 Jews in Jerusalem, whose supplies had been cut off by the Central Powers. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels ordered the USS North Carolina to deliver the bullion to remind Germany of the strength of the still-neutral US. 

The first time private American citizens supplied aid to Zionists in Palestine, Meier writes, with some exaggeration, a bridge between wealthy New York German Jews and Palestinian Jews “was born.”

WHEN HENRY Morgenthau Jr. obtained proof of the mass murder of Jews and the US State Department’s suppression of evidence about it, he went outside his portfolio as secretary of the Treasury to lobby president Roosevelt to admit more Jewish refugees to the US. Roosevelt agreed, albeit reluctantly, and on January 22, 1944, created a War Refugee Board to rescue “as many as possible of the persecuted minorities of Europe – racial, religious or political – all civilian victims of enemy savagery.” The Board saved about 200,000 Jews, Meier writes, “a small victory, too little, too late.”

When World War II ended, Henry Jr. became chairman of the United Jewish Appeal. He raised substantial sums of money (and pressed president Harry Truman, who fumed that the secretary of the Treasury “had no business whatever to call me” and soon fired him) to facilitate the transfer of Jews from displaced persons camps in Europe to Palestine. Henry subsequently persuaded the UJA to allow donations to be used to purchase weapons for the Hagana.

In 1948, during a trip to Israel, Meier reveals, Henry visited a newly formed agricultural collective. The settlement, Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion announced, would be named Tal Shahar, Hebrew for “morning dew,” or morgenthau in German.

On the surface, Meier implies, Robert Morgenthau did not seem self-evidently or self-consciously Jewish. A dismal speaker and a dreadful campaigner, he once asked a friend what he was eating. If he knew it was a knish, Judge Irving Lang replied, “you’d be governor.”

But he was, in fact, a lot like his father and grandfather. Robert supervised the construction of Manhattan’s Museum of Jewish Heritage – “A Living Memorial to the Holocaust” and served as its chair for decades. When “it came to protecting Israel,” Meier writes, Morgenthau, who hosted Ariel Sharon at his home and visited Sharon’s in the Negev, “stood with the hardest of the hardliners.” 

Obsessed with the likelihood of a “holocaust” if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, he dreamed that he was working with an Israeli intelligence officer on “something so important we have to abandon everything else.”

Shortly before he died in 2019, 10 days shy of his 100th birthday, Robert Morgenthau acknowledged his apprehensiveness about the war on immigrants and people of color and the rise of white supremacy. More than “divided,” the body politic in the US was “diseased.”

Echoing the sentiments of many Jewish-Americans, who remembered where they came from, this extraordinary public servant, Andrew Meier demonstrates, also sounded like a Morgenthau.   

The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

MORGENTHAUBy Andrew Meier Random House 1,046 pages; $45