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Public eye: Judge Bentley Kassal, 96

New York street interviews: Stories from the sidewalk as told by real New Yorkers about their lives in the city that never sleeps.

Photograph: Allison Michael Orenstein
Public eye: Judge Bentley Kassal, 96
Seventh Ave at 48th St

Where are you headed? To the Harvard Club.

Is that your lunch spot of choice? No. I go to the gym there. Occasionally I have lunch there, or dinner.

The gym? A lot of people are going to feel bad about their workout habits hearing that from a 96-year-old. [Laughs] Well, it’s important for my health.

Where are you from? I was born on 125th Street in Harlem in 1917. I grew up in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx.

Depression-era New York City. Very definitely. I remember clearly people selling apples in the street to try to make a few dollars.

Did the Depression affect your family? Apparently it did not. My family owned some real estate and a liquor store.

Post-Prohibition? Yes, it would have been prohibited during Prohibition.

And I’m sure that you, as a man of the law, wouldn’t have it any other way. Well, I wasn’t a man of the law in my teens. I didn’t become a lawyer until 1940.

So you’ve only been a lawyer for…73 years. Wow. I agree. [Laughs]

What did you do early in your career? Let’s see. I graduated from Harvard Law in 1940 and within a month I’d enlisted. I spent four years in World War II.

Were you scared? Not when I entered. On D-day I was scared, no question about it. You would be scared if you were in a small landing craft approaching the beach and you didn’t know what you were going to meet. The Germans had a wonderful set of artillery.

Did you have PTSD? No. I was very fortunate, even though I spent a lot of time in trenches that I’d dug. That’s an experience that’s quite unusual: You dig a trench to protect you, and when you sleep in it at night…I felt I was sleeping in my own grave.

Yeesh. I agree. See this pin? It’s the French Legion of Honor medal. It’s the highest honor the French government has. And this one is the Bronze Star I got for my intelligence work.

Cool.So do French people treat you extra nicely? [Laughs] No, but people on the street who ask me about my pins do.

More from Judge Bentley Kassal

“I was a legislator for six years, and I’m proud that I introduced the first arts council in the U.S.: The New York State Council on the Arts.”