When Robert Morgenthau took the oath of office as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York in 1961, he became the third generation of his family to hold a significant political office. His older brother Henry Morgenthau III, in his memoir Mostly Morgenthaus: A Family History, examines the development of this family commitment to public service over the years since his great-grandfather emigrated to the United States from Mannheim, Germany, in 1866 and describes its extraordinary impact on the life and politics of the nation.
There have been few political dynasties in American history. The early ones—the Livingstons, the Jays, even the Adamses—perhaps owed their success to the relatively small size of the arena in which their lives were played out. In the twentieth century, only the Roosevelts, the Tafts, and—perhaps—the Kennedys have managed to maintain or obtain positions of power over succeeding generations. Henry Morgenthau (1856-1946), active in New York philanthropy and close to Woodrow Wilson throughout most of his political life, served as Wilson’s ambassador to Turkey during the crucial years before and during World War I and was nearly single-handedly responsible for calling the attention of the world to the Armenian genocide that took place in that period. Henry Morgenthau, Jr., (1891-1967) was a close friend of both Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. As Roosevelt’s secretary of the treasury during World War II, he was a top-ranked cabinet official who did more than any other American statesman to call attention to the sufferings of European Jews. The story of the relationship of these two men to each other and to the major characters and events of their time gives shape and substance to this engrossing memoir.
Yet another, perhaps more timely, concern is the book’s real subject. The Morgenthaus, unlike the Adamses or the Kennedys, are a Jewish family, and the story of their success is bound up with the history of Judaism in the United States. Lazarus Morgenthau, born into poverty in Bavaria in 1815, got his earliest education in the synagogue and supported himself as a child by singing in private homes while training to be a cantor. Henry Morgenthau III is an observant Jew who rediscovered his religion after his marriage in 1962. Yet the first Henry Morgenthau and Henry Morgenthau, Jr., the father and son who straddled more than 100 years of American history, were assimilated Jews whose families, in the words of the author, “had assumed protective coloration to blend in with Protestant America.” The passage from alienation to homogenization to the rediscovery of ethnicity, a cycle that now seems to be characteristic of groups other than the German Jews who populate these pages, is the underlying subject of Morgenthau’s interest and provides a sharp-edged counterpoint to the family memories and affectionate stories that fill the memoir. “Why had the German Jews in the United States opted to homogenize and camouflage themselves beyond recognition?” the author asks in his introduction. The book is an attempt to discover the answer.
Lazarus Morgenthau, the son of a rabbi’s daughter and an impoverished teacher of Hebrew who later became a ritual slaughterer, was the third of eight children. Sent from home with his brothers at the age of ten to earn money singing in Jewish homes in Frankfurt, he had only two years of formal education, gained while he took a singing course in Bamberg. After the death of his parents, he apprenticed himself to a master tailor. Emboldened by the success of his first entrepreneurial venture—the sale of three silk cravats—Lazarus started a small manufacturing operation and soon was selling his ties at county fairs and markets along the Danube valley and as far away as Munich. Married in 1843 to Babette Guggenheim, he moved to the liberal city of Mannheim and opened a cigar manufactory, a business that grew rapidly when his brother Max wrote from California in 1849 suggesting he ship his cigars to the American market. By the 1850’s, the Morgenthau brothers business had become a family activity and encompassed three branch factories in addition to the Mannheim one, now located beneath a grand family home in the center of the city. One of the great events of Lazarus’ life was the official visit to his factory of Grand Duke Friedrich of Baden and the grand duchess, Louise, in 1857. Another, possibly even more significant for future generations, was his conversion from traditional Judaism to “extreme freedom of religious thought,” an event that was reputedly inspired by a performance of Gotthold Lessing’s play Nathan the Wise (1779).
Lazarus’ rise to success had been extraordinary, but the luck that had followed him could not prevent the business failure that followed the rise of protective tariffs in the United States when war broke out there in 1861. Still energetic and optimistic, he set off with his twelve surviving children to try to recoup his fortunes in the New World.
The Morgenthaus in New York joined a well-ensconced group of German-Jewish families that had emigrated a generation earlier and had already begun to cross some of the social barriers imposed by Protestant Americans. Lazarus, unflaggingly ambitious, pushed the family to maintain a style of life that he could not afford, eager to establish a foothold in this increasingly exclusive group. He sold insurance and was active in the Reform Congregation Adas Jeshurun, led by the flamboyant radical rabbi Dr. David Einhorn. Although his poverty led him to require his children to drop out of college to provide for the upkeep of the home, he solidified his social, if not his financial, status by organizing a series of philanthropic ventures aimed at the German-Jewish community. When he died in 1897, by that time erratic, disturbed, and poverty-stricken, it was noted that “charity and philanthropy of every conceivable nature were the great objects of Mr. Morgenthau’s life.”
By the time of Lazarus’ death, Henry Morgenthau, his mother’s ninth child, was a prosperous family man, a lawyer who had become increasingly successful in real estate. Embittered by the struggles his father’s erratic career had imposed on his adolescence and young adulthood, he turned his considerable energies and intellectual skill into solidifying his own family position and becoming active in the Jewish social circles that by this time wielded considerable financial and cultural power in New York.
United by family ties and intermarriages, these wealthy Jewish lawyers, industrialists,...
(The entire section is 2680 words.)