With eulogies mixing the eloquent and the homespun, a thousand mourners bid their final farewells Thursday to Robert M. Morgenthau, New York City’s longest-serving district attorney who died last weekend at 99, just 10 days shy of his 100th birthday.
The audience included a sitting U.S. Supreme Court justice, politicians, police officials, prosecutors and a veritable army of lawyers who learned their craft under Morgenthau’s tutelage. They filled the grand setting of Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan to celebrate the storied life and career in public service of the borough’s longtime district attorney.
“Those 99 years were fully and meaningfully lived,” said Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who recalled, fresh out of law school, getting a job as a young assistant in Morgenthau’s office.
Morgenthau served as U.S. attorney for Manhattan under President John F. Kennedy, an old friend, before he was first elected district attorney in 1974. Voters re-elected him repeatedly until he retired in 2009 at the age of 89. Morgenthau told reporters then that surviving a sinking ship while in the Navy taught him a lesson he carried over to his decades as Manhattan’s top prosecutor: Don’t press your luck.
“The Boss,” the nickname Sotomayor said staffers gave Morgenthau, was a man who sought justice through innovation while heading up what became, under his guidance, one of the premier prosecutorial offices in the nation.
Working with Morgenthau allowed Sotomayor, the first Latina justice on the Supreme Court, to hone her legal skills, she said. In less than a year, she was trying cases and, with Morgenthau’s mentoring, she said, became involved in nonprofit work that helped raise her profile.
“Without Bob Morgenthau,” Sotomayor told mourners at the conclusion of her eulogy, “I would not be the justice and person I became.”
After a torpedo sank his ship during World War II, Morgenthau prayed to God while floating in the Mediterranean, and promised to live a life of service to others, said Ronald B. Sobel, senior rabbi emeritus at Temple Emanu-El.
Scion of a family name steeped in public service, Morgenthau was the last member of what Sobel called the “Morgenthau Trilogy,” — his grandfather Henry Morgenthau Sr., former U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and father Henry Morgenthau Jr., former secretary of the Treasury under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Although tough on criminals, whether they operated on the street or in business suites, Morgenthau wouldn’t hesitate to dismiss a case he thought was wrongfully brought, Sotomayor said.
Friends of Morgenthau and some of his seven children from two marriages told stories of his love of the simple life. He often spent time at his farm in East Fishkill, picking apples, selling farm eggs to local restaurants, sailing and giving advice on love and marriage.
So central was the farm to Morgenthau’s life that the Temple Emanu-El bimah, or platform, was decorated Thursday with two large vases containing apple tree branches bearing their fruit. An American flag draped Morgenthau’s coffin, a symbol of his military service.
Morgenthau came from a politically connected family so, as a young man, he found himself in the company of great leaders. One example, attorney Steve Kaufman told the congregation, occurred during World War II when Morgenthau’s trip to the family farm included a visit by Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Young Robert was asked by his father to get Churchill a drink, Kaufman said.
With a flash of inspiration, he took it upon himself to serve Churchill a mint julep. The prime minister took a sip, made a face and asked, “Don’t you have any whiskey?” Kaufman said.
After retiring as a prosecutor, Morgenthau worked for the Manhattan law firm, Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, where he mentored a new crop of lawyers and spent time on the causes of military veterans and immigrants. Morgenthau became progressively ill in the final three weeks of his life, and at one point could no longer speak. It was then, his daughter, Amy Morgenthau, said, that she took a print of his left hand, which she showed to the congregation.
“This shows that left imprint on my heart, all our hearts,” she told the gathering.
At the end of the service, six NYPD pallbearers carried the coffin from the temple ahead of Morgenthau’s widow, the journalist Lucinda Franks, to a waiting hearse.