Robert Morgenthau at a Police Athletic League Play Streets opening. (Courtesy of Robert Morgenthau)
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NEW YORK—At 93 years old, Robert Morgenthau still goes into the office every day. He is currently a counsel for the firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, where his desk is buried under piles of papers. “No plans to retire, sorry,” he said. “I have so many things to do, so much unfinished business.”
The secret to maintaining a clear mind as one gets older is to stay busy, according to Morgenthau.
“I had a friend who retired at the mandatory time at his law firm. I got a call from his wife saying, ‘You gotta find a job for my husband, it doesn’t matter for richer or poorer but just not home for lunch,’” he said.
Morgenthau technically retired in 2009, when he had been the Manhattan district attorney for nine terms. Before that, he was a lieutenant commander during World War II, and the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, which was an appointment by his childhood friend John F. Kennedy. Not to mention the district attorney character from the award-winning television series, Law and Order, is based on Morgenthau.
The stories that have risen from Morgenthau’s life, however, are not worth an autobiography, he says—because he never looks back.
“If you want to stay engaged, you gotta look forward and not say ‘Gee I wish I would have done something differently,’” he said. “I have a policy: I don’t ever look back.”
Morgenthau focuses on giving his all to the future. Besides a full time schedule at the law firm, he also serves as the chairman of the board for the Museum of Jewish Heritage, chairman of the board for the Police Athletics League, special counsel to American Farmland Trust, and contributes insightful op-eds twice a week.
Morgenthau’s main concentration is immigration reform, which he spends his time on working at the law office every day, and sometimes even on weekends.
He is so passionate about immigration, that he brought it up at a forum on farm policy recently—seemingly glad to have a new audience to espouse his immigration ideas to.
Morgenthau’s grandfather, Henry Morgenthau Sr., immigrated to the states at age 10 without knowing English. Yet within six years he was able to get an early acceptance into the City College for the class of 1875.
Although the senior Morgenthau had to drop out after his first year in order to help support his 11 siblings, he still got into Columbia Law School at age 18 while teaching night school for immigrants on the side.
“You got to remember where you came from,” Morgenthau said.
“Not that there were a lot of signs up saying ‘Welcome,’ but the doors were open to immigrants,” he said. “Education and careers were open to immigrants. I think we gotta make sure the present generation of immigrants have the same opportunities that my family had.”
After living in the United States for 45 years, Morgenthau’s grandfather became the U.S. ambassador for the Ottoman Empire under Woodrow Wilson.
“Immigrants have contributed so much to American society,” he said. “We have to remember them and make sure they are treated fairly. I think current laws are highly discriminatory.”
FDR Through the Eyes of a Youth
Morgenthau’s office is decorated with pictures of himself with figures such as Lyndon B. Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Morgenthau’s father served as Roosevelt’s secretary of the Treasury.
He recalled how Roosevelt, an old family friend, liked marble boats. “ He asked my brother and me to make model boats for him.” Morgenthau and his brother would make the model boats and then sail them on the Hudson as Roosevelt watched.
“He was very warm. The fact that he was not as mobile as some people made him more extroverted and open to people,” Morgenthau said.
Morgenthau recalled the brisk day in November 1940, when he came home from college to vote. His father took him to Roosevelt’s home as they waited for the results.
Morgenthau recalled watching the president write his acceptance and rejection letter in his study.
“It was very interesting to watch him work from his study,” he said. “He was a president who wrote his own speeches.”
Roosevelt had always been a personal hero to Morgenthau.
“He had a gift of communicating with people. Even though he came from an upper class family, he could reach out to working people from all levels,” he said. “From him, I learned to reach out to everyone.”
Morgenthau had been on duty at a picket station of a destroyer in Okinawa when he heard of Roosevelt’s death. “It was the first time in my adult life that I cried,” he said. “Early on he understood the dangers Hitler posed to civilized world.”
A Clean Record
On the first day that Morgenthau took office as the district attorney, a Bronx congressman called him to discuss a case involving two Chinese men who were illegally importing shrimp from China. The congressman said these men were his constituents and would like Morgenthau to “kick around the case.”
“He said ‘Your predecessor kicked it around for a year,’” he said.
Morgenthau looked through some files and found that the case indeed had been resigned each time it was prepared to go to the grand jury.
“I decided to put it in the grand jury and get an indictment … within 48 hours,” Morgenthau said. “He called me and said, ‘Couldn’t you have kicked it around for at least 30 days so I could at least collect my fee?’ These weren’t constituents … but bank clients.”
“I’ve never done any improper favors,” Morgenthau said. “Don’t feel limited by any partisan views. … Be your own person.”
Morgenthau, clearly, is not limited by anyone’s views.
After he had been widowed, he fathered two children in his sixties and seventies with his second wife, Pulitzer-winning writer Lucinda Franks.
“I love kids. They keep you young,” he said. “I have more time to spend with them since my schedule now isn’t quiet as demanding as when the older children were very young.”
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