“Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf said Robert Morgenthau was “the greatest district attorney in the history of New York.” And he should know, he modeled his DAs after the man.
Robert Morris Morgenthau, born July 31, 1919, passed away on Sunday, July 21, 2019, served as the District Attorney for New York County, the borough of Manhattan, from 1975 until his retirement in 2009, having previously served as United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York in the 1960s (he was appointed by JFK).
Morgenthau was the scion of a prominent Ashkenazi Jewish family that had emigrated from Baden, Germany, in 1866. His father, Henry Morgenthau Jr., was the longest-serving Treasury Secretary of the FDR administration, which, for its part, was the longest-serving administration. Henry Morgenthau is credited with the success of the New Deal.
So, in summation, a lot of longevity and a lot of service in that family. Their home stood near the Roosevelt Springwood Estate in Hyde Park, New York, and little Robert was on a first-name basis with the president.
When Nixon came to power, Robert Morgenthau, who had served as US Attorney since 1961, refused to vacate his office, claiming Nixon was trying to get rid of him in order to terminate his investigations that might embarrass the incoming president. Both liberal Republican senators from New York (the species has gone extinct since) supported Morgenthau, but Nixon won out.
Little did anyone know that the very well-connected high-Ashkenazi lawyer still had the bulk of his stellar career ahead of him. In 1974 he was elected District Attorney of New York County in a special election following by the death of Frank Hogan, who had served as DA for more than 30 years. Morgenthau beat Hogan’s interim replacement and was elected to a full term in 1977. He was re-elected seven times, and ran unopposed from 1985 to 2005.
Then, in 2005, Morgenthau, 85 years of age, ran against a much younger challenge and a vigorous campaigner, former state court judge Leslie Crocker Snyder. Morgenthau won re-election with more than 99% of the vote.
Dick Wolf says the character of District Attorney Adam Schiff (played by Steven Hill) in the long-running TV series Law & Order, was loosely based on Morgenthau. Morgenthau was an avid fan of the series, which expired long before he did.
As befits a rich Ashkenazi New Yorker, Morgenthau was married to two gentile wives, and had children with both. Naturally, they raised the children Jewish. He died at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan on July 21, 2019, ten days before his 100th birthday.