Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Lucinda Franks’s writing can be brilliant, deeply honest, and startling; other times superficial, sentimental, New Agey, or simply not credible.
Timeless: Love, Morgenthau, and Me, by Lucinda Franks. FSG/Sarah Crichton, 390 pp. $27.
By Helen Epstein
Close to the beginning of Lucinda Franks’s memoir of her marriage to Robert Morgenthau she startles the reader with this intimate passage:
“For some odd reason, when you start to make love, you chat away as if we were sitting at the kitchen table…I cover your mouth, muffling your chatter, and plant little kisses down your belly. You are gripping my shoulders, and you aren’t talking anymore – and the phone rings. Your private line.
“Maybe we can make love quickly, before it stops ringing, break a record, but you have already lifted the receiver.
“Ed, hello!” you boom. “No. It’s not too early.”
Fuck the Mayor of New York….I can hear Koch’s voice, talking about a “young rabble-rouser” who shot a guard at a warehouse. “I hear his lawyer wants a plea-bargain”
“That could be.”
This often candid memoir is not for the prudish nor is it a serious look at the respective careers of journalist Lucinda Franks and celebrated attorney Robert M. Morgenthau. Timeless is an easy, relaxing read, an entertaining portrait of a contemporary marriage complete with five stepchildren, two careers, two religious affiliations, a 30-year age difference between husband and wife, New York politics, media and a double dose of cancer.
Lucinda Franks was a Wellesley-born-and-bred UPI reporter when she first met Bob Morgenthau in 1973. She saw herself as the radical daughter of staid WASP Republicans. At Vassar, she had helped found a local chapter of SDS shortly after arrival in 1964. After graduation, she lit out for London where she got a job at the news service UPI, and dated an American draft resister. In 1971, at 24, she came back to the U.S. to do a series of pieces on Diana Oughton, a member of the Weathermen who had inadvertently blown herself up in the infamous Greenwich Village townhouse explosion. Frank’s multi-part profile of Oughton won Franks a Pulitzer Prize; she was the youngest woman ever to win one.
In those days, Franks writes, she had “long, corn-silk hair, parted in the middle the way Joan Baez did it. I was a fair-skinned, blue-eyed blonde with a round, dimpled face, a five-foot-six inch endomorph. At the back of my closet hung the Scottish tweed suits with matching hats made for me by my Republican mother; instead, I wore sailor’s bell-bottoms and sandals with straps that crossed halfway up my legs….I was also audacious, idealistic, and aspired to be a person of high principles.”
In 1973, she transferred to UPI headquarters in New York City. Assigned to cover “corruption in the Nixon administration in the wake of Watergate,” she didn’t know where to begin and her live-in boyfriend, who had returned to the U.S. with her, recommended that she interview Robert Morgenthau.
Robert M. Morgenthau had a history very different from the author’s. He was born into one of New York’s most prominent New York German -Jewish families. His grandfather was U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire under Woodrow Wilson and wrote a foundational book on the Armenian Genocide; his father was a U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. Bob Morgenthau graduated from Deerfield Academy, Amherst College, and Yale Law School, served in the U.S. Navy for most of World War II, and had been appointed by President John F. Kennedy as United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. He was also just six years younger than Lucinda Franks’ father (who had also served in the Navy during the war), and a widower with five children.
Eight months after that first interview about Nixon, he called to tell her that the New York Times was about to be sued for not employing enough women and that he had been asked if he could recommend some good female reporters. He had mentioned her. In her account:
“Oh,” I said weakly. “Why me?”
There was a silence, and then he said, “You were the only woman I could think of.”
“Oh,” I replied, as my blood pressure rose. I felt insulted and complimented at the same time.”
Franks muffed her interview with editor Arthur Gelb (she writes that he later told Morgenthau “I think she must have been on drugs”). Morgenthau, however, urged her to go back and re-interview. This time she met sister radical reporter Gloria Emerson in the Times lobby. “If you want the job,” Emerson whispered, “just tell Abe Rosenthal that the Times is the greatest paper in the world.”
That’s what she replied when Rosenthal asked why she wanted to work for the paper and, this time, she was hired. Morgenthau became one of her trusted sources, feeding her tips and story ideas. “Didn’t he have better things to do?” Franks wondered. “He was now district attorney of New York County – elected about seven months after the Times hired me – and it was a mammoth job…Did he have a wee crush on me? I certainly didn’t have any romantic feelings for, someone that old.”
Then Roger, Franks’ moody live-in since London, moved to Colorado and her demanding mother died. “Now that she was dead, there was little glory in what I did,” Franks writes. Her stories, she thought, were too soon forgotten by everyone except the people whose lives they had ruined; “the narratives I’d worked so hard to craft ended up lining the cages of parakeets.” In 1976, she was planning to quit the Times to join Roger in Colorado and write a novel. Just before she was to leave, Morgenthau called up and asked her to be his date that evening for a fancy party at the East Side apartment of former Kennedy advisor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
After that night, they were inseparable and their love affair infuriated everyone who knew them. In Franks’s account no one except Morgenthau’s housekeeper thought their decision to get married a good idea. But in 1977, they did get married and have been married for 37 years.
The ground this book covers – marital, political, journalistic, legal – Morgenthau was re-elected Manhattan district attorney eight times before he stepped down at age 90 — is extensive and consistently interesting; Franks’ writing, however, can be erratic. Often, it’s brilliant, deeply honest, and startling; other times superficial, sentimental, New Agey, or simply not credible. Some of her reconstructed domestic dialogues sound absolutely authentic, as though she had memorized the quotes or rushed to record them in a journal at the time; some strain our credulity, and sound expository and labored, e.g. this interchange when Leslie Crocker Snyder runs against Morgenthau for Manhattan DA in 2005:
RM: “She’s been a correspondent for NBC News, she wrote an autobiography while she was a judge inappropriately titled 25 to Life. She’s even done cameo appearances on Law & Order.”
LF: “Well, that’s interesting, since the show was modeled on your office and the DA character, Adam Schiff, on you. How many times did Sam Waterston pick your brains about playing the chief DA?”
Morgenthau himself has refused to write an autobiography or memoir, so his journalist wife has done some of that for him, very much in the spirit of the objective outsider to his life, which she in some ways remains. She identifies him as a member of the Silent Generation, like her father, who returned from the second world war with undiagnosed and untreated PTSD. She portrays him as pro-Israel right or wrong and traces his long obsession with the Holocaust and its survivors, which resulted in his important role in funding New York’s Museum of Our National Heritage. She sketches out some of his biggest cases and the personal experiences that led to some of his positions and initiatives, such as making rape a class A felony in New York State.
Though Franks can be admirably clear-sighted about her husband (some of her best passages are about their struggles as a couple), she is often vague where she could be specific and summarizes complicated issues, such as Morgenthau’s Zionism and religious beliefs, instead of delving more deeply into them. Worse, she often falls into a gratingly hagiographic mode. It’s as though the Weatherwoman manquée periodically morphs into an obsequious wife.
In 2009, Franks accompanies her husband to the press conference where he announces, at 25 years past “normal” retirement age, that he will not run again for DA. Then she describes their difficult adjustment to their version of retirement.
This is a deeply romantic love story by a gifted writer and I found it easy to forgive its excesses. There are many moving passages in this memoir of a May-December marriage. One that I returned to at the end came at the very beginning: “I believe that love is no accident, no whisper from a random universe. It comes from deeper channels of longing and recognition: a collection of tiny lights that gathered force long ago. The boy with long fingers sweeping the keys of a piano, an uncle’s laugh, a teacher who always listened. And the one who precedes them all. The father….He’s not your father, but he is everything you wanted him to be.”
Helen Epstein is a former New Yorker and author of two memoirs and the biography of Joseph Papp, all now available as ebooks from Plunkett Lake Press.