John Merow. Courtesy of Sullivan & Cromwell.

Former Sullivan & Cromwell chairman John Merow and his wife, Mary, have been identified as victims of a deadly apartment fire that broke out in a Manhattan building early Saturday.

The fire erupted at around 5 a.m. on Jan. 12, in the couple’s ninth-floor apartment in the River House co-op building on East 52nd St., near the East River, authorities said.

Mary, 85, was found unconscious with severe burns and was pronounced dead at the scene. John, 89, was taken to New York Weill-Cornell Medical Center, where he died a short time later, according to media reports.

An officer in the U.S. Navy, Merow went on to graduate from Harvard Law School and then joined Sullivan & Cromwell as an associate in 1958. He became a partner at the firm in 1964 and vice chairman in 1986.

In his six-decade career, Merow worked with major multinational corporate and financial clients in public and private financing, M&A, and project finance work.

“John is probably the last of a generation of extraordinarily skillful lawyers and individuals who thought about the law as a noble calling, and not just as a business or a profession,” said former Sullivan & Cromwell chairman and now senior chairman H. Rodgin Cohen.

Merow took over as the firm’s chairman and senior partner in 1987. As The New York Times reported at the time, he assumed leadership as Sullivan & Cromwell was grappling with a series of crises, including  accusations that senior partner George Kern Jr. violated securities disclosure rules while defending Allied Stores Corp. in a hostile takeover bid. (Kern ultimately faced no penalty.)

Merow went on to lead the Wall Street firm through a period of international expansion that saw it open offices in Australia and Japan.

“He had a clear grasp of the growing internationalization of the legal practice and I think was more responsible than any individual at the firm in catching that wave and understanding the ramifications,” Cohen said.

Cohen also cited Merow’s belief in judging people based on their abilities, not their backgrounds. In response to allegations by Harvard Law professor Louis Loss that Wall Street firms such as Sullivan & Cromwell “were closed to Jews,” Merow penned a letter to The New York Times in 1993, stating, “This firm has never been ‘closed to Jews’ or, for that matter, to any religious or ethnic group. … Hiring and advancement always have been based on merit, nothing else.”

“John was, I think, totally committed to the question of merit, and everything else didn’t count,” said Cohen, recalling an instance where a senior associate was assumed to be “not of the mold” by a partner based on the way he dressed and wore his hair.

Cohen said: “John stared down the partner and said, ‘We care here about what’s inside somebody’s head, not outside.’”

Merow stepped down as chairman in 1994 and has held the title of senior counsel ever since.

Up until his death he was also a senior managing director of Brock Capital Group, an investment bank led by former Sullivan & Cromwell associate Charles Brock.

“He was an indispensable leader of our firm after his long service as chairman of Sullivan and Cromwell,” Brock Capital said in a statement. “His unmatched judgment, wit and attention to detail will be sorely missed.”

Merow also served on the boards of Aleris International, the Seligman Group, Kaiser Aluminum, NewYork-Presbyterian, the Foreign Policy Association, and the Municipal Art Society of New York.