Felix Rohatyn, 91, helped keep NYC alive after it teetered on the financial brink

Felix G. Rohatyn
FILE – In this Nov. 12, 1976, file photo, Felix Rohatyn, head of New York’s Municipal Assistance Corp. (MAC) speaks at a meeting of the University of Hartford’s tax institute in Hartford, Conn. A banker who was credited with saving New York City from financial ruin, Rohatyn died Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019, at his home in Manhattan. He was 91. (AP Photo, File)


Felix Rohatyn, the financier and government adviser who was credited with helping to save New York City from ruin during the 1970s as chairman of the agency that oversaw the city’s finances, died Saturday. He was 91.

Rohatyn’s son Nicolas Rohatyn said his father died at his Manhattan home. The cause was “simply old age,” he said.

Born in Vienna in 1928, Rohatyn (pronounced ROH-uh-tin) fled Nazi-occupied France with his family in 1940 and arrived in the United States in 1942.

After rising to prominence with the banking firm Lazard, formerly Lazard Freres, Rohatyn was named chairman of the state-appointed Municipal Assistance Corporation in 1975. The position, which he held until 1993, gave him power over taxes and spending in the nation’s largest city that was unusual for someone who did not hold elected office.

As chairman of the agency, Rohatyn pushed the financially strapped city to make reforms including a municipal wage freeze and charging tuition at the formerly free City University of New York. Rohatyn wrote in the agency’s annual report that the alternative to such cutbacks, which were criticized by many New Yorkers, “would have been bankruptcy for the city, which would have generated infinitely greater social costs.”

Rohatyn likened his work brokering financial deals to the job of a surgeon. “I get called when something is broken,” he told The Associated Press in 1978. “I’m supposed to operate, fix it up and leave as little blood on the floor as possible.”

A longtime Democratic donor, Rohatyn was President Bill Clinton’s first choice for vice chairman of the Federal Reserve in 1996, but he withdrew from consideration for the post due to opposition in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Clinton named Rohatyn ambassador to France instead, and he served in the position from 1997 to 2000.

Rohatyn returned to Lazard as a senior adviser in 2010 and remained active in public life well into his 80s. Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo named him co-chairman of a commission dedicated to improving the resilience of the state’s infrastructure following Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Rohatyn was a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and the author of books including “Bold Endeavors: How Our Government Built America, and Why It Must Rebuild Now,”‘ published in 2009, and “Dealings: A Political and Financial Life,” published in 2010.

Rohatyn married Jeanette Streit in 1956. Their marriage ended in divorce. He married the former Elizabeth Fly in 1979. She died in 2016. Rohatyn’s survivors include sons Pierre, Nicolas and Michael, stepdaughter Nina Griscom and six grandchildren.