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Happy 85th Birthday, Bob Morgenthau

As Manhattan D.A., Morgenthau will be remembered not just for ambitious Wall Street cases like the one against BCCI (still the largest prosecution ever against a bank) but for relentless investigations of gangs (the Wild Cowboys), creative homicide prosecutions (Sante and Kenneth Kimes, convicted without a body), bravely unpopular stands against vigilantism (Bernhard Goetz), and a forward-thinking emphasis on sex crimes (the division made famous by Linda Fairstein—and, later, Dick Wolf). Eliot Spitzer, who worked in Morgenthau’s rackets bureau for five years, freely cops to emulating his old boss’s approach with his own Wall Street cases. Another serial emulator was U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani. And at least 25 sitting criminal-court judges once served under him, as did four federal judges in the Southern District, three U.S. Attorneys, and most of the top members of the criminal-defense bar. His contemporaries speak of him almost elegiacally. “He will go down in history as the finest district attorney in the country,” said Bob McGuire, a former police commissioner who served under Morgenthau in the U.S. Attorney’s office, at a recent dinner in Morgenthau’s honor.

Fine. But is he still up to running the nation’s premier local prosecutorial office?

Morgenthau’s last blood test was a few weeks ago. “Pretty amusing,” he says. “My LDL was 72. I read in the paper today your LDL should be under 100.” In the spring, he had a colonoscopy. “I have that every six years. They sent me a note,” he says. “That was clear.” He also was tested for prostate cancer, and came out clear, too. His doctors have told him he did “extremely well” on his stress test, and that his heart is fine. “I’ve had a back problem for 40 years,” he says, “but my back doctor says, ‘You’re twenty years younger than your chronological age.’ ”\ He’s energetic enough to keep up with a wife three decades his junior—he and Pulitzer-winning writer Lucinda Franks were married in 1977—and with two children, now 20 and 13, whom he fathered in his sixties and seventies. He also has five adult children from his first marriage; he was widowed in 1972. “He’s totally sharp,” says his daughter Jenny Morgenthau, executive director of the Fresh Air Fund. “The man has a steel-trap mind.”

His left ear, the one with the hearing aid, was traumatized by gunfire on a ship during the war. The other was rendered deaf by a childhood mastoid operation. “I cheated to get into the Navy,” he says. “They said plug your left ear all the way and I didn’t. And you know, over the years, the hearing loss has been an asset. When the children were crying, I’d sleep on my good ear.”

A pause. His mouth opens slightly into a lockjawed smile.

“That’s a joke,” he says.

“Can you drive?” I ask. I have to repeat the question twice before he hears me.

“Do I drive a car? Yeah, of course. Gotta get places. Why?”

At home on the East Side, near Central Park, he’s up at quarter to seven for breakfast with his youngest daughter. He does the treadmill in bad weather, and walks (he used to run) around the reservoir in good weather. A trainer comes to the apartment once a week, and Morgenthau lifts weights on his own the other six days. His workday ends at six-thirty or seven, and two or three nights a week he goes out—the D.A.’s association, Democratic clubs, political events, and fund-raisers for his pet charities, the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Police Athletic League. “We just were in Paris for five days, and then to Alsace-Lorraine and went wine-tasting,” Franks says. “We hopped from wine dungeon to wine dungeon, walking up and down the village streets. At times, it was hard to keep up with him.”

Most nights, he’s in bed at eleven, but not before reading everything he can get his hands on about the Holocaust and the war (“Like a lot of veterans, he returns to that time that was so intense and meaningful for him,” Franks says) and watching his favorite TV show. “We’re addicted to Law & Order,” says Franks. “He’s met with all the actors. He loves Adam Schiff”—the original D.A. played by Steven Hill, modeled after Morgenthau—“and he’s very sensitive about the new D.A. there,” played by the former U.S. senator from Tennessee Fred Thompson. “He gets exercised about that: ‘What’s a southern accent doing in the middle of New York?’ But he’s gotten actually to like the new D.A., too. It’s pure entertainment for him. Sometimes he’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s our case, and boy, did they screw it up.’ ”