Andrew Meier, biographies, book reviews, Henry Morgenthau Jr., Henry Morgenthau Sr., Lazarus Morgenthau, New Releases, Robert Morgenthau
Morgenthau: Power, Privilege, and the Rise
of an American Dynasty
by Andrew Meier
Published: Oct 2022
Andrew Meier’s long-awaited biography of the Morgenthau dynasty was released October 11. Meier was a journalist for two decades and is the author of “The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin’s Secret Service” and “Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After the Fall.”
Covering four generations of the Morgenthau family, and spanning more than 150 years of consequential world history, Meier’s magisterial biography is epic in scale, impressive in scope and remarkably engrossing.
More than a decade of research underpins the 892-page narrative; the book’s notes and bibliography total nearly 100 pages. Meier interviewed more than four-hundred people and that list often reads like a Who’s Who of historians, politicians, former judges and prosecutors and, of course, Morgenthau family members, friends and colleagues. In addition, Meier was granted unrestricted access to a wide array of family diaries, photographs, correspondence and other records.
The narrative begins with German-born Lazarus Morgenthau’s arrival in America in 1866 and runs to the end of his great-grandson Robert Morgenthau’s life in 2019. Lazarus (1815-1897) was fabulously ambitious, scrappy, erratic and, in the end, possibly insane.
But he instilled in his son Henry Sr. (1856-1946) a strong work ethic. And with a dose of discipline probably inherited from his mother, Henry built a New York real estate empire and later served as Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
Henry Jr. (1891-1967) seemed to lack every skill Henry Sr. hoped he would possess, but stumbled into a friendship with the young Franklin Roosevelt. He parlayed this lucky break into a career as FDR’s advisor / consultant / errand-boy which concluded with a dozen years as Secretary of the Treasury.
But it is in his son, Robert Morgenthau (1919-2019), where the family traits of ambition, public service and wisdom surfaced simultaneously. Robert is best-known as Manhattan’s district attorney for nearly four decades. He retired at the age of 90 after prosecuting thousands of mobsters, white-collar criminals, corrupt public officials and a wide variety of thugs.
Meier tells the story of the dynasty with exceptional skill. Readers get to know the four main characters exceedingly well – but also their spouses, siblings, children and closest friends. Nearly every important supporting character (and there are many) is thoroughly introduced.
The author is also adept at embedding historical context into the story – a task made easier by the fact that the characters were so deeply immersed in that history. But great biographies also put the reader into the subjects’ time and place, and Meier often does this quite well (such as when he describes the Brooklyn tenements encountered by the newly-arrived Lazarus).
There are too many meritorious moments in this book to convey, but among them are chapters describing Henry Sr.’s relationship with, and early political embrace of, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin and Eleanor’s relationship with Henry Jr. and his wife Elinor, and most of the stories covering Robert’s investigations and prosecutions of figures such as the Gambino family.
But some readers will find that Meier occasionally sacrifices readability for thoroughness, there is an imbalance in the space dedicated to the four generations (Robert receiving the most attention, Lazarus the least) and a “Morgenthau family tree” would have been helpful at numerous points in the book.
In addition, some readers will find Henry Jr.’s service in the FDR administration somewhat slower-moving and tedious, nearly everyone will be surprised that the Great Depression is not described more expressively and, as engaging as the stories of Robert’s prosecutions are, the last one-quarter of the book frequently seems less a biography than a fascinating review of his most notable cases.
Overall, however, Andrew Meier’s biography of the Morgenthau family is magnificent. Fans of meticulously researched biographies, fascinating families and mesmerizing personalities will walk away fully satisfied. And although “Morgenthau: Power, Privilege, and the Rise of an American Dynasty” requires a fair amount of perseverance and fortitude, it rewards its readers handsomely.
Overall rating: 4¾ stars
chris price said:
Steve, I can’t thank you enough for the resource that you provide. Your reviews are informative, concise, and well-balanced. I have enjoyed many biographies that you’ve recommended and with a 4.75 rating, I’m sure I’ll enjoy this one too. I would also like to renew my request to have you provide your ranking of the presidents.
In my mind I’m comparing this 4.75 rating with Chernow’s “Titan” and I think that biography was more consistently “readable” but this was just really well done even though there were a couple hundred relatively tedious pages.
And I keep contemplating how to do a good job ranking the presidents. The introductory chapter to the book I finished a couple weeks ago (on Grover Cleveland) had a pretty well-reasoned review of why it’s hard to rate / rank presidents from different periods in American history. And while I think Abraham Lincoln would have done a better job than Zachary Taylor at just about an point in time no matter the crisis-of-the-day (or lack thereof), how would James Garfield have done with the Great Depression? How would FDR have done during the Gilded Age? So…setting the ground rules for the comparison is important and I’m still trying to sort through the best way to do that…
Nearly 900 pages in 10 days?!?! How do you do that?
Darren Seacliffe said:
How long does it take you to get through 90 pages? A day? One day, I wish you could do a blog post sharing how you’re able to read so much so quickly. Your reading skills are truly exemplary. I would really like to learn from you. For me, it’d take me a full working day to get through this.
Depending on the “density” and how many notes I take, I can get through 20 to maybe 40 pages an hour. For most biographical subjects (notably the presidents) I’ve already read multiple biographies, so I’m not reading to learn facts which I’m already familiar with. In that case I’m primarily reading to experience the style, scenery and the author’s (hopefully unique) take on the person and his or her life.
For what it’s worth, I do find that the more I read, and the longer a single stretch of reading can be, the more efficient my reading becomes.
I would never have thought of looking at this one. Now I will look for it for sure. Any word on volume two of JFK?
If you’re referring to Logevall’s 2nd volume I’ve not heard an update since last year when he was interviewed about his first volume and made clear he wasn’t far along on the second volume. So I’m not holding my breath…
Thanks. Yes that was the one. I did find and read other books by him since he writes so clearly. I hope he does finish the second.