Ralph Gardner Jr: Robert Morgenthau

Jul 27, 2019

I don’t remember when I first met Robert Morgenthau, the legendary district attorney who passed away on July 21st, but he would have. His memory remained sharp well into his late nineties.

When I interviewed him in 2017 for a project I’m working on with WAMC about people’s second acts in life – though in Morgenthau’s case it was more like a third or fourth act -- I presented him with a copy of a New York Times story that I found in the newspaper’s online archive. It may have been the first time his name appeared in print.

It certainly wouldn’t be the last. Morgenthau served as Manhattan District attorney for more than thirty-five years, retiring, reluctantly he gave me the strong impression, in 2009 at the rather advanced age of ninety.

The Times story was dated July 26th, 1934 when Morgenthau was a mere fifteen years old, and the headline read “KILLS 200-POUND GRIZZLY; Robert Morgenthau Has Trophy, Of Hunt in Montana.”

The D.A., who I interviewed in his office at Wachtell, Lipton, the law firm he joined after retiring from the D.A.’s office, said he’d never seen the story. However, he did recall every detail of his encounter with the grizzly, including, after pausing for no more than a few seconds, the name of the manager of the ranch where he bagged his trophy.

I was impressed that a city kid, the son of F.D.R’s Treasury Secretary and grandson of a real estate tycoon who became Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during World War I, knew how to shoot a gun.

But Morgenthau quickly disabused me of the notion that he was a city kid. His heart lay as much in the Hudson Valley, and the Fishkill, NY apple farm his father bought in the early years of the 20th century, as it did in Manhattan or Washington’s corridors of power. The D.A. inherited the farm and ran it with his son Josh in recent years.

“Nobody believes me but I got a .22 rifle for my sixth birthday,” he told me, exhibiting a sense of humor that fell somewhere between dry and parched. “I got a 20-gauge shotgun for my 12th birthday. And a Colt revolver for my sixteenth. I was well armed.”

I do remember the first story he pitched me in 2014 when I was writing a daily column for the Wall Street Journal. He was patrician, with the accent to match, but he also possessed an astute appreciation for publicity.

His story idea was about a Brooklyn grocery service that would deliver fresh food from family farms to your fifth-floor walk-up. The service just happened to be led by Josh.

The next time he contacted me was about a high-end hard cider, called Treasury aptly enough, that Fishkill Farms had started producing. I still hadn’t visited the farm at that point; we met, again at his law firm, Morgenthau touting the drink’s quality and taste – my recollection is that he preferred the flat to the fizzy version – from behind his desk and sending me home with several bottles to sample.

His office was filled with photographs of the D.A. with the likes of JFK and Martin Luther King Jr.; he’d previously served as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, was a friend of the Kennedys, and was with Bobby Kennedy at his home in Virginia when the Attorney General got the call from J. Edgar Hoover that his brother had been shot.

But Morgenthau didn’t dwell on the past, which perhaps accounted for his longevity. He always seemed to be looking forward. And his job at Wachtell, Lipton was no sinecure for an elder statesman.

He kept practicing law, vigorously. Indeed, he summoned his long-time assistant Ida Van Lindt to provide me with a letter he’d written to the governor of Alabama trying to secure a death row inmate a hearing to present potentially exonerating new evidence.   

When we had lunch one day I asked him when he headed upstate for the weekend. I’d discovered that one of the perks of being an empty nester is that you were no longer at the mercy at your children’s school schedules.

“Friday afternoon,” he told me.

“And when do you come back to the city?” I inquired.

“Sunday evening.”

What’s the rush, I wanted to know? At 96 or 97 by that point you’d think he’d have earned three-day weekends.

“I’m too busy,” he told me with a straight face.

His second wife, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Lucinda Franks and Josh’s mother, confided that when her husband retired he promised they’d spend more time in the country. He was pulling her leg.

I did eventually make it to Fishkill Farm in 2017 during their “Founders Day.” The festivities included World War II newsreels of the future D.A., then a Navy ensign, serving mint juleps to F.D.R. and Winston Churchill during a 1942 visit to the farm.

Morgenthau remembered the way Churchill grilled him about the Battle of Midway. He didn’t understand why. At the time he was on a weekend pass from a destroyer that was patrolling the south Atlantic.

It was only after the war that Morgenthau realized the importance of Midway to Churchill. He and Roosevelt wanted to shift the nation’s focus away from the Pacific and towards the Atlantic.

“If we’d lost the Battle of Midway we wouldn’t have been able to concentrate on Europe,” Morgenthau explained.

He also said that the prime minister didn’t much like mint juleps. He asked for whisky.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.