Shenker was a Russian Jewish immigrant who arrived in St. Louis in 1922 with limited English. He was educated at Washington University in St. Louis, and set up law practice in 1932. Shenker built a reputation as a successful defense attorney, raised money for the Democratic Party and for Israel, and co-founded the Dismas House charity in St. Louis.
Shenker first came to national attention during the Kefauver Hearings in the early 1950s, in which he represented a number of underworld figures. From 1962 Shenker represented Jimmy Hoffa, and in 1966 became Hoffa's chief counsel.
In 1970 a year-long Life Magazine investigative report accused him, as head of the St. Louis Commission on Crime and Law Enforcement, along with the city's mayor Alfonso J. Cervantes, of both having "personal ties to the underworld." The magazine alleged that Shenker controlled the massive $700 million Teamsters Union Pension Fund and its investments, most notably in Las Vegas but also in San Diego (through developer Louis Lesser), New York City, Kansas City, and elsewhere. Shenker himself assumed part ownership of the Dunes Hotel and Casino from the 1970s to 1985. Shenker tried to develop a casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, also called the Dunes Hotel and Casino, but it was never completed.
During the 1970s, Shenker borrowed more than $200 million from the pension funds of labor unions that he influenced. He borrowed more than $160 million from the Teamsters pension fund, $43 million from the Culinary Workers pension fund, and $23.5 million from Pipefitters Local 562. In 1984, Shenker filed for bankruptcy after a $34 million court judgment against him by the Culinary Workers pension fund. In February 1989, Shenker was indicted by a grand jury, but was not tried because of his health.
On a local level, Shenker and Mayor Cervantes were part-owners of the mid-town St. Louis landmark Continental Life Building, along with businessman Harold Koplar, owner of independent television station KPLR-TV and Shenker's brother-in-law. Shenker's wife, Lillian Koplar Shenker, had also attended law school at Washington University, and became a judge in her own right in the St. Louis Court of Criminal Corrections.
Shenker died of pneumonia, at his daughter's house in Santa Monica, California, after a long illness. Fictionalized versions of Shenker appear in the 1961 film Hoodlum Priest (as "Louis Rosen", founder of a fictionalized Dismas House), and in the film Casino.
- New York Times obituary, Morris Shenker, 82, Lawyer in St. Louis And Hoffa Defender; New York Times August 11, 1989
- A Two-Faced Crime Fight In St. Louis Life Magazine, May 29, 1970, pages 24-31
- Las Vegas Casino's Owner Thriving In A High-Risk, High-Stakes Setting New York Times February 21, 1984
- Hoffa's former counsel moving into Atlantic City Beaver County Times May 11, 1979
- Blakey, G. Robert and Goldstock, Ronald, "On the Waterfront": RICO and Labor Racketeering Notre Dame Law School Scholarly Works
- Morris Shenker, 82; Hoffa Attorney, Ex-Dunes Owner Los Angeles Times August 10, 1989