Timeless: Love, Morgenthau, and Me
By Lucinda Franks
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
382 pages, $27
By Karen Brady
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
When a young Lucinda Franks first laid eyes upon the powerful jurist Robert Morgenthau, she thought he had “a face like an elongated tear drop.”
It was a face, albeit, that the Pulitzer Prize-winning Franks would come to cherish – in 1977, in her 20s, marrying the celebrated Morgenthau, a man nearly 30 years her senior, while telling herself, “I will make love stop time.”
In her second memoir – “Timeless: Love, Morgenthau, and Me” – Franks touchingly recounts that stopped time with the feared-yet-revered Morgenthau who served until his 91st year as Manhattan district attorney and is, even today, of counsel to a private New York law firm.
“I am fortunate,” Franks writes of her new book, “to have a husband who allowed me to do this: to talk about the personal life that he has kept so private during his 45 years as a public figure; to divulge the unknown stories behind his major cases; to reveal the intimacies, the foibles, the highs, and the lows of our 36 years together.”
In this sense, “Timeless” has something for everyone – sections custom-made for lawyers, for historians, lovers, psychologists and more. Franks name-drops in parts, ushering us into the rarefied world of movers and shakers of the latter 20th century. She gossips. She kisses – and tells. She takes us into the heart of the Morgenthau family, with its historic lineage and its present-day members.
She is best when sharing some of the nuts and bolts of her own illustrious career as a journalist and author as well as Morgenthau’s many triumphs as Manhattan DA. And she is great fun when telling us of how her marriage to “Bob” stunned virtually everyone in their respective orbits.
Theirs, she tells us, is “a marriage that was never supposed to happen,” Bob being at the time “twice as old as I am, twice as worldly – and twice as close to life’s end.” Plus, she says, “he was part of the status quo, and I was a hippie.” He was also only six years younger than Franks’ father.
“When we were simply dating, eyes were raised,” she recalls. “But a marriage? Between a public figure of the establishment and an outspoken peacenik some 30 years his junior? It just wasn’t done. The mid-1970s was an era of divisiveness, of ageism, a time when the young still blamed the old for sending them to die in a useless war. We were a walking morality tale, an assault against nature…”
Franks wonders, in jest, if theirs is a case of “Methuselah marrying Little Bo Peep.” It is one of the ways she tends to shortchange herself throughout this memoir – deferring, almost always, to Morgenthau’s accomplishments when her own are substantial.
Her Pulitzer, co-won at the age of 24, came when she was working as a reporter for UPI. Morgenthau recommended her for a position at the New York Times, where she shone as an investigative journalist for years. It was she – while she was writing for Tina Brown’s New Yorker, then Talk magazine – whom Hillary Clinton sought out following the Lewinsky scandal, and she who wrote the searingly beautiful, best-selling memoir, “My Father’s Secret War.”
But love, as they say, is blind and, if Franks finds Morgenthau nothing short of omnipotent, and flawless in most parts of his life, he IS the man who made the New York County DA’s office number one in the nation – and the impetus, it is said, for TV’s “Law and Order,” with the series’ first chief prosecutor, Adam Schiff, modeled on Morgenthau.
Known for handling some of the nation’s highest profile cases – sometimes outside of his jurisdiction – Morgenthau was a force to reckon with, filling his office with assistants with promise, including the likes of Sonia Sotomayor, Andrew Cuomo and JFK Jr.
Terrorists, celebrities, titans of Wall Street and the New York social scene – Morgenthau didn’t care how big you were if you had allegedly broken the law.
Franks, on the other hand, wasn’t above doing so – even after starting to see Morgenthau seriously: “I continued to put myself at risk by participating in agitprop demos with the Black Panthers, the White Panthers, the Purple Panthers, whomever, or hung out with the straggle of hippies left over from the 1970s …”
That ended when Franks decided she “didn’t want to sleep on icy stone church floors anymore. I was ready to feel safe, sheltered. I wanted to get my grandma’s Victorian bed out of storage and cover it with a Wedding Star quilt…”
Much of “Timeless” has this home-movie quality, one this reader frequently found jarring. Franks – using a self-effacing little-girl voice one moment, and an in-command, adult voice the next – proceeds on this level as if nothing is off-limits.
For instance, she tells us one moment about a party whose guests include Jacqueline Kennedy – and in the next she recalls, seemingly verbatim, her (very private, one would think) differences with Morgenthau’s five children from his first marriage, particularly during Franks’ early months and years with them.
I immediately want to take the children’s “side” – and cringe as well at Franks’ insistence on letting us know, time and again and in detail, that “Bob,” despite his age, is still virile.
Franks definitely peels more of the onion than this reader finds tasteful or necessary – and her inclusion, throughout the book, of mutually admiring conversations with her husband can be cloying:
“ ‘You know you’re the only one in the family who’s always right,’ I said. ‘You know that, don’t you? It doesn’t matter whether it’s directions to an inn or a criminal case, it’s uncanny – the way you not only do the right thing, morally, but you get the little daily things right.’
‘I’m not smart. You’re the smart one.’
‘Why would you ever think that?’
‘Because I’m stupid, that’s why.’ ”
But Franks also gives us the astonishing behind-the-scenes details of how Morgenthau’s office seized a valuable painting that had been seized by the Nazis from the walls of the Museum of Modern Art – and how his discovery of a growing terrorist cell (that would later be identified as an al-Qaida headquarters) was ignored by authorities…
She is strong when she writes of the couple’s illnesses – his melanoma, her breast cancer – and of her conclusion that the emotional reticence she finds in her husband is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from his World War II years as a young Navy officer whose ship was torpedoed off Algiers.
She is admiring yet measured when she writes about her own children by Morgenthau – Josh and Amy – one born in Morgenthau’s 60s, one in his 70s. She is a bit of a drama queen (Morgenthau says living with her is “like going on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride”) in that, she often declares her marriage in trouble – when all a reader can see is an easily rectified lack of communication.
But, then, marriage can be like that, and we are blessed to have this full accounting of Franks’ – as Morgenthau will never write a memoir. He never looks back, he has said, only forward.
Karen Brady is a former News columnist.