When he turned 106, Mordie Rochlin, dressed impeccably in a suit, held court for more than two hours at his favorite neighborhood restaurant, the Toledo, as Paul Weiss chairman Brad Karp and a handful of guests listened in rapt attention.
A tax and estates lawyer who retired 35 years ago but still works at the office, Rochlin is the only man alive who knew all five Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison name partners. And whether he’s recalling hearing tenor Enrico Caruso singing “Over There” at a war bonds rally, watching a horse-drawn fire carriage race down Columbus Avenue, leaving first grade early to celebrate Armistice Day or learning of the death of legal legend Louis Stixx Weiss, he recreates the moment in such vivid detail that it’s mesmerizing.
“Mordie is a treasure. He is a repository of the firm’s great history, having worked at the firm for more than 80 years,” said Karp, who was only a summer associate when Rochlin retired in 1983.
Rochlin, who was born on Dec. 5, 1912, is one of the oldest living attorneys in New York state. Four attorneys over the age of 105 are registered with the Office of Court Administration, but officials don’t know how many are still alive. According to the Gerontology Research Group, there are only 36 supercentenarians in the world over age 110 (one of them lives in New York state: Alelia Murphy of Harlem who is the 12th oldest at age 113) and only two are men.
But it’s more than Rochlin’s age that sets him apart. Until he contracted pneumonia at age 102, he worked in his tidy Paul Weiss office on the 32nd floor three or more days a week reading company email, working with his assistant, attending partner lunches, telling stories about the early days and sharing the keys to his longevity.
“I had been taught by a very wise doctor when you start thinking of retiring, get a plan of what you’re going to do when you retire. My mode of retirement was that I would spend four days a week up at my weekend house and then three days practicing law,” he said in a recent interview.
Remarkably, he doesn’t live in a nursing home but at a private residence on E. 35th Street in Murray Hill. And while he needs a caregiver and a wheelchair, he’s not confined to the house, being a regular of sorts at the Toledo, a Spanish restaurant just 1/10th of a mile away from home, where he likes to order the veal in wine sauce. He has a favorite Italian restaurant, too, for Sunday nights when the Toledo is closed.
“What I’ve watched over the year and is inevitable is a decline in physical capabilities,” said former Paul Weiss partner Ernest Rubenstein, 90, who hosted the birthday party. “But in Mordie’s case what was never diminished was his mind. His ability to remember and know in detail is remarkable. In my mind, he’s a historical figure. He’s really a link to the past.”
Rochlin can recite the names of his grade-school teachers at Grandview Elementary School in the town of Catskill. He remembers visiting relatives in New York City and returning to Catskill on the ferry, which took six and a half hours in those days before the George Washington Bridge was built. He can name all the history professors at CUNY, where he was an undergraduate.
He can picture his days at Columbia Law School, where he received all As and one B or B- in a course on taxation. He was surprised when he was named the Kent Scholar after his third year. “It’s like being 106 years old. I never believed I’d make it,” he says.
He remembers graduating during the Great Depression but struggling to get a job because Jewish lawyers in those days weren’t even sent to interviews at the white-shoe firms. He did a couple of short stints at government jobs, completed a one-year clerkship and landed work at Cohen, Cole, Weiss & Wharton, the predecessor to Paul, Weiss. He felt like he had won the lottery when his name was printed in gold leaf on the door of the firm at 61 Broadway.
“I didn’t realize when I walked in the door in 1938 that I would spend the rest of my life,” he says. “Paul Weiss was my life. The way I looked on the firm, it was not only a community of scholars but a community of friends.”
Sitting at his kitchen table last week, Rochlin is speaking about the day in 1950 when he learned that name partner Louis Weiss, investment banker Marshall Field’s attorney, had died unexpectedly of a heart attack at age 56.
“Louis Weiss was the spiritual father of the firm and he was the most important business getter,” Rubenstein said.
On that November day, Rochlin received an early morning phone call summoning him to a meeting at the Gramercy Park Hotel where Randolph Paul had taken a room. At the time, the firm, which employs about 1,000 attorneys today, had fewer than a dozen partners and they could all fit in a hotel room. Still, there weren’t enough seats and so Rochlin, who was included because he was about to become a partner on Jan. 1, 1951, remembers finding a spot on the floor.
“Mr. Paul said the first thing we have to decide is if we’re going to continue as a firm now that Louis Weiss is dead,” Rochlin said.
Former U.S. District Judge Simon H. Rifkind, who had been recruited to the firm earlier that year, was convinced of his own ability and that of the other partners to generate business. There was no reason to disband, he said.
“He was confident that even without Louis Weiss we could make it,” Rochlin said.
He turned out to be right.