AMERICAN JEWISH HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Felix Rohatyn (right) with Ronald Tauber
(left) and Kenneth Bialkin.
The Day Felix Rohatyn
Saved NYC in a Saloon
By Tim Boxer
ELIX ROHATYN, the Wall Street consultant and former ambassador to France, who accepted the Emma Lazarus Statue of Liberty Award from the American Jewish Historical Society in New York, remarked how he had lived a life of contradiction.
He was both an American and a refugee. Americans are born free, but he was a refugee, born in Vienna, who escaped from Nazi persecution in France in 1940 and acquired freedom by sheer luck.
Even while living in New York he never felt like he really belonged. That is, not until 1975 when Gov. Hugh Carey asked him to join with Mayor Ed Koch in a valiant effort to rescue the city from the brink of bankruptcy.
Those were bleak days, when the only reaction from Washington was a rank “Drop Dead” on the front page of the Daily News.
But first Carey had to find Rohatyn. He searched everywhere. He finally found the financial wizard hanging out at Elaine’s, the much-celebrated restaurant.
Rohatyn, sympathetic to the city’s fiscal plight, looked for a phone. Aware of the high profile clientele packing the celebrity saloon, Carey cautioned, “We can’t talk here.”
The two powerhouses marched across Second Avenue to a nondescript watering hole to use the public phone.
A boozing customer overheard the conversation and exclaimed, “Look at these two guys. They’re running the City of New York from a bar!”
That cracked up the AJHS dinner guests including president Kenneth Bialkin, Henry Kravis, Martin Lipton and Mortimer Zuckerman.
But it still remained for Rohatyn to close the circle, which opened when he escaped from Marseille in 1940, with the Gestapo at his heels.
The time came 60 years later when the mayor of Marseille invited Rohatyn to the dedication of a square in the memory of Varian Fry.
Fry was a young American who came to Marseille in 1940 and helped spirit 2,000 artists and intellectuals, mostly Jewish (among whom were Hanna Arendt, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst), to safety in America. He did this for a year in the face of fierce opposition by the State Dept.
“I spoke about Varian Fry,” Rohatyn said, “and thought about the possibility that our family might well have been beneficiaries of his efforts. We were there at the same time, obtained false papers, false visas, and followed the same itinerary.
“We will, of course, never know. But I thought that Varian Fry would be pleased to see a square named after him in Marseille and an American ambassador, who happened to be Jewish, honoring him in front of the American consulate.
“I had closed the circle.”