Mor­gen­thau: Pow­er, Priv­i­lege, and the Rise of an Amer­i­can Dynasty

  • Review
By – September 26, 2023

The WASPs have the Adamses, the Irish have the Kennedys, and the Jews have the Mor­gen­thaus (“morn­ing dew” in Ger­man). New York City may­or Ed Koch not­ed that this fam­i­ly was the clos­est we’ve got to roy­al­ty in New York City.” 

Andrew Meier has writ­ten an extreme­ly read­able his­to­ry of four gen­er­a­tions of Mor­gen­thaus. Lazarus Mor­gen­thau arrived in New York from Ger­many with his wife and chil­dren in 1866. His son Hen­ry (orig­i­nal­ly Hein­rich), who made a for­tune in New York City real estate, was a major finan­cial backer of Woodrow Wilson’s 1912 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign and served as the Amer­i­can ambas­sador to the Ottoman Empire. His grand­son, Hen­ry Jr., was Sec­re­tary of the Trea­sury from Jan­u­ary 1934 to July 1945; and his great-grand­son, Robert M., was a World War II war hero, the Unit­ed States Attor­ney for the South­ern Dis­trict of New York from 1962 to 1970, and the Dis­trict Attor­ney of New York Coun­ty (Man­hat­tan) from 1975 to 2009.

The Mor­gen­thaus were part of Our Crowd,” a tight­ly knit group of wealthy Ger­man Jew­ish fam­i­lies in New York City. The family’s rel­a­tives by mar­riage includ­ed Lehmans and Wertheims, and one of Henry’s grand­daugh­ters was the promi­nent his­to­ri­an Bar­bara Wertheim Tuch­man. Hen­ry was close to Adolph Ochs, the pub­lish­er of the New York Times and one of the most impor­tant mem­bers of the Ger­man Jew­ish elite.

The sec­tion about Robert is the longest in the book and, arguably, the most inter­est­ing. He locked horns with many of the city’s most noto­ri­ous mis­cre­ants, includ­ing gang­sters Joseph Joe Bananas” Bon­nano, Joe Gam­bi­no, John Got­ti, and Tom­my Luc­ch­ese, as well as polit­i­cal king­mak­er Carmine De Sapio, lawyer Roy M. Cohn, Supreme Court jus­tice Abe For­t­as, and real estate mag­nate Don­ald J. Trump.

Hen­ry Mor­gen­thau and his descen­dants had a strained rela­tion­ship with Jew­ish mat­ters. Hen­ry was a fierce oppo­nent of Zion­ism (Meier writes that he was America’s fore­most anti-Zion­ist”), fear­ing that it raised embar­rass­ing ques­tions about the ulti­mate polit­i­cal loy­al­ty of the country’s Jews. Begin­ning with Lazarus, the Mor­gen­thaus spurned the rit­u­al­is­tic ele­ments of Judaism and attend­ed seders and oth­er Jew­ish events infre­quent­ly. They pre­ferred to gath­er togeth­er for fam­i­ly occa­sions on East­er and Christ­mas and did not hes­i­tate to inter­mar­ry. Meier notes that the funer­al of Robert at Tem­ple Emanu-El in 2019 fea­tured the organ pre­lude to Beethoven’s Ninth Sym­pho­ny but no recita­tion of the Kad­dish, and only a few words in Hebrew.

Yet despite their seem­ing indif­fer­ence to all things Jew­ish, the Mor­gen­thaus played an impor­tant role in twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Jew­ish his­to­ry. Hen­ry, while serv­ing as ambas­sador in Con­stan­tino­ple, sought to ame­lio­rate the con­di­tion of Jews in Turk­ish-con­trolled Pales­tine. Hen­ry Jr., as Sec­re­tary of the Trea­sury, was the State Department’s strongest crit­ic of the fate of Euro­pean Jew­ry dur­ing the 1940s, and was instru­men­tal in the cre­ation of the War Refugee Board. (Meier exag­ger­ates when he writes that the WRB saved the lives of 200,000 Jews.) Robert was a strong sup­port­er of Israel and a friend of Ariel Sharon. He head­ed the Muse­um of Jew­ish Her­itage in New York City and pros­e­cut­ed cas­es against the Alavi Foun­da­tion — a front for laun­der­ing mon­ey for Iran in the Unit­ed States — and against a dozen or so banks for vio­lat­ing sanc­tions on Iran. These suits were suc­cess­ful: the banks forked four­teen bil­lion dol­lars over to the Unit­ed States government. 

Ulti­mate­ly, the Mor­gen­thaus served well both the Unit­ed States and the Jew­ish people.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

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