Henry Morgenthau III ’39, far right, with, from left, Leonard Bernstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Yehudi Menuhin at a concert for the United Jewish Appeal, 1948.
Library of Congress/Music Division/The Leonard Bernstein Collection
In His Tenth Decade, a New Calling

Jan. 11, 1917 July 10, 2018

PAUL CÉZANNE DID NOT have his first one-man show until he was 56. Miguel Cervantes did not begin publishing Don Quixote until he was 58. Laura Ingalls Wilder did not publish her first book until she was 65.

As older artists go, Henry Morgenthau III ’39 had them all beat. He published his first book of poetry, A Sunday in Purgatory, at the age of 99.

Poetry brought Morgenthau, who died July 10 at 101, the sort of national attention few centenarians receive — and which he enjoyed greatly. He gave poetry readings and was interviewed by The Washington Post and NPR. In August 2017, The Atlantic magazine featured one of his poems on its website as its poem of the day.

Long before that, though, Morgenthau enjoyed a successful career in television. He joined the new medium at the beginning, in the late 1940s. In 1957, he moved to Boston’s public television station, WGBH, where he remained for 20 years as an executive producer.

There he teamed up with Eleanor Roosevelt, an old family friend, on a weekly program called Prospects of Mankind in which Roosevelt interviewed prominent national figures. His 1963 documentary, The Negro and the American Promise, featured interviews with Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin. A Morgenthau-produced miniseries, South African Essay, was one of the first American programs to address apartheid.

As his son, Kramer, told the Post, Morgenthau was inspired by “the whole concept of using television to educate and also tell stories of marginalized people in society.”

A search for his own identity, and a place within his distinguished family, occupied Morgenthau for most of his life. His great-grandfather co-founded the securities firm Lehman Brothers, his grandfather was the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, his father was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s treasury secretary, and his brother was the long-time Manhattan district attorney. The historian Barbara Tuchman was a cousin. Morgenthau chronicled this history in a book, Mostly Morgenthaus, published in 1991.

Morgenthau’s character and achievements made no difference to the Prospect Avenue eating clubs, which excluded him because he was Jewish. Writing in his class’s 40th-reunion book, Morgenthau called that snub “a devastatingly emasculating experience that left me from then on feeling that I was something less than a Princeton man. ... I discovered that with rare token exceptions, the ‘good’ clubs didn’t take Jews, and that being the son of a prominent New Dealer was indeed viewed as being tainted with a social disease by the scions of Old Nassau’s old money.” For the remainder of his time on campus, Morgenthau visited the kitchens of the clubs that had excluded him, picking up leftovers to distribute to a local food kitchen.

In later years, under the influence of his wife, Brandeis professor and Jimmy Carter adviser Ruth Schachter, who died in 2006, Morgenthau embraced his religious heritage, becoming, as he put it, a “born-again Jew.” “[M]uch of what I wanted and couldn’t have while I was at Princeton,” he concluded in that 40th-reunion reminiscence, “was not what I would come to place much value on in the long term.”

Shortly after his death, Passenger Books announced the Henry Morgenthau III Poetry Prize, which will be awarded to the first book of poetry by a writer age 60 or older. 

Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.


Listen: Henry Morgenthau Reads his Poem ‘A Sunday In Purgatory’

Courtesy NPR Weekend Edition

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