In the mid-19th century, a number of German-Jewish immigrant families surprised American high society with their rags-to-riches stories, most of them beginning in the slums of Manhattan’s Lower East Side and ending up as wealthy millionaires residing in the elegant mansions on Fifth Avenue.
Among that tribe of German Jews were families such as the Loebs, the Goldmans, the Sachs, the Seligmans, the Guggenheims and — arguably preeminent among them — the Morgenthaus.
“The Morgenthaus were called the Jewish Kennedys and remained, as the former mayor of New York, Ed Koch, once remarked, the closest we’ve got to royalty in New York City,” author Andrew Meier tells The Times of Israel via video call from his home in Brooklyn.
The American writer recently published “Morgenthau: Power, Privilege, and the Rise of an American Dynasty.”
A bulky text at nearly 1,000 pages, the book documents the story of four generations of a powerful political dynasty that spans 150 years of American history. Drawing on more than a decade of research, hundreds of interviews, and exclusive access to archives, the narrative begins with a detailed introduction to the life of Lazarus Morgenthau, who, along with his wife, Babette, arrived in New York from Germany in 1866.
“When the Morgenthaus first arrived to the United States they were the upstarts in [their cohort],” says Meier. “But Lazarus Morgenthau, who had been a cigar baron in Bavaria, Germany, lost his fortune and died in 1897 alone and destitute in a rented room on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, never having realized his dreams.”
Meier, a former Moscow correspondent for Time whose previous books include “The Lost Spy,” “Black Earth” and “Chechnya,” notes how Lazarus Morgenthau’s middle son, Henry — who was born in Mannheim, Germany, in 1856 — was determined not to suffer the same financial fate as his father.
“Henry Morgenthau was driven not to join [the group of prosperous German-Jewish families], but to join the other crowd, who were the more mainstream American tribes,” Meier says.
In 1879, Henry Morgenthau became a senior partner in the law firm Lachman, Morgenthau & Goldsmith. He built up his private fortune by buying properties in New York and quickly reselling them for small profits.
By the turn of the 20th century, the New York lawyer oversaw a swelling property portfolio in Manhattan.
“Henry Morgenthau embodied a new species of businessman, a new kind of New Yorker,” says Meier. “He served as the bridge — between Jew and Gentile, sons of immigrants and heirs of pilgrims — uniting divergent worlds of money.”
By the age of 55, Morgenthau had made his fortune and by the spring of 1912, he became a bundler for the Democratic Party, donating $4,000 a month ($112,000 in today’s money) to Woodrow Wilson’s presidential campaign, which Wilson won that year.
Morgenthau was rewarded for his political loyalty: Under the Wilson administration, he served as the American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
“This [political posting] to Constantinople had always been known as ‘the Jewish seat,’” says Meier, adding that this was primarily because American Jews, free of the antagonisms that existed between Muslims and Christians, were believed to possess the required neutrality that would allow them to “maneuver among the Turks with greater ease and more aptly arbitrate disputes.”
But Morgenthau was no average diplomat. Working with several American and Turkish journalists in Constantinople, he helped expose the Armenian genocide when most of the world (including Morgenthau’s superiors back in Washington) chose to ignore it. It’s estimated that up to 1.2 million Christian Armenians were killed by the Young Turk government in the systematic slaughter that occurred from the spring of 1915 through the autumn of 1916.
Meier’s book notes how Morgenthau cabled then-secretary of state Robert Lansing from Constantinople on July 10, 1915. The Turks, the ambassador explained, were subjecting the Armenians to “arbitrary arrests, terrible tortures, wholesale expulsions and deportations from one end of the Empire to the other.” Accompanying the misery were “frequent instances of rape, pillage, and murder turning into massacre,” the ambassador added.
Morgenthau cabled Lansing again in August 1915: “I earnestly beg the [State] Department to give this matter urgent and exhaustive consideration.” The United States, however, did not organize any exodus. In fact, the Turks would never allow the Armenians to leave. Nevertheless, the story, with the help of Morgenthau, did make headlines in The New York Times in October 1915.
“When Henry Morgenthau returned from Constantinople, he was no longer just a New York lawyer and real estate baron,” says Meier. “He suddenly had moral authority and began to speak regularly on the international stage about America’s role as a moral force in the world.”
From his father, Henry Morgenthau Jr. inherited that same duty to speak truth to power in the realm of public service. Born in New York in 1891, he served for 12 years as US treasury secretary during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration.
To critics and rivals, Henry Morgenthau Jr. was known as Roosevelt’s bagman. But Meier says that description severely underestimates his numerous political achievements.
“Henry Morgenthau Jr. could easily be perceived as Roosevelt’s lackey,” Meier says. “In fact, he was essential to Roosevelt’s political career.”
As head of the Farm Credit Administration and acting secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau Jr. played a vital role in diplomatic negotiations that led to the US officially recognizing the Soviet Union in October 1933.
“The United States had no diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union from 1917 until 1933,” Meier says. “Henry Morgenthau Jr. put his neck out for Roosevelt to reach out to the Russians, and he was the first American politician to do so.”
He was also personally responsible for persuading Roosevelt to establish the War Refugee Board in January of 1944.
“By the summer of 1942, the State Department was already aware how [Europe’s] Jews were going to be exterminated as the Final Solution was being implemented,” says Meier. “They had very specific intelligence, through a variety of channels, about Nazi gas chambers and concentration camps.”
The War Refugee Board united spies and smugglers, local officials and diplomats to feed, fund and arm underground networks in the hope of opening doors to freedom for the remaining Jews of Europe who had a chance of fleeing the horrors of the Holocaust. At one point the board entertained ransom negotiations with Nazis. Its head, John Pehle, a Treasury Department lawyer, even tried to promote the idea of an Allied bombing of the rail lines to the largest of the death camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.
“For Henry Morgenthau Jr. the establishment of the War Refugee Board was a triumph and saved as many as 200,000 Jews, although the real figure will never be known,” Meier says. “But he also knew it was a small victory that was too little, too late.”
Meier notes how in the late 1940s Henry Morgenthau Jr. became “a reluctant Zionist.” He did, however, embark on a fundraising tour with future prime minister Golda Meir, raising tens of millions of dollars for Israel.
He knew it was a small victory that was too little, too late
“In 1948 the State of Israel invited Henry Morgenthau Jr. to be the first finance minister of the country, and there was even a moshav named in his honor — Tal Shaḥar,” Meier says, using the Hebrew term for a cooperative agricultural village.
“Tal Shahar” is Hebrew for “Morgenthau,” or “morning dew” in German.
The latter half of Meier’s book focuses on the life of Henry Morgenthau Jr.’s son, Robert (Bob) Morgenthau, who died in 2019 at the age of 99.
“The Boss,” as Bob Morgenthau was affectionately known by most of the political and legal establishment in downtown Manhattan, served as district attorney of New York from 1975 to 2009. Prior to that he was an attorney for the city’s Southern District — a role he was appointed to in 1961 by president John F. Kennedy.
“No prosecutor in US history had served longer, and none had had a more profound influence on law enforcement than Bob Morgenthau,” says Meier.
Bob Morgenthau spent most of his career sending scores of New York financiers, bankers, mobsters and traders to jail. Then in the early 1990s he began the most ambitious and far-reaching investigation of his career: overseeing the trial of Washington lawyer Robert A. Altman and his law partner Clark M. Clifford, who faced charges arising from the scandal involving the now-closed Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI).
Meier describes the BCCI scandal as “a journey into the netherworld of an international bank that at its peak had 417 branch offices in 73 countries.” The stateless bank had its headquarters in the UK, was chartered in Luxembourg, run by Pakistanis, owned by Arabs and serviced by outposts in the Cayman Islands. Police and intelligence experts would later refer to it as the “Bank of Crooks and Criminals” due to its reputation for catering to customers who dealt in arms, drugs and dodgy cash that regularly crossed international borders with few questions asked.
The author notes how by the late 1980s the BCCI was the seventh-largest private bank in the world, with assets exceeding $20 billion. The BCCI’s paper trails of fraud, bribery and money laundering were connected to numerous high-profile international political and militant figures, including Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Fatah founder Abu Nidal along with his Fatah Revolutionary Council, and a rising Saudi radical Islamic militant named Osama bin Laden.
The CIA also used BCCI to fund covert operations, including the infamous Iran-Contra Affair. Over many months, Bob Morgenthau and his army of New York legal investigators compiled an array of evidence and then prosecuted the bank in 1991, forcing its collapse.
“Bob Morgenthau believed that because nearly all of the US financial transactions go through New York, it was his personal obligation [as the city’s DA] to crack down on white-collar crime that was [connected] to terrorism,” says Meier.
Meier describes Bob Morgenthau as “a confirmed friend of Israel,” adding that his loyalty to Israel “can really be seen in the role he played with the Iranian banking cases that dominated his last years as the district attorney for New York County.”
Those banking cases revealed that Iranian money was coming to banks in the United States in contravention of US sanctions. Meier’s book cites a 2009 lawsuit where the Manhattan US Attorney’s office claimed the Alavi Foundation — a charity that owned a gleaming office tower on Fifth Avenue in New York — was actually a front for the Iranian government. The 36-story tower, formerly known as the Piaget Building, was built in the late 1970s by a nonprofit tied to the shah of Iran. The 2009 lawsuit, however, cited the two minority owners of the Alavi Foundation as Assa Corp and Assa Co Ltd, both shell companies financed by Iran’s national Bank Melli.
In 2013 a federal court ruled that the New York skyscraper was subject to government forfeiture for “shielding and concealing Iranian assets” in violation of US sanctions law.
Meier says Bob Morgenthau always believed these banking cases revealed that the Iranian government, through a labyrinth of shell companies, was ultimately intent on searching the world for the requisite ingredients for long-range missiles and nuclear weapons.
“During the Obama administration, Bob Morgenthau approached the US Treasury and said, ‘If you hide the evidence that I am presenting you with, then Iran is going to go on a nuclear shopping spree with one purpose — the destruction of Israel,’” Meier says.
Iran is going to go on a nuclear shopping spree with one purpose — the destruction of Israel
Much of “Morgenthau: Power, Privilege, and the Rise of an American Dynasty” is a New York-based story. The Morgenthaus were, after all, “New Yorkers to the core,” as Meier puts it.
But the author also stresses how the family, over several generations, continued to lend its enormous power and privilege towards worthy — and sometimes unpopular— causes that looked beyond their native city, which they believed would ultimately create lasting historical change in the sphere of national and international politics.
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