The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Scion of prominent Jewish American family publishes first book of poetry at the age of 100

Henry Morgenthau III, 100, at home in Washington last week. His first book of poems has been published. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

A pencil sketch on the living room wall of Henry Morgenthau III’s home depicts three versions of him: a skinny figure at 13, fatter at 20 and burdened with a grotesque potbelly at 40. “Awful fate — may be avoided by not following Pa’s example,” the artist wrote to the boy in about 1930.

The artist was making fun of Morgenthau’s father, who was his good friend and who carried some extra pounds around his middle. As Morgenthau recalled, his father did not take offense; in fact, he “had kind of a sense of history” and urged the artist, who was then governor of New York, to sign it. He scrawled “F.D.R.” on it, and the framed sketch now hangs near a bust of the president who ushered in the New Deal and led the United States through most of World War II.

Perhaps because people didn’t tend to live as long back then, Roosevelt didn’t draw Morgenthau at 60, 80 or older. But last month, the retired television producer turned 100, and he celebrated by publishing his first book of poetry.

“A Sunday in Purgatory,” published by Passager Books at the University of Baltimore, draws from his life as a scion of a prominent Jewish American family that includes his grandfather, Henry Morgenthau, who immigrated to New York from Germany in 1866 and served as ambassador to Turkey, and his father, Henry Morgenthau Jr., treasury secretary under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. A younger brother, Robert, served as U.S. district attorney in New York.

The collection also reflects Morgenthau’s recent life in Washington, where he moved from Boston seven years ago to be near family. Sitting in his apartment at the retirement community Ingleside at Rock Creek as snow swirled outside, he spoke of how the city had changed since he lived here in the 1930s.

“This idea of these old people going to these kind of communities didn’t really exist. . . . On the whole, you just stayed at home,” he said. “My grandparents, they didn’t have anything like this,” he said, gesturing at his sleek black walker a few feet away.

As a documentarian, he spent extensive time with poets and writers, including Robert Lowell. Footage from his 1963 interview with James Baldwin appears in the newly released film, "I Am Not Your Negro." In 1991 he wrote "Mostly Morgenthaus," a book about his famous family. But aside from a brief foray in the fifth grade, he did not begin writing poetry until he participated in a couple of writing workshops in his 90s.

“I don’t know just what or why I started. I showed it to a few people and I was encouraged to go on,” he said. “It developed in sort of conflicting ways. On the one hand it was a way of separating myself from my heritage of a distinguished family.”

Several of the poems shed a personal light onto historic events and characters of the American 20th century. When Roosevelt died in 1945, Morgenthau was serving in Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army in Europe, and a letter his father wrote him about dining with the president the night before he died became material for his poem, “A Terrific Headache:”

Before that last supper, he steadied

the trembling hand

of his long time boss and friend

as he mixed Bourbon Old Fashioneds and nibbled

caviar, a gift from the Soviet ambassador.

Four ladies were his guests.

One of the women was Roosevelt’s longtime mistress, Lucy Mercer Rutherford. His father didn’t allow that information to appear in his authorized biography, but Morgenthau includes it in his poem, and also touches on Eleanor Roosevelt’s private musings about the shortcomings of her marriage.

He and Eleanor remained close until her death; he and his family donated many of her letters to the FDR Presidential Library and Museum at Hyde Park, the Library of Congress, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. But Morgenthau still has folders full of correspondence from her, as well as a couple of dozen White House invitations.

Sipping ginger ale as he sat at a curly maple desk that once belonged to his mother, he recalled visiting John F. Kennedy at the White House with Eleanor Roosevelt. “Jackie wasn’t there, but [daughter] Caroline was there, and Kennedy brought her out, holding his hand. Mrs. Roosevelt, she was great with Caroline, and she told her stories of how it was that they would have Christmas in the White House. Afterward, she said, ‘I didn’t see where Jackie had any place to do any work.’ ”

Morgenthau’s study and living room are lined with books, art, and photographs of him with FDR, JFK, Jimmy Carter and, beside the menorahs and carefully tended orchids, one taken with Barack Obama when he was campaigning for the 2008 Democratic nomination.

“I became an early supporter,” he said. “I didn’t think that Obama had any chance of winning, but I thought it was important that he make a good showing, and for that I supported him. I gave more money than I ever have before or since. For all the things that he stood for and being an African American.”

Morgenthau is, by contrast, “worried and horrified” about the White House’s present occupant, calling President Trump “a kind of pied piper who is leading us into what could easily be the destruction of civilization.”

For Morgenthau, living to 100 has meant lifting the veil not only on others’ secrets but his own as well. In his poems, he refers to a lifelong dread of being “uncovered.” “I need to be the person/my friends and family believe me to be./I can’t be the person I am,/ but can’t push him out.”

Asked about that, he flashed a big smile and nodded. “Well, there were a lot of things that different readers interpret in different ways,” he said. “I’ll say I had a difficult childhood. I think I had a considerable learning disability. I was never a very good student, even though I was interested in intellectual things [and] I had things which were sort of festering, about my identity, including sexual identity, which is sort of referred to in a number of those poems.”

Since moving to Washington and working with “a terrific psychiatrist,” he said, “I’ve found a way of sorting out these feelings which at times have been terrifying. . . . I’d lived with this fear of exposing myself, and I tended not only to be a loner, which I was, but also self-consciously alienating people as a way of keeping them at a distance, and at times being very arrogant.” Now, he said, “I’m much more outgoing with people, and more sensitive to their sensibilities.”

Did poetry help him to open up? Or did opening up spur him to write poetry?

He paused for a long time. “I hadn’t thought about that, but I think it was both.”

Living at Ingleside has also been a catalyst. Although he skips many of the facility’s group activities to make time for writing, many of his poems, including the title one, address issues around nearing the end of life that are implicit in living there.

“I think age, in its various stages, is sort of a nexus for community,” he said. “I feel very comfortable being with people somewhere near my own age. I wrote this poem, ‘A Sunday In Purgatory’ — it is a kind of waiting place for the end; everyone knows it’s not far away.” At Ingleside, “People feel pretty free to talk with each other about this. And I’m probably now in the top one percent.”

His wife, with whom he describes “a very close and satisfying relationship,” died in 2006; his three children have, he says, been enthusiastic about the collection.

“I’m thrilled that he found this passion,” said his daughter, Sarah Morgenthau, who lives in the District. “I think that’s a large part of why Dad is 100, is that he continues to push himself and to engage and to experiment with new mediums, (and) I think it enabled him to sort of articulate some of the things that he’s wanted to say. ”

His publisher, which specializes in the work of people over 50, hopes Morgenthau’s book can open a door for others. “I’m feeling that this book can make an entry point for other writers to see that they can possibly write or publish a book in their 90s,” said co-editor Kendra Kopelke.

That said, they pushed the collection through relatively quickly, Morgenthau said. “There are quite a few poems that I considered a work in progress,” he said with a smile. “Although it usually takes a year to evolve, they wanted to do it in three months . . . I guess because of my age.”