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robert morgenthau 248.88.(Photo by: AP)
Robert Morgenthau, legendary Manhattan DA, is dead at 99
Morgenthau, affectionately known as “Morgy” to tabloid readers, was respected and feared by everyone from mobsters to politicians to white-collar criminals
Robert Morgenthau, the legendary Manhattan district attorney who served from 1975 to 2009, died on Sunday at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, a week short of his 100th birthday.

He died after a short illness, his widow, Lucinda Franks Morgenthau, told the Daily News. Morgenthau, affectionately known as “Morgy” to tabloid readers, was respected and feared by everyone from mobsters to politicians to white-collar criminals, as his office oversaw more than three million cases during his tenure, meting out justice according to his motto, “We prosecute cases without fear or favor.”

His influence extended way beyond New York City, particularly when he became the model for the district attorney character played by Steven Hill on the television show, Law & Order.

Tall and patrician in appearance and demeanor, Morgenthau was born in 1919 to a prominent Ashkenazi Jewish family that had emigrated from Baden, Germany in the 1860s. Mayer Lehman, his maternal great-grandfather, co-founded the investment banking firm, Lehman Brothers. His grandfather, Henry Morgenthau Sr., was the US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and later became an advocate for victims of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. He also raised funds for Jews in Palestine and helped found the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

His father, Henry Morgenthau Jr., was a colleague and friend of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who appointed Morgenthau Jr. to several key positions, including Treasury secretary. He led rescue efforts for Holocaust survivors.

Robert Morgenthau played an important role in founding the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in 1997 in New York and became the museum’s first chairman. In 2003, the museum named a major wing after him. “It’s important for people to understand what happens when criminals take over a government. Our museum stands as a symbol of the power of renewal after catastrophe,” he said in a 2007 interview with Hadassah Magazine.

Morgenthau’s first wife, Martha Pattridge, died in 1972, and he married Lucinda Franks in 1977. Neither of his wives were Jewish, but he said in interviews that he had raised his children, five from his first marriage and two from his second, in the Jewish faith.
Morgenthau prevented two Egon Schiele paintings on loan to Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art in 1998 from being returned to Austria. “That was the first time anyone had challenged in American courts the ownership of art that had been stolen from Jews. It caused a hue and cry because museums said I’d inhibit the show of art. But the result has been that museums have inventoried their collections and now have protocols in place. It’s made a huge difference,” he said.

Morgenthau graduated from Amherst College in 1941, and enlisted in the US Navy. During World War II, he served on destroyers in the Atlantic, Pacific and Mediterranean, and was cited for heroism during the battle of Iwo Jima after the USS Harry F. Bauer, the ship on which he was serving as an executive officer, was attacked by 13 kamikaze pilots, a torpedo and a dive bomber.

After graduating from Yale Law School, he worked in private practice and was appointed as US Attorney for the Southern District of New York by President John F. Kennedy in 1962. Under President Richard M. Nixon, he left this post and briefly pursued a career in politics. In 1974 he was elected as District Attorney of New York County. Morgenthau was not opposed in an election from 1985 to 2005.

His tireless pursuit of white-collar criminals gave him national stature. In the 1990s, he prosecuted the Pakistani and Gulf States-backed Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) very aggressively for its role in a global scandal, which he called, “the largest bank fraud in world financial history,” according to Reuters.

Other high-profile prosecutions carried out on his watch included Mark David Chapman, who assassinated John Lennon; Robert Chambers Jr., the so-called “Preppie killer”; Bernie Goetz, the “Subway Vigilante,” who shot four men on a train; and the controversial Central Park Five case, also known as the Central Park jogger case, in which five teens were convicted of raping and assaulting a woman, which was eventually overturned after DNA evidence was presented implicating another assailant.

In the Hadassah interview, Morgenthau played down his high-profile cases: “I try to think about what I’m doing myself and not about legends... Every case is important to the victim so I don’t like to distinguish. I’m proud of them all.”

Among the many notable assistant district attorneys who served under Morgenthau are Sonia Sotomayor, who was appointed the US Supreme Court in 2009, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Morgenthau left office in 2009, and was succeeded by Cyrus Vance Jr.

He told The Associated Press he was retiring because, “I looked at my birth certificate, and I said, ‘It’s about time.’”
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