Frederic Morton, Author Who Chronicled the Rothschilds, Dies at 90

April 28, 2015

By BRUCE WEBER

April 22, 2015

Frederic Morton, who left Austria as a boy as his family fled from the Nazis and made a celebrated literary career in the United States, much of which involved observing his homeland and its history from a distance, has died in Vienna. He was 90.

His daughter, Rebecca, his only immediate survivor, said Mr. Morton died in his sleep in a hotel room early Monday. He had traveled to Vienna, the city of his birth, where he was a frequent visitor and where his work was held in especially high esteem, to deliver a speech and give a reading.

His literary portfolio was wide-ranging. A critic and essayist who contributed to many popular publications, including Esquire, Playboy and Harper’s, Mr. Morton was for many years a regular contributor of reviews and articles to The New York Times.

He wrote a dozen or so books, the best known of which was “The Rothschilds” (1962), a history of the international banking family. It was a National Book Award finalist and the basis for a musical, with a score by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick (the team who also wrote “Fiddler on the Roof”), which opened on Broadway in 1970 and ran for more than 500 performances.

Mr. Morton wrote several novels with a European flavor on themes involving money and power, including “The Schatten Affair” (1965), about a German-born American Jew who returns to Berlin as the publicist for a financier; “Snow Gods” (1969), about the tycoons, aristocrats and other wealthy habitués of a ski resort in the Swiss Alps; “An Unknown Woman” (1976), which traces the path of a brilliant and lovely orphan of Jewish immigrants who ascends through romantic liaisons into the lofty heights of intellectual celebrity, political celebrity and the privilege of billionaire-level affluence; and “The Forever Street” (1984), a family saga set in Vienna over three generations, from the late 19th century through World War II.

It was in his nonfiction that Mr. Morton most closely examined the Austria that gave him his identity. Most notably, in “A Nervous Splendor: Vienna, 1888-1889” (1979), he recounted a year in the life of the city and its well-known figures — including Freud, Mahler, Gustav Klimt and Arthur Schnitzler — and especially the events surrounding the murder by Crown Prince Rudolf of his teenage mistress and his subsequent suicide, an episode known as Mayerling for the hunting lodge where the killings occurred. (Another National Book Award finalist, that book also served as the basis for a stage musical, “Rudolf,” with music by Frank Wildhorn, the American composer of “Jekyll and Hyde.”

It has been staged in Budapest, Vienna and elsewhere.)

Mr. Morton was born on Oct. 5, 1924, into a middle-class family named Mandelbaum — his father’s business made belt buckles for the Austrian Army — and as a boy he was known as Fritz, though his given name, his daughter said, may have been Frederic. In 1938, after the Anschluss, as the German annexation of Austria was known, his father was sent to Dachau, but he was later released. The family fled the country in 1939, first to London and shortly thereafter to New York, where the elder Mandelbaum changed his name, reportedly to be able to join a union known to be unfriendly to Jews.

Young Frederic went to a trade school and learned to be a baker, and later attended City College of New York and Columbia. From the first, he wrote his fiction in English, beginning with the novel “The Hound” (1947), the story of a privileged youth in 1939 Vienna and his comeuppance.

Mr. Morton’s other books include “Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913-14” (1989), a study of the city as Europe plunges toward World War I, and a memoir, “Runaway Waltz” (2005).

He met his wife, the former Millicent Colman, known as Marcia, when they were both teenagers. She died in 2003.

Mr. Morton lived most of his life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and wrote frequently about life in the city, observing his changing neighborhood with the same scrutiny with which he viewed Vienna from a distance. He was enough of a New York literary figure to have been a welcome regular at Elaine’s, the famous Manhattan restaurant frequented by writers.

Still, his greatest fame in recent years was in Vienna, where in 2002 the city printed 100,000 copies of “The Forever Street” in its German translation and distributed them free. Among other national honors, he received the Cross of Honor for Arts and Sciences in 2003. Several 90th-birthday parties were given for him in Vienna last fall.

In 1978, Mr. Morton wrote a short remembrance in The Times of Kristallnacht, the November 1938 pogrom during which his father was dispatched to the camps.

“Harshly, his hands came down on my shoulders,” Mr. Morton wrote. “ ‘If I don’t come back — avenge me!’ ”

Interviewed by The Times in 2003, Mr. Morton was asked if the honors being bestowed upon him in Vienna could be seen as an act of expiation, a request for forgiveness.

“I’m sure,” he said. “’I always say on such occasions that I accept this on behalf of my generation, because I feel that this is in a sense restitution.”

Originally published by The New York Times