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