Morgenthau, the longest-serving Manhattan district attorney, poses for a portrait in a New York City courtroom on April 26, 2000.
Karjean Levine—Getty Images
By Preet Bharara
July 25, 2019

Living legends are rare birds, but Robert Morgenthau richly deserved the moniker. Though the prosecutor ascribed his success to “luck and longevity,” there was more to it. He had grit, courage, intellect and an overflowing commitment to public service, first as a Navy hero, then as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and finally as Manhattan’s longest-serving district attorney, from 1975 to 2009. Generations of lawyers he mentored–and bested–mourn his death, on July 21 at age 99.

During World War II, Morgenthau survived both a Nazi torpedo and a Japanese kamikaze, before blazing a trail as the country’s most formidable prosecutor. He went after mobsters, murderers and fraudsters with equal gusto; no one case could capture the extraordinary oeuvre of this gentleman prosecutor, who even in his off-hours performed service, whether as chairman of the board of the Police Athletic League or of New York City’s Museum of Jewish Heritage.

Morgenthau did not succeed at all things. He struggled with retail politics, decisively losing two bids to be governor of New York–but that is perhaps to his credit. He was a stridently independent justice seeker who pursued truth not popularity, did it without fear or favor, and fully earned his celebrated status.

Bharara, a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, is the author of Doing Justice

Contact us at editors@time.com.

This appears in the August 05, 2019 issue of TIME.

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