Robert Morgenthau Goes Out on a Roll

After five decades, the D.A. who did it his way packs up

An earlier generation of public servants took up most of a wall: Herbert Lehman, a great-uncle and former governor; a grandfather, Henry, photographed in Constantinople, where he was American ambassador and where he blew a lonely whistle on the Armenian massacre in the first World War. There is a note from the British foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, to his father, Henry Morgenthau, a member of Roosevelt's cabinet who championed early-wartime aid to Britain: "We cannot publicly acknowledge your assistance, but we hope the day will come when you will visit us and receive the thanks we owe you."

There is a picture of the U.S.S. Lansdale, where his own war was fought. The ship was escorting a convoy when it was sunk by a Nazi aerial torpedo in the Mediterranean in 1944. Morgenthau tread water for hours. Alongside, the S.S. Paul Hamilton went down with 580 men. "I made a lot of promises to the Almighty without a hell of a lot of bargaining position," he said.

"Well, you gotta be lucky," he added, staring at the photo. Still, he managed to go places where luck was required. "That's the Harry F. Bauer," he said, pointing to another black-and-white photo. "We went out to the Pacific on that. Shot down 17 Japanese suicide planes. We got the Presidential Citation for Okinawa."

This may be part of the reason why incoming fire from mayors and tycoons failed to rattle him. A few years back, he infuriated a good chunk of the city's business establishment by exposing a cozy system of bribery among contractors and building managers. Loud grumbling was heard after indictments sullied many big names. The D.A. responded with a rare lecture, a punch aimed at the permanent government's midsection: New York, he warned, was becoming "Kickback City."

He would have been delighted to keep making such cases except that he turned 90 this summer, the only clock that told him it was time to go. "You'll be seeing me around," he said at the door. "I'm going to stay active." On the radio on Sunday, Bloomberg announced that he is looking for some good volunteers to engage in public service to help the city. Maybe the now-retired D.A. can spare the mayor a few afternoons to show him how it's done.

trobbins@villagevoice.com

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