At the age of 99, attending professional functions, birthday parties and showing up at his Manhattan law office regularly for work, Robert Morgenthau was a man who seemed like he would go on forever.
“That is why his passing feels a bit shocking,” said Police Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch on Monday.
The city’s longest serving district attorney until he retired in 2009, Morgenthau died Sunday at Lenox Hill Hospital, just 10 days shy of his 100th birthday, his family said. Morgenthau’s passing brought down the curtain on a decadeslong career in law enforcement not likely not to be matched any time soon.
A public funeral service is planned for 11 a.m. Thursday at Temple Emanu-El at 1 E. 65th St. in Manhattan. A visitation is scheduled for Wednesday night from 5 to 7 p.m. at Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel, 1076 Madison Ave.
A tall, gangly man in his youth, Morgenthau seemed shy and awkward as a public speaker and campaigner, twice running failed campaigns for governor. But his real power was felt in court houses and government offices where Morgenthau, scion of a family name etched in the nation’s history, wasn’t shy about using his legacy and prestige to get what he wanted.
“Part of it was determination, part of it was legacy,” said former Gov. Eliot Spitzer who worked as an assistant attorney under Morgenthau in the 1980s and ‘90s. “The name Morgenthau, it was up there with Roosevelt.”
Son of Henry Morgenthau Jr., secretary of the treasury under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and grandson of Henry Morgenthau Sr., ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during World War I, Robert Morgenthau carved out his own career in public service after leaving the Navy in 1945.
In 1961 he became U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, serving in that capacity until 1970. Today, Morgenthau’s portrait hangs in the federal prosecutor’s office in lower Manhattan.
“Every day as I enter my office I pass a portrait of Mr. Morgenthau and I am inspired by his lifelong dedication to public service and the law,” said current U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman in a statement Monday.
In 1975, Morgenthau became Manhattan district attorney after he was elected to fill a vacancy. He was elected to the post for his first full term in 1977, inheriting an office which reportedly was poorly organized. But at the helm, Morgenthau quickly started to change things, handling not only the usual caseload of violent crimes but encouraging the office to take on organized crime cases, money laundering and complex frauds.
“He loved it,” said former prosecutor John Moscow, now at the law firm Lewis Baach Kaufmann Middlemiss.
Morgenthau’s aggressive posture sometimes put him in conflict with federal prosecutors. In the early 1990s, according to mob historian Selwyn Rabb in his book “The Five Families,” Morgenthau and then-Southern District U.S. Attorney Otto Obermaier lost out in a battle over who would prosecute Gambino crime boss John Gotti. Brooklyn federal prosecutors won that fight.
That didn’t stop Morgenthau from protecting his interests, said his former top assistant Michael Cherkasky.
“He was not afraid of anybody or anything,” said Cherkasky on Monday. “He made you understand that if he thought he was right, nothing would change his position.”
Part of Morgenthau’s strength was that he didn’t sit back to wait for things to happen, said acting Queens District Attorney John Ryan.
“He knew how to work the telephone when he wanted something done,” said Ryan. “He would call people on the telephone to get things done.”
About a year ago, remembered Berman in an interview, he and Morgenthau attended a meeting where the Armenian Lawyers Association gave Morgenthau an award. The Morgenthau family was revered, because his grandfather was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and raised his voice against the Armenian genocide.
Morgenthau spoke to group for 10 minutes without notes. Berman said, adding “It was beautiful.”