Book Review | A Family of Ambitious Aristocrats

By | Sep 28, 2022

Morgenthau: Power, Privilege and the Rise of an American Dynasty
By Andrew Meier
Penguin Random House,
1,072 pp. $45.00

The Morgenthaus, the late New York mayor Ed Koch once said, were “the closest thing we’ve got to royalty in New York City.” Jewish-American quasi-royalty? While Koch was no stranger to hyperbole, his judgment, cited by Andrew Meier in his masterful new study of the Morgenthau family, recalls an earlier observation that Jews like the Morgenthaus amounted to a unique American aristocracy. In his 1967 history of the German Jews who came to the United States in the mid-19th century, Our Crowd: The Great Jewish Families of New York, Stephen Birmingham called the Schiffs, Guggenheims, Lehmans and the rest America’s true aristocracy: wealthy and insular, a people apart. While those families were typically active in commerce and finance, the Morgenthaus were the exceptional ones (like the Lehmans) whose achievements went beyond making money to achieving great success in politics and public service. Their stories deserve every page of Meier’s thousand-page serial biography.

His subjects span four generations of Morgenthau men. There is Lazarus, the patriarch, who managed to make and lose a fortune in Germany (the cigars he exported to the United States were done in by Lincoln’s tariffs of 1862). He moved the family to America just as the Civil War was ending and lived out his days, part entrepreneur, part confidence man, in the zone between eccentric and just plain crazy.

Lazarus’s improvidence forced his bright, ambitious son Henry to drop out of the young City College of New York and get a job. The German-born Henry, ten years old when the family arrived in America, worked hard enough to pay his own way through Columbia Law School. From there it was on to a successful law career, from which he became far more successful investing in New York real estate. Having acquired a considerable fortune, he turned to politics and invested early and generously in the presidential campaign of Woodrow Wilson, who made him ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

To relate the Morgenthaus’ stories is to relate a century and a half of New York City and American history.

Henry’s son, Henry Jr., grew up rich in upstate Dutchess County, New York, where, having dropped out of Cornell twice (Meier suggests he may have suffered from a learning disability), he took to farming and made the friendship of his life. Henry Jr. and his wife Elinor (a Lehman on her mother’s side) became best friends with fellow aristocratic Dutchess County Democrats Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Henry Morgenthau Jr. served in FDR’s gubernatorial administration in Albany and in his presidential administration in Washington.

From left: Henry Morgenthau Jr., Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt,  and two unknown men in 1935. (Photo credit: Library of Congress)

Henry Jr.’s son Robert Morgenthau was the New York County (Manhattan) District Attorney from 1975 through 2009. Before his election to that office, he was the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, picked by his childhood friend, John F. Kennedy.

Setting aside Lazarus—whose final business scheme, ultimately busted by the police, was a Manhattan townhouse dressed up as “The Temple of Humanity,” a wedding hall for orphan brides of all faiths for whom Morgenthau solicited ostensible dowries from charitable donors—the Morgenthau men took jobs in government that they interpreted expansively, usually for the better. Each of them, in their turn, confronted choices between acting on a clear sense of right and wrong and accepting the less clear exigencies of political life.

Woodrow Wilson pressed Henry Sr. to accept the post in Turkey in a White House meeting in June 1913. The offer struck Henry as unsatisfactory and even offensive. Washington had sent Jewish ambassadors to Constantinople before (a non-Christian envoy was less problematic in a non-Christian capital) and Morgenthau had wanted something bigger, not a Jewish sinecure. If not Treasury secretary, he hoped to become governor of the new board Wilson promised to create, which was to become the forerunner of the Federal Reserve.

When Wilson told a reluctant Morgenthau that the position was an opportunity to do much for American Jews, Morgenthau replied, “I wouldn’t be going as a Jew. I would be going as an American.” “That the president could see him only as a Jew infuriated him,” Meier writes.

Henry Morgenthau Sr. (Photo credit: Library of Congress)

When Wilson pressed the strictly anti-Zionist Morgenthau further by citing the welfare of the Jews of Palestine, then ruled by the Ottomans, and called it “almost indispensable that I have a Jew at that post,” Morgenthau persisted in his refusal. He went off on a European vacation and sent the president a letter. “Why,” the letter asked, “should Jews be treated any differently than anyone else? …Would Methodists or Baptists be told, here is a ‘Position,’ find one of your faith to fill it?”

Morgenthau ultimately relented at the insistence of his friend Rabbi Stephen Wise, an influential figure in Reform Judaism and, unlike Henry, an ardent Zionist. Wise complained in a letter to Morgenthau that “no Jew has been appointed to a single place of importance”—the flip side of the same argument that had failed to move him when made by Wilson, that Morgenthau should take the job because he was Jewish. Whether he liked it or not, that fact was not irrelevant.

Henry Morgenthau Jr. (Photo credit: Library of Congress)

In the end, Morgenthau went to Turkey, where his service proved historic. During World War I, he famously studied and believed accounts of the mass murder of Armenians, accounts that Ottoman leaders denied and much of the world ignored, and he urged U.S. action. “From harrowing reports of eye witnesses,” he wrote to Secretary of State Robert Lansing in 1915, “it appears that a campaign of race extermination is in progress under a pretext of reprisal against a rebellion.”

As the victims of the Armenian genocide were not American citizens and the United States was still neutral in the war, the State Department concluded it could, or at least should, do nothing. Morgenthau ultimately resigned his post and campaigned for the relief and rescue of the Armenians as a private citizen. His persistence earned him the admiration and gratitude of the Armenian people and foreshadowed the issue that would dog his son Henry Jr. in the Roosevelt Administration.

Robert Morgenthau (Photo credit: Library of Congress)

That son achieved a goal that had eluded his father: For the last 11 years of Roosevelt’s presidency, Henry Jr. was Treasury Secretary, despite having no background in banking, finance or economics. With FDR’s blessing, he took the Treasury into policy realms where no Treasury Secretary had taken it before. With both the State Department and the War Department governed by isolationists in career and political jobs, Treasury organized Lend-Lease, a sleight of hand by which arms sales to France and Britain were treated as loans and, therefore, technically consistent with American neutrality. More significantly, Morgenthau and a group of his staffers pushed FDR to act on behalf of European Jews at a time when refugee quotas for them went unfilled, owing to the State Department’s dubious excuse that they would be used to infiltrate German agents into the United States. They never succeeded in pushing FDR toward a public, robust commitment to saving European Jewry, but Morgenthau’s team did bring the issue some attention and prove that the State Department had actively suppressed reports that the camps were exterminating Jews on an industrial scale.

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Secretary Morgenthau also made it his business to plan for the U.S. occupation of a future defeated
Germany—not self-evidently the job of the Treasury. “The Morgenthau Plan” called for the effective elimination of German heavy industry and the rebirth of Germany as an agrarian state. Secretary of War Henry Stimson and other senior administration officials opposed another punitive peace to end another war with Germany, and in his arguments against Morgenthau’s ideas Stimson appealed more than once for “Christian” values. Morgenthau’s political clout had always depended on his close personal friendship with FDR, whose death spelled the end of Henry Jr.’s life in politics. His idea of Germany’s future was abandoned in favor of a reindustrialized German bulwark against the Soviet Union.

After leaving government, Morgenthau became head of the United Jewish Appeal (a reminder that, as the late rabbi and historian Arthur Hertzberg once told me, “You can run the American Jewish community without having read a single page of Maimonides.”) As Meier writes, Secretary Morgenthau attended his first Passover seder, a communal event for local Jewish servicemen, in Daytona, Florida, in 1945—after rejecting an appeal from members of the community that he leave the resort where he was vacationing because of its restrictive ban on Jews less powerful and famous than himself. His father’s anti-Zionism notwithstanding, the younger Morgenthau became an enthusiastic supporter of Israel.

Treasury Secretary Morgenthau’s son Robert, like his father and grandfather before him, stretched the definition of his public office. As Manhattan district attorney, he championed the prosecution of organized crime (which for decades FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had insisted did not exist) and white-collar crime, which had largely gone uninvestigated. At the end of his career, Morgenthau’s investigations of Iranian money laundering, done with the help of a former Israeli intelligence officer on his staff, reflected his interest in blocking Iran’s nuclear program—a broad interpretation, to put it mildly, of the powers of the Manhattan DA. Morgenthau cared less about murder cases or violent crime, a possible reason that the wrongful convictions in the Central Park Jogger case, convictions later disproved by DNA and the confession of a convicted rapist, were carried out and defended by his subordinates. As for civil liberties, Morgenthau was a stop-and-frisk supporter.

To relate the stories of the Morgenthaus is to relate a century and a half of New York City and American history. This accounts for the book’s length, essential to the breadth that makes it a success.

Innumerable episodes cast light on the larger saga of which the family was a part. There is an account of how Henry Sr., the shrewd 19th-century real estate speculator, prepared a syndicate of investors to pounce when the route of a new subway line was announced: He and his fellow investors promptly bought and flipped the rural outlands of Washington Heights. There is Henry Jr.’s struggle to convert his friendship and weekly lunch with FDR into policies that would help Europe’s Jews and punish its Nazis; Meier includes the transcript of his unpublicized call to Coast Guard headquarters (the Coast Guard reported to Treasury) trying to track and protect the St. Louis, the ship carrying Jewish refugees from Europe that was tragically turned away.

There is a painfully vivid portrayal of Robert’s naval service in World War II: his near-death experience when the destroyer of which he was executive officer, the USS Lansdale, was sunk in the Mediterranean, and his equally harrowing service off Okinawa in the USS Harry F. Bauer. There is the story of how, during Robert’s stint as U.S. Attorney, his investigation of the corporate raider Louis Wolfson led to the forced resignation of Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, a Lyndon Johnson intimate, when Johnson was president.

Writing about Robert Morgenthau’s time at Amherst College, Meier observes about Robert and his brother, “The Morgenthau boys had scarcely been made to feel their Judaism.” The class of 1941, he tells us, numbered 240 students, only five Jews among them. Robert Morgenthau and his father were assured that Alpha Delta Phi was the only fraternity worth joining, which he did, after the fraternity’s powerful alumni had to debate admitting its first Jew—a change to which there was significant opposition.

This seems to be the essence of the Morgenthau family’s Jewishness: It was not to be the cause of any discrimination; it was not a source of cultural identity or spiritual strength; yet it was a community affiliation not to be abandoned. Case in point: Until his death, Robert Morgenthau was a member of the board of Temple Emanu-El, New York’s first and grandest Reform congregation. It is a 19th-century take on Jewishness and assimilation, and a very German one—a recurring theme in the stories of the Morgenthau men, but not the driving rhythm.

Robert Siegel is Moment’s special literary contributor.

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