Photo: Robert Morgenthau Sept. 18, 1962 after the Democratic State Convention picked him as their candidate for governor in Syracuse, N.Y.
Morgenthau took office in January 1975, after four years in private practice and nine years as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York - an appointment from his childhood friend, President John F. Kennedy.
Morgenthau told CNN that his legendary career in public service was all part of keeping a promise he made a long time ago.
He says that as a young Navy officer his ship, the USS Lansdale, was torpedoed off the coast of Algiers in 1944. As the ship began taking on water he says he vowed that if he survived he would dedicate his life to public service.
Photo: Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau laughs during one of his last press conferences in New York, Dec. 16, 2009.
"I'd always thought of going into government service," Morgenthau recalled. "But when my ship was torpedoed off Algiers and I was floating around in the water, I made promises to the Almighty."
He kept his promise and then some, transforming the Manhattan District Attorney's office into what many call the nation's premier prosecutor's office. It is also the model for the long-running television series "Law and Order". The series' first fictional district attorney, Adam Schiff, is said to be based on Morgenthau.
As the real Manhattan DA, Morgenthau created 34 bureaus and units, specializing in everything from labor racketeering to Asian gangs to cold cases. The elder abuse task force was responsible for the recent conviction of Anthony Marshall for bilking his mother, the late millionaire philanthropist Brooke Astor, of millions and sentencing him to up to three years in prison.
The sex crimes unit grew under his watch into the prototype for similar units across the county.
But his tenure hasn't been without its share of detractors and controversies, one of the biggest being the wrongful convictions in the 1989 Central Park Jogger case. In 2002, DNA evidence surfaced that incriminated someone else in the rape and Morgenthau himself appeared in court to agree with the defense request to dismiss the charges.
More recently Morgenthau was embroiled in a heated budget dispute with Mayor Michael Bloomberg who accused him of maintaining "secret bank accounts." The DA's office holds millions of dollars - collected from grants, fines, and forfeitures - in as many as 60 bank accounts. Last month the mayor insisted that all of the money should go to the city, not the state of New York.
Morgenthau called the accusation "false and irresponsible," maintaining that the city has always known about the bank accounts. He says his office has reached a truce with City Hall and will cooperate fully in a review by the City Comptroller's office.
In his 35 years in office he has been challenged twice, once in 1985 by civil rights attorney C. Vernon Mason and in 2005 by former prosecutor and judge Leslie Crocker Snyder. With the Democratic primary looming, the 2005 race got ugly, the New York Times endorsed Snyder in an article titled "When to End an Era" that suggested he had been in office too long.
Morgenthau won anyway and in 2009, when Snyder ran again, he endorsed her rival Cy Vance Jr. along with the New York Times. Vance Jr. won.