Family  /  Book Excerpt

A Brief History of One of the Most Powerful Families in New York City: The Morgenthaus

An excerpt from a new book on the so-called "Jewish Kennedys."


Robert Morgenthau was a scion of one of the great American families. His great-grandparents, Lazarus and Babette Morgenthau, arrived in New York from Germany in 1866, the year after Appomattox. Once wealthy, Lazarus had lost everything; he would live to see his children grow rich again. In America, the Morgenthaus fulfilled a dream, becoming “one-hundred-percent American.” They had helped elect presidents, expose a genocide, and wage war. They had formed a dynasty.

Henry Morgenthau, Robert’s grandfather, born in the Grand Duchy of Baden in 1856, was among the first in the Democratic Party to back Woodrow Wilson for president. Henry Jr., Robert’s father, born on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1891, was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s longest-serving aide, a confidant of three decades—one of the first to see FDR unable to walk, and among the last to see him alive. And the DA, who raced sailboats with the Kennedys as a boy on Cape Cod, was at Bobby Kennedy’s side on November 22, 1963.

No prosecutor in U.S. history had served longer, and none had had a more profound influence on law enforcement.The Morgenthaus belonged to that tribe of would-be patricians, the German Jews: “Our Crowd.” The words could make the DA wince, but his Aunt Hattie, a Lehman, coined the phrase, and his family was one of the aristocracy’s exemplars: New Yorkers who for centuries somehow managed to rise above every barrier—neither German nor Jew. Robert Morgenthau was a lifelong member of Our Crowd and, since his first term as DA, a trustee of Temple Emanu-El, the granite cathedral on Fifth Avenue built to rival St. Patrick’s, fourteen blocks to the south. His “blood,” as his future wife would reassure her Protestant grandmother, ran “as blue as yours.” The Morgenthaus were called the Jewish Kennedys, and remained, as the former mayor Ed Koch remarked, “the closest we’ve got to royalty in New York City.”

The DA relished the lineage. At six, he met Calvin Coolidge in the White House—and had met every president since. The family history also traced many of the century’s decisive turns: the sea-swell of immigration to America, the Armenian genocide, the New Deal, the Holocaust, and the rise, and fall, of organized crime in New York City. Even before the advent of world war, the rise of dictators in Europe, and the appearance of the word “genocide,” Morgenthaus had lent their power and privilege to lonely causes. They did not always succeed. But whether out of a foolhardy belief in their own authority, or merely to avoid the guilt of inaction, they seldom recoiled from a fight. Even more rarely did they give ground.