The Old Man and the She

Photo: Nigel Parry/CPI

He does not mention her by name. In private, she is That Woman. Or she is Blondie. Say the poisonous syllables out loud—“Leslie Crocker Snyder”—loud enough for him to hear, and the face of Robert Morgenthau, Manhattan District Attorney for Eternity, contorts and puckers.

“It looks like he’s biting into a lemon,” says one confidant.

Now Morgenthau sits in his office at One Hogan Place, doing his best to slip, divert, dodge, reroute, talk over, and obfuscate every question I ask about what he really thinks of her. After nine terms as D.A., he refuses to meddle in the ongoing race to succeed him. Then he finally caves.

“She’s living in the past,” Morgenthau, who turns 90 next month, says. That past was Manhattan’s crack-and-murder years: a time when Morgenthau wanted his overload of violent cases argued in Snyder’s courtroom, a period she detailed in her memoir, a tell-all of the death threats against her and the exploits of gangs like the Jheri Curls.

Morgenthau doesn’t care for the book, starting with its title.

Twenty-five to Life?” he says, his face in full pucker mode.

Now, on to the contents. He can’t get over the passage in which the former judge talks about getting so disgusted with a defendant she felt like “[giving] him the lethal injection myself.” Or the one about what a drag it was to be appointed to the Consumer Fraud Bureau—as if that wasn’t a crucial part of a district attorney’s job. He sees Snyder as a get-tough-on-crime braggart who mocked defendants from the bench (“I hope you suffer every day of your life,” she once said) and hit Elaine’s to touch up her celebrity.

Now her campaign. He wants to know how she could hold a fund-raiser, as she did in April, at a nightclub like Marquee, which the cops temporarily shuttered because of drug dealing on the premises.

But the root of Morgenthau’s problem with Snyder is her impertinence. Four years ago, Snyder challenged Morgenthau in a Democratic primary, his first serious fight in twenty years. One central tenet of her campaign was that Morgenthau was too old. “He’s the district attorney of the past, and I’m the district attorney of the future,” she said. Morgenthau won handily—but that was the easy part. The hard part was to ensure that, once he left the job, Snyder couldn’t step in to take it.

But over the past four years, Morgenthau’s attempt to groom a replacement who is strong enough to beat Snyder has plunged his office into a state of chaos. Dan Castleman, his top aide, resigned in a huff. Morgenthau is no longer coy about who he wants. “I want to see Vance elected,” he says. “He doesn’t need to stick his chest out to be tough.” But Cyrus Vance Jr. has failed to impress many elected officials and political clubs, who have been flocking to support the dark horse: Richard Aborn, a former prosecutor turned gun-control advocate.

“I think I bring a sense of fairness; that’s what this office is about,” Vance says.

“It’s a big moment that demands big ideas,” Aborn says.

And yet the talking points may not matter as much as the demographics. In Manhattan, where roughly 60 percent of registered Democrats are female, Snyder, who won 40 percent of the vote last time, is the clear front-runner. If she wins, she is expected to face Greg Camp, a Bloomberg Republican who now works as a lawyer for an investment-banking firm, in the general election. For her part, Snyder can’t understand why Morgenthau is still obsessed with making sure she loses. “He’s out of control,” she tells me.

Like the adjoining jail and criminal courts below, the Manhattan D.A.’s office is lit cold by pale fluorescents. Morgenthau has been a living ghost here for some time. He still meets with every job applicant, but the only time many see his fragile frame is when a detective helps him into his SUV.

Morale is low, says one office veteran. “It’s never been this bad. You walk through the building at 5:30 p.m. and all the lights are off. That’s in a trial bureau!”

Morgenthau has never been considered a hands-on boss.

“He was a terrifying figure,” says Eliot Spitzer, who worked in the Rackets Bureau. “You go into his office and you see the pictures and you say, ‘Okay, this is a person who speaks with authority at many different levels.’ ”

Morgenthau’s office might be the largest of any city official’s. It’s roomy enough to throw a football in and carries a Kiwanis Club feel, with legal briefs spilling off the desks. Morgenthau sits at the head of a conference table next to telephones so big it looks like he swiped them from the switchboard operator at the Plaza. Behind him are pictures of his history-book friends. There’s Bobby Kennedy, who Morgenthau thought might appoint him attorney general. Morgenthau was eating tuna-fish sandwiches with Bobby the day Jack got shot in Dallas. Jack Kennedy and Bob Morgenthau spent summers sailing together, which wasn’t such a big deal for Morgenthau. His grandfather was named U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Morgenthau’s father was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s secretary of the Treasury. Before he became a lieutenant commander in the Navy, and famously weathered torpedo attacks, Morgenthau himself served mint juleps to Churchill at the Morgenthaus’ farm upstate.

Cyrus Vance Jr., left, Leslie Crocker Snyder, and Richard Aborn at the Stonewall Democrats debate in April.Photo: Michael Appleton/The New York Times/Redux

Morgenthau farms, still. A pair of yellow gardening gloves hangs from his coat. (“Got them for $1.99,” he says.) He’s smiling. He looks good. Really good for 89.

“Can I ask you something?” he says, digressing from the long litany of his accomplishments in office.

“Sure,” I say.

“Do you get your shirts from Sears and Roebuck?” (Roebuck hasn’t been part of the brand since the sixties.)

The grandfatherly charm is only one secret to Morgenthau’s power. “He ain’t your grandpa,” one veteran prosecutor says. “In the building, he’s more like God, and everyone is expected to be loyal, or suffer the consequences.”

To young assistants, the Boss, as many affectionately call him, is a royal who is always above politics and fearless in his pursuit of a good case. Over the decades, his office enjoyed a reputation as the finest prosecutorial shop in the nation. You might not always be able to get a straight case in the boroughs, many said, but always in Manhattan. Yet over the years, as he aged, the jokes got old, fiefdoms grew, and the building, as Snyder said four years ago, got “stale.”

I ask Morgenthau when did he decide to take, as he puts it, “early retirement.”

He leans in. Can’t hear. His left eardrum was damaged in combat.

I repeat the question.

“I decided that three and a half years ago,” he says. “But I didn’t want to tell anyone. You don’t want to be a lame duck. But I knew definitely around the last time. I figured, ‘You’ll be 90 years old at the next election. That’s enough. Time to make room for somebody else.’ ”

Just not a certain somebody else.

During the 2005 campaign, Morgenthau’s apparatchiks did not worry about losing to Snyder. They were more concerned about what might happen in the next election. “A huge point of contention was how negative we should go,” says one senior operative. “One school of thought was that we had to kill her now. If we let her survive, she would come back and kill us.”

Inside the office, Morgenthau’s people went through old files, which raised eyebrows. One senior staff member told of being “asked to go through the old indictment records to find out what cases Snyder had worked on and to see if she had fucked anything up,” one prosecutor says. Another also says the staffer “made a half-complaining joke about having to go through all her old files. My reaction was like, ‘Wow, isn’t that a crime?’ ”

I ask Morgenthau if the staffer was asked to go through the old files.

“Not by me,” he says, “assuming anybody did that.” (A D.A. official says the dirt-digging allegations are misleading, and, in response to an “outside inquiry,” the staffer was looking to identify Snyder’s cases, not filch through them.)

In 2005, Morgenthau did seek emergency political aid. His campaign apparatus was so rusty he hired Bloomberg consultant Josh Isay to polish up his media operation, while his old-school cronies recruited mercenaries from a shelter for the mentally ill to picket one of Snyder’s fund-raisers at Elaine’s. The primary sapped whatever supernatural strength Morgenthau had left and raised questions about his ability to execute a disciplined political strategy. This year, the questions have multiplied. Says one loyalist: “Last time around, it was The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. This time around, it’s a fucking mess.”

Many believed that Eliot Spitzer would be the one to solve Morgenthau’s succession issue. After all, Spitzer was a Morgenthau protégé. The thinking was that Morgenthau could resign and Spitzer would appoint a replacement, who could then run against Snyder as an incumbent.

As Morgenthau’s No. 2, Dan Castleman was convinced he had the boss’s blessing. This belief started before the 2005 primary season, when Castleman approached Morgenthau about a job offer he’d received.

“I always thought you’d be the one to succeed me,” Morgenthau allegedly told him, encouraging him to stay on. Maybe he was hearing what he wanted to hear, but Castleman started his own lobbying drive for the job. Meanwhile, another rackets alumnus was also interested.

Cyrus Vance Jr. had such legal pedigree that he was practically born in a club chair at the New York Bar. Cyrus Vance Sr., his father, was president there and held many Washington posts, among them secretary of State under Jimmy Carter. But after his stint in the D.A.’s office, Vance was so desperate to “escape his father’s shadow” and “make a name for himself,” as he says, that he picked the farthest possible place from New York to start his own practice: Seattle. His father told his namesake that he was “waving the white flag” on his legal career.

Now back in New York, Vance relied on his old D.A.’s-office comrades to navigate the city’s legal landscape. Morgenthau helped secure a cushy partnership for him at the prestigious firm Morvillo, Abramowitz. “Morgenthau said [Vance] was the best assistant,” says Elkan Abramowitz, who worked for Morgenthau and is one of his closest friends. Morgenthau’s son-in-law Paul Grand is also a partner. Vance handled tax security and other white-collar cases before deciding to run. But his problem was his benefactor. Was Morgy resigning? Or running again?

Then Troopergate happened and Ashley Dupré happened and the landscape shifted. With Governor David Paterson now holding the power to make an appointment, Vance might have hoped that the first strategic consultant he hired, Bill Lynch, could have pressured his old protégé Paterson to cut a deal. But Morgenthau wouldn’t budge.

“He didn’t want to get out,” Lynch says. “He wanted to finish his term.”

Or run for another one. Morgenthau kept the guessing game going by holding fund-raisers and taking in nearly $800,000 in donations.

As Morgenthau wrestled with the decision of whom to support—Castleman? Vance?—a third office alum, Richard Aborn, tossed his hat in the ring. Like Vance, Aborn was deferential to the Boss, seeking his blessing over lunch at the Odeon. But unlike Vance, Aborn had a different pedigree.

His father didn’t know any presidents; he sold stocks, commodities, precious gems. Growing up, Richard was into school clubs and sports and did things other kids do (“Yes, I’ve used a bong”). He went to the University of Dubuque on scholarship and worked as a bartender and caddie for pocket money. At the D.A.’s office, he often went for beers with the Legal Aid attorneys after long days in court. Aborn’s pet issue was guns: He couldn’t understand why the wrong people had such easy access to firearms. At cocktail parties, he and his young lawyer friends would talk about how weird it was to feel so powerful over such a helpless group of people moving through the justice system.

“Rich was always looking for the gray area,” says attorney Joe Ortego, who worked with and was close friends with him.

“You got to understand, they are all like Morgenthau’s children,” one former prosecutor says of some of the candidates for D.A.

In his trial bureau, Aborn was teased as “the Dickster,” a nickname colleagues say he earned because of a tendency to not be around when others needed him. “The Dickster” may have stuck, but Aborn did help out on cases, Ortego says.

At the time, Aborn was dating, and then married, Ingrid Rossellini, the twin sister of Isabella Rossellini and daughter of Ingrid Bergman. A literature scholar, Bergman’s daughter met Aborn after filing a report. Her husband had beaten her, she claimed. After the case was resolved, Ingrid needed documents from the case to help with her immigration situation, and Aborn asked her out to lunch. “She was Italian,” he says. “I’m always fascinated by these other worlds.”

He later immersed himself in the gun-control movement, becoming allies with former police commissioner Bill Bratton and former public advocate Mark Green. Over the years, his political friends encouraged him to run for office. The D.A.’s office never seemed like a natural fit. But in a crowded field, many advised, anything can happen. He wrote his own campaign a check for $100,000, his wife chipped in $25,000, and he took up residence in a diner booth to court donors.

“Richard is very well spoken and very smooth,” says Katharine Cobb, Aborn’s old supervisor from the D.A.’s office. But like many office alumni, Cobb is supporting Vance. Among many things, she says the job “requires depth of character.“

With Aborn and Vance now staffing up and raising money, Morgenthau was nervous about such a crowded field. “Three guys and a horse, and the horse wins,” he would say to Castleman.

Castleman wondered if he himself was a viable candidate. In January, he and Morgenthau commissioned a poll to see how Castleman stacked up.

The poll had three notable findings. First, as Morgy’s top lieutenant, Castleman, given equivalent information for each candidate, was the favored choice. Second, despite his historic tenure, Morgenthau’s endorsement meant little. Third, nobody really knew who any of the candidates were. The Boss and his right hand went back and forth for days.

Finally, Castleman had had enough of the Boss’s dithering.

“You need to tell me if you are going to support me or not,” Castleman said.

“I’m afraid I wont be able to do that,” Morgenthau said.

“Does that mean you are going to support Cy?”


“Well, I think you just guaranteed Leslie will be the next D.A.” Castleman said, then resigned.

“You got to understand, they are all like Morgenthau’s children,” one former prosecutor says. “This was a case where Morgenthau overlooked the older son [Castleman] and chose the younger [Vance].”

Months later, Castleman is cautious in what he chooses to say about Morgenthau. “After nearly 30 years of loyal service and given the promises that were made to me,” he writes, “it was disappointing and painful when the Boss changed his mind, especially since, to this day, I don’t understand his reasoning. I leave it to others to determine whether he made the right choice or not.”

That Woman now works rooms she couldn’t get into four years ago. Recently, Snyder did a pep talk and round of cheek-pecking at the McManus Democrats, the political club in Hell’s Kitchen that for decades has religiously supported Morgenthau and this year made a treasonous endorsement of Snyder. When she got there, president James McManus was holding court in a supply closet that featured, among other mementos, a crumpled pack of Lucky Strikes and an old blue bathrobe.

“To me, all the candidates are the same,” McManus says. “You have to look at the politics. She’s running against two guys. In Manhattan. She can’t lose.”

Snyder appears more at ease. “Last time, I was absolutely shocked by the hostility with which my running was greeted,” she says, speaking in sentences that are painfully perfect on the grammar. (Her dad was a French Enlightenment scholar.) Now, without Morgenthau in the race, it feels like there is one. “He would almost never go on the same stage with me,” she says. “So, you know this is a very different experience.”

Her campaign hasn’t been all smooth. In May, she rolled out an endorsement by Judge Judy—a legal authority the other boys pounced on, along with Snyder’s 180 on the death penalty: She’s now against. In early June, nervous about Aborn and his surge in endorsements, Snyder shook up her campaign team and hired the same people Morgenthau had used (and whom she had once turned down) to rescue his 2005 operation, Isay’s Knickerbocker.

To some, she’s been a stubborn client. “She’s a judge—so that’s what she does, sits in judgment,” one source close to the campaign says. Her advisers have also been futzing with her presentation to engender her to Jewish voters, the source says. Mention her “Jewish” parents? Campaign on the Lower East? Ditch the goyish-blonde look and return to her natural brunette roots? “They don’t know she is a Jewish woman. Aborn is more Jewish than she is. He’s only half-Jewish. She is all Jew!”

But Snyder won’t go there. “I’m Jewish,” she says. “But one’s religious beliefs are personal.”

Above all, what Snyder does have going for her is in the guts department. She can always change tunes and boast that she was willing to take on the Boss. The other two checked with him first.

“She has balls—that’s actually part of our message,” says Ken Frydman, one adviser.

Leaving the McManus club, Snyder rides the elevator with member Fannie Cole, an 86-year-old retired teacher. Fannie is wearing a shawl and talking about how she’s traveled around the world eight times on cruise ships. The talk shifts to the D.A.’s race and which candidate Fannie, who has voted in every election since FDR, thinks has a shot.

“The only name that rings to me is Cyrus Vance,” Fannie says.

Snyder objects. “But I’ve been in the criminal-justice system in New York for the last 35 years!”

“What?” Fannie says. “Did you start when you were 10?”

In his corner office at Morvillo, Vance turns off the classical music and gives an office tour. He points to a small photo of his old man, at Yale, that he keeps on top of a Jeffersonesque standing desk. One irony of Vance’s campaign is that Vance left New York to escape the shadow of one legal titan (his father) only to step into the shadow of another (Morgenthau). Vance says any “subconscious link” is a stretch.

“I’m not trying to be Bob Morgenthau,” he says. “I’m not trying to mimic Bob Morgenthau. I’m going to put my own stamp on the office.”

Vance has tortoiseshell glasses, plays mandolin, and gravitates toward the rumpled-lawyer look. He plunges into a leather armchair and kicks an ankle boot upon a coffee table. Nearby is book of arty-looking photographs, Couples (not exactly Gould’s Penal Code Handbook). He talks about the “validators” supporting him, like Robert Fiske, Michael Cherkasky, and Richard Girgenti. But who knows who those lawyers are? (No surprise, most worked for Morgenthau.) His campaign has also been burning through donations. During the last filing period, Vance spent nearly every dollar he raised. Some think he has too many consultants and lawyers advising him. Some think he talks too much to Morgenthau, who calls all the time.

Morgenthau’s concern? “All along, he’s wanted Cy to act like a winner,” says one insider.

Vance runs his fingers through his hair and talks about how he’s just beginning to get comfortable with this process. “I have to learn how to connect with my heart, and not my head,” he says. “More like a closing argument.” Then his office door opens. A secretary bursts in. “Mr. Morgenthau is on the line,” she says.

“I don’t want people to think I’m trying to handpick my successor,” Morgenthau says back in his lair, as he deflects more questions about this race. But isn’t that exactly what he’s been doing with Vance? “I wouldn’t say in any significant way. I haven’t gone on any rallies with him.”

In his office, among the 500 or so prosecutors, there is a fear that if Snyder wins she will ax them all. (Not true, she says.) Earlier this year, prosecutors throughout the investigative division were asked to bring cases to the grand jury by September. “The primary is the date they are giving,” says one veteran, worried the cases won’t be ready. Morgenthau denies a September surprise is afoot. Assistants should wrap up cases as soon as they can. “If I had my druthers, it would be by July,” he says.

On Castleman, he uses the past tense. “I was a close friend of his,” Morgenthau says. “But the office comes first.” On his legacy, he says, “Guys like you have to decide.” This fight over his successor is partly about legacy—but when I suggest it’s about something else, something bigger, he looks offended. “I hope there are a lot of other things keeping me alive,” he says.

The Old Man and the She