Andrew Meier's "Morgenthau" details the fascinating life of Lazarus Morgenthau. I'll admit I knew nothing of this historic figure, but through thorough research and captivating storytelling, Meier sheds light on this intriguing patriarch, whose journey encapsulates the struggles and triumphs of immigrant life in 19th-century America.
This is a book for slow reading with the level of detail offered, but it does provide some really interesting information about an important family.
Many thanks to the author, publisher, and NetGalley for sharing this book with me. All thoughts are my own.
Power, Privilege, and the Rise of an American Dynasty
by Andrew Meier, 1072 pages
(This review is based on an ARC sent to me by NetGalley)
The link posted is useful to get an overall picture of the Family tree, Profile and Timeline of the Morgenthau Dynasty.
This is also a history of the United States, New York, and Jewish-American life though 150 years.
After coming to America from Germany in 1866, the Morgenthau’s made history in international diplomacy, in domestic politics, and in America’s criminal justice system.
Andrew Meier vividly chronicles how the Morgenthau amassed a fortune in Manhattan real estate, advised presidents, advanced the New Deal, exposed the Armenian genocide,
rescued victims of the Holocaust, waged war in the Mediterranean and Pacific, and, from a foundation of private wealth, built a dynasty of public service.
Morgenthau is well worth the read.
This book presents a daunting yet worthwhile challenge. Rather than attempt to plough through the book until I finished, I read a portion at a time before transitioning to the audiobook. The book covers over 150 years and four generations of an influential family close to major events in United States and world history. This massive tome serves more as a biography of Henry Sr, Henry Jr, and Bob, than a chronicling of the family as the siblings/other children seem to disappear as Meier shifts the focus of the narrative. This book is definitely not for everyone but is definitely for me.
The author took pride in the research and immersed input in bringing pieces of the story throughout a century and a half, over 4 generations of influential personas. From starting in real estate in New York City to many years of public service, diplomacy, and having an interest in many fields, the dynasty made a huge input in history, and the author used every possible source of information to describe the family, roots, and branches.
It has loads of little known details not just on the Morgenthau family but on the many ancillary characters in the main story from presidents to prominent businesspeople. In some cases though it feels like it is spinning its wheels a little bit, getting bogged down instead of enriching. On the whole though pretty interesting.
Lazarus Morgenthau probably never should have migrated from Bavaria, where he invented a cigar box that made his fortune, for a time, before the business failed. He moved his family to America where other members of the Jewish elite had made fortunes after similar migrations. For Lazarus, all his schemes failed, from a wine import business to elixirs to cure various ailments to his Golden Book of Life. He spent the latter part of his life in and out of insane asylums. It might be that his principle purpose was to land his progeny in America, who would have a profound influence in many fields over the next hundred years.
Andrew Meier’s lengthy account of this family dynasty begins here. What follows are three full-length biographies of the leading family figure in each of the next three generations: Henry, Sr., Henry, Jr., and Robert Morgenthau, concluding at the end of the latter’s life in 2019.
Henry, Sr. built the family fortune in New York real estate. Meier takes us through the growth of his empire from his first acquisitions up through the relationship with Adolph Ochs and his acquisition of the properties that made up Times Square, and the headquarters of The New York Times. In 1912, his genius in fund-raising for Woodrow Wilson resulted in his being offered the ambassadorship to Turkey, the “Jewish seat.” It was not his first choice, but he distinguished himself in history in his efforts to advocate for and document the Armenian genocide.
Perhaps his greatest challenge was to help launch his son Henry, Jr. in life. Henry, Jr. seemed to lack a clear ambition other than becoming a farmer, which his father helped him to do in acquiring land in Duchess County. This put Henry, Jr. in touch with Franklin Roosevelt, a friendship that endured from Roosevelt’s rise as governor of New York through his presidency. He was a kind of “fixer” for Roosevelt–on farm matters in upstate New York, and later, at the Treasury. This seemed the saddest part of the book because the “friendship” seemed one of providing Roosevelt pleasant company at weekly lunches, but not asserting his own ideas or personality. Perhaps, like his father, his most significant work may have been advocacy for Jews in Europe as Hitler’s genocidal plans took shape. The US State Department and Roosevelt had been intransigent in opposing vigorous measures to help refugees, but Morgenthau probably managed to rescue 200,000 and help awaken the country to the Holocaust. The latter part of his life was the saddest in many ways as he lost his wife, was dumped by Truman, and spent the latter part of his wife living lavishly with his second wife, considered “this thing he married” by his children.
I found the third part of the book the most interesting in many respects. Robert Morgenthau was an authentic war hero, offering exemplary leadership when his ship was attacked. He tried politics but failed in two runs for governor. Working with the Kennedy campaign, he won the appointment as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. He took on organized crime when the FBI refused to acknowledge its existence. He also set his sights on Roy Cohn (an associate and mentor of Donald Trump), who became the “White Whale” he could never convict. When Nixon took office, he won office as the District Attorney for New York, a position he held until 2009. He was most known for the prosecutions of organized crime (the Gambino family) and the BCCI banking firm, which he believed was channeling money to Iran for development of nuclear weapons. The latter featured high powered American figures including Clark Clifford. It was a case that may have been pursued at the Federal level. For Morgenthau, if it came through New York, it was his jurisdiction.
He built a modestly-staffed department into a powerhouse, increasing the hiring of women and minorities, funding its operations in part with the fines he won. He often opted for plea bargains for fines in lieu of prison sentences–he had no appetite for sending people to prison–except for five youth accused of assault, rape, and murder of the Central Park Jogger. They were part of a “wilding” incident that night and, when apprehended, eventually confessed to the crime and were convicted and sent to prison. Except that DNA evidence, a relatively new technology at the time, linked none of the boys to evidence collected and was set aside. Several years later, new evidence matched with a man already in prison. Morgenthau admitted the mistake and reversed the convictions, albeit too late for the boys, who later recovered an award in court. It was the major stain on his record, lessened by his integrity when new evidence came forward.
This is a massive work, really three major biographies woven into a single account of a powerful family. One gains a sense of the distinctive character of the leading figure of each generation–Henry, Sr., the shrewd, incisive, and courageous businessman turned ambassador; Henry, Jr., the modest steady friend of Roosevelt who found his voice representing Jews caught in the Holocaust; and Robert, the resolute, ambitious prosecutor with a deep sense of integrity and justice that extended to the white collar criminals who often escaped prosecution. This book will carry you through the winter months, introducing you to a family who played a key role, often behind the scenes, over one hundred years in a variety of American institutions, centered around New York City,
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley.
This is the story of the Morganthau family. Multiple generations of power brokers, this family made a dramatic impact on New York City, and that impact goes all the way through to today. Meier had unprecedented access to the family archives and delves deeply into this family and the impact that they have made. This is a fascinating read about a family that made such an impact on a city and the family behind it.
An Immigrant German Family Rose to the Top in Twentieth Century America
Lazarus Morganthau arrived penniless in America in 1866 dreaming of remaking the fortune he had left behind in Germany. Although Lazarus died penniless, his descendants rose to the top of American finance and politics. This family history focuses on the most successful Morganthaus: Henry, Henry, Jr., and Robert.
Henry Sr. made money in Manhattan real estate guessing correctly that the value of property near subway stops would skyrocket. He was a strong supporter of Woodrow Wilson and was rewarded for his generous contributions to the campaign with the post of Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Henry wanted to be Treasury Secretary, but the post of Ambassador gave him an international reputation when he drew attention to the Armenian massacre.
Henry Jr. met FDR when both were gentleman farmers in upstate New York. The friendship was a strong one and led to Henry becoming one of FDRs most trusted advisers during WWII when he was made Secretary of the Treasury.
Robert was a supporter of the Kennedy’s. Robert Kennedy’s death foreclosed Roberts national political ambitions, but he became New York’s longest serving DA instituting high profile investigations of the Mafia.
This is an excellent, well-researched book about an important American family. Although I had heard about the Morganthaus I was unfamiliar with the family history. It was interesting to see the rise of the family in the twentieth century giving a view of the history of that turbulent period. I highly recommend this book.
I received this book from Random House for this review.
Meier has produced a massive book, providing a detailed examination of the Morgantheau family. From their real estate ventures in New York City to many years of public service, the family has become synonymous with ambition and success.
I liked all the family history. I did get lost in all the political stuff.
For anyone wanting to discover more about the family, this book is a good place to begin.
Meier's examination of Morgenthau does what it sets out to do. It is well-researched, well written, and thoroughly covers the depth and breadth of Morgenthau's life. Meier doesn't shy away from putting things into perspective of Morgenthau's ego and his drive to achieve status.
I learned a lot of information I did not know and came away with a different perspective of the subject than I went into the work with.
This book covers a lot, though my review is not lengthy.
If you like biographies, history, and learning more about people and cultural changes of the world then this book is for you.
Thank you NetGalley and publisher for the dARC of this work in exchange for my honest review.
The saga of the Morgenthau family has lain half-hidden in the American shadows for too long. At heart a family history, it is also a far-flung epic, as big and improbable as the country itself.
from Morgenthau by Andrew Meier
It took me nearly a month to read this book. I was running behind in my reading schedule. It was disconcerting. But I was so enthralled that I had no intention of speed reading or skipping to “the end.” This was a book worth every hour I spend on it. It’s not often that a biography is thrilling, but this one was!
I had little idea when the publisher offered Morgenthau to me how perfect a fit it would be. This multi-generational biography took me into pivotal moments over 150 years of American history. From the immigrant Lazarus who changed his name to Morgenthau–“morning dew”–to his great-grandson Robert who was New York City’s District Attorney for thirty-five years, the family, Forest Gump-like, seemed to be there at the most important historical events of the century,
Henry Morgenthau was an early Woodrow Wilson supporter. As his ambassador to the Ottoman Empire on the eve of WWI, he endeavored to get America involved with the Armenian genocide. He set the standard that public service was the most worthy of life goals.
Henry Morgenthau, Jr. was close to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor, so integral to his administration that Eleanor said he was the only cabinet member who could “prod FDR into action.” He pushed to save the Jews during WWII.
Bob Morgenthau was a Kennedy man who, had Robert lived, likely would have been his Attorney General. Bob served in the South Pacific during WWII and his near-escapes from death were riveting. As D.A., he was the first to take on the Mafia and white collar crime and had to deal with some of the most famous murders in NYC history
My husband told me he recalled the name Morgenthau from paper money when he was a kid, old bills that were still in circulation. That was more than what I recalled. I am so pleased to have read this book. I rank it up there with some of my American History favorites.
I received a free egalley from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.
Mr. Meier reintroduces us to the four generations of the Morgenthau family and their outsized influence on the Western world. Henry Morgenthau was a German immigrant and the last American Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. The next three generations would change the trajectory of the world. This is no hagiography though and honestly shows the foibles of the family and more importantly their humanity.
I am lucky enough to get electronic advance review copies of splendid books, like this one, free of charge. Since I am a cheapskate, this continues to delight me, but there are some drawbacks to reading books which are not 100% finished. For example, these advance review copies are almost always missing page numbers. This is usually not a problem when writing a review, but in this case I wished I had page numbers. The reason is: I thought it might be useful to let prospective readers know, approximately, how much of this book is dedicated to each Morgenthau. To do this, in the absence of page number, I had to resort to … arithmetic.
According to this Goodreads page, this book is 1072 pages long. According to my Kindle, the main text of this book (that is, the part that is not acknowledgments, endnotes, sources, etc.) takes up 81% of the total text, meaning this part of the book ends more or less at page 868.
This book tells the story of the Morgenthau clan, and of course there are daughters, spouses, in-laws, cousins, etc., mentioned, but the main focus of the narrative is on the most well-known member of each generation, who are – in chronological order – Lazarus Morgenthau, Henry Morgenthau Sr., Henry Morgenthau Jr., and Robert Morgenthau. Of course, there is some overlap of generations, but generally the Morgenthau family saga is like a relay race, with one illustrious man taking the baton from the predecessor.
Here is how much of the book is dedicated to each Morgenthau, presented in the following format: Name of Morgenthau, approx. percent of the text of the complete book about this Morgenthau, my guess about the approx. number of pages about this Morgenthau.
Lazarus, 4%, 42 pages
Henry Sr., 14%, 151 pages
Henry Jr., 22%, 234 pages
Robert, 40%, 429 pages
Now, if you are a certain type of smart aleck, you may take out your cell phone, open the calculator app, and determine that, yes, neither the percentages nor the number of pages quite add up, to which I answer: “This is why I teach English and not Mathematics.”
The purpose of this information above is to let you know that this book, not unexpectedly, becomes more detailed as it approaches the present. Your enjoyment of this book may vary depending on what era especially holds your interest. My own preference is for early 20th century history, so I was a little disappointed. On the other hand, this book told me a lot that I didn't know about certain more recent historical events, e.g., the Central Park Jogger case.
I must admit that the Morgenthau who had attracted my attention most before reading this book was Henry Sr., who, perhaps more than any other single person, brought the 1915-1916 genocide of Armenians by the Ottomans to the attention of the world.
(Digression: The ghost-written memoirs of Henry Sr., detailing his efforts to alert the world to the Armenian genocide, is surprisingly readable and available for free from several sources. Download it in one of a number of different formats from the Gutenberg Project or from manybooks.net, or read it online via the website of the library of Brigham Young University.)
The Morgenthau family is a case study in ascending the slippery pole of power and influence in the US. In this book, the Morgenthaus don’t seem to be much smarter or more charming than tens of thousands of families who did not attain the level of political clout and renown that this family did. The quartet of important men who are the backbone of this book didn’t seem to do very well in school, yet that didn’t hold them back. Perhaps it was because the schools where they failed to excel academically were (and to some extent still are) the holding pens and training grounds of the future elites, so maybe having the best grades in the class was not as important as being an excellent tennis partner, or knowing how to mix a truly delicious cocktail.
There is some irony in the family’s ascent. Henry Sr. made a big pile of money in Manhattan real estate, after guessing correctly that land near future subway stops would be an excellent investment. Very reasonably, Henry Sr. plowed some of his excess mazooma into the campaigns of politicians, particularly Woodrow Wilson. When Wilson won, Henry Sr. felt, again reasonably, that his support could be rewarded by a prestigious political appointment. His preference was Secretary of the Treasury. Given that a career earning money often gives a solid appreciation of the larger economic scene, such an appointment would not have been completely outrageous. However, Morgenthau was a Jew, and appointing a Jew to such a high-profile position required more open-minded political courage than Wilson possessed.
Instead, Henry Sr. was appointed Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, a position that traditionally went to a Jew. (I was surprised to learn this.) The conventional wisdom, if I understand correctly, was that a Jew could mediate more effectively between the Muslim Ottomans and their more uppity Christian subjects. In any event, Henry Sr. thought this appointment was an insult and accepted it only after some pouting, but, as fate would have it, he landed in this position just in time to document the Armenian holocaust, which turned him into a man whose legacy will be remembered as heroic long after the name of the non-entity who became Wilson’s Secretary of the Treasury is forgotten.
But, more irony: the son, Henry Jr., was a poor student who somewhat disappointed his family by forming a relatively late enthusiasm for the occupation of gentleman farmer. This choice of occupation certainly didn’t seem to be one that would keep the family circulating among the high and mighty. However, the upstate New York location of the Morgenthau farm placed Henry Jr. in an excellent position to meet and befriend a nearby young gentleman farmer named Franklin Roosevelt. When Roosevelt became President, he placed Henry Jr. in the Treasury Department, eventually promoting him to the top position, even though Henry Jr. didn’t really have the background in finance that would normally qualify one for a position like this. However, he was loyal to Roosevelt, which was apparently the most important characteristic.
Robert continued the family’s talent for placing themselves adjacent to the politically up-and-coming, in this case, the Kennedy family. The Kennedys go on to be a sad political tragedy, but Robert Morgenthau zig-zags through the Manhattan legal world until he plunks down in the seat of the boss of the District Attorney of Manhattan, a place he will occupy for 35 years, until he turned, incredibly, 90 years old. That's why his story takes up 429 pages, more or less.
This is a long book, but the family history is long and event-filled, so I felt there was no padding, unnecessary information, or dull bits, I thought. This book is also worth reading as a case study in how a family gets and then keeps power.
As mentioned above, I received an electronic advance review copy of this book from Penguin Random House via Netgalley.
“Morgenthau: Power, Privilege, and the Rise of an American Dynasty” by Andrew Meier is a well written and extremely well researched book about father and son. Although the information about Senior Morgenthau was interesting it was really the son that garnered most of my attention due to his relationship with FDR and WWII. Having read a number of books on FDR and his relationships with many people in his administration I was not aware of the deep ties between these two men. It also brought to light some of the opposing forces in regards to helping the Jewish community in Europe.
It was clear that Morgenthau had a tremendous amount of respect for FDR it is also clear that he was frustrated at times with his lack of decision making.
It is clear that the author put in a tremendous amount of time researching the family and getting details that most people would not have found.
I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the early to mid 1900s, WWII, FDR, the inter workings of the White House, the distribution of duties as well as the various hot button issues during that time.
The Morgenthaus came to the United States in 1866 from Germany. And immediately began to make their fortune. Losing everything they had only to rise to the top once again.
In this book, Meier accesses archives not previously seen in public. We learn how they gained enormous wealth and influence. They advised presidents and were vocal about the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust.
Lazarus is where we begin. He came to New York dreaming of building a bigger fortune than the one he lost in Germany. Sadly, that was not to be. But then came Henry, who became wealthy as a real estate mogul.
His son became FDR’s longest-serving aide. They built a dynasty in New York and the author has given us an unprecedented look at this powerful family.
What an interesting read this was. So many people are behind the scenes, pulling strings. But good people as well.
NetGalley/October 11, 2022, RHPG
Many many thanks to NetGalley for the ARC of this new work.
This was my first read of the Andrew Meier. He is a wonderful writer! This was such a pleasure to read. I learned so much from this. This family is such an important part of this country's story and this book was long needed.
I would highly recommend this for anyone interested in US History. I can't help but think this deserves to be mini-series to help this story reach an even bigger audience.