Former Executive Producer Henry Morgenthau Releases New Book

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Screen Shot 2016-08-14 at 3.16.22 PMPassager Books, a not-for-profit press dedicated to publishing the work of older writers, has just released A Sunday in Purgatory, a book of poems by 99-year old Henry Morgenthau III (he’ll be 100 next January).

Henry was a WGBH staffer from 1955 to 1977.  During that time he executive produced a variety of series and documentaries, including “The Negro and the American Promise” (1963) with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, and others; Focus on Metropolis; and Eleanor Roosevelt: Prospects of Mankind (1959-62).  His work won him and WGBH national acclaim, including Emmy, Peabody, UPI, and other awards and nominations. 

Henry’s father, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., was FDR’s Treasury Secretary and played a major role in shaping the New Deal and America’s post WWII policies toward Germany; his grandfather, Henry Morgenthau, was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during WWI and the most prominent American to speak out against the Armenian genocide. 

Photo_of_Henry_Morgenthau_IIIAfter a long and impressive career as a producer and as an author, Henry III began writing poetry in his 90s.

The poems in A Sunday in Purgatory combine memoir (his father “steadying the trembling hand [of FDR] as he mixed Bourbon Old Fashioneds and nibbled caviar, a gift from the Soviet ambassador,” for example), reflections on aging (“Anticipation of death is like looking for a new job”), and wrestling with the tension that exists between being part of a famous American family and yet knowing that he’s an individual, separate from his family history:       

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.
Perhaps he will be stillborn
After I die… 

2016 Pulitzer Prize winner Peter Balakian said, “Henry Morgenthau’s poems are crisp, elegant forays into memory both personal and cultural… His surgical examinations of self and his unflinching stare into mortality define the unique and honest voice of this remarkable first book of poems.”

Poems by Henry Morgenthau

“A Sunday in Purgatory” is a collection of poems filled with mystery, humor and the confessional style of Robert Lowell. Available on Amazon. Read the reviews!


“You’ll catch your death of cold,” Mother would say
if I went outside without my jacket, cap and mittens.
When I was older, plagued with an infected tooth,
the dentist numbed my nerve with Laughing Gas.
I felt the pain from his drilling but laughed as if

it were hurting someone else, not me.
Then, at Deerfield, my best friend swallowed
a corrosive base in chemistry lab to end his life,
but recovered to graduate. Next year at Dartmouth,
he lay down across the tracks to wait for the train.

Now death has begun to catch up with me.
I’ve lived too long. Merely standing up
and breathing in and out is a serious challenge.
At Ingleside, our retirement home, we progress
from canes, to walkers, to wheelchairs.

In vain we try to push back looming shadows
as frequent announcements of memorial services
are posted where they can’t be mixed:
advertisements luring us to that final vacation.


Can the unseen
be obscene?
Can bad taste
be tasted?
Is a misfit
Hurrying to get there,
what is there?

If you think you will slip,
don’t take a trip.
Stay home, take another sip.
If life could extend
with no foreseeable end,
let boredom spirit you
around the bend.

January 12, 2017

From Paul Noble: Last night in Washington DC,  35 relatives and friends came together to celebrate Henry’s 100th birthday. Henry read one of his poems, entertained with his usual wit.

Media Sightings

January 14, 2017

A Century-Old Poet Looks Back — And Fearlessly Forward — In ‘Purgatory’
Interview with Scott Simon, NPR

Henry Morgenthau III was in his 90s when he started to write poetry.

Morgenthau has had an extraordinarily full life. He’s produced award-winning television documentaries, raised children, written a memoir — and yes, his father was the Henry Morgenthau Jr. who was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Treasury Secretary.

Now, at age 100, he’s promoting his first book of poetry, called A Sunday in Purgatory. He tells NPR’s Scott Simon that he started writing poetry first because he wanted to establish his own identity, not simply to be a member of a distinguished family. “At the same time, I wanted to recall some of the events that I was privileged to observe … like my poem ‘A Terrific Headache,’ which has to do with my father having dinner with Roosevelt the night before he died.”

Interview Highlights

On knowing FDR

My father’s whole life was tied up with Roosevelt, and I remember that he would come to our house for dinner, and I remember leaning over the banisters from upstairs and hearing him talk and tell stories. He was always a larger than life person.

On what a poem can do

Poems, most poems, my poems, are really metaphor. They are also song. The poetry of the Western world began in ancient Greece — a poet would recite his poem with an instrumental accompaniment. And that goes on to this day, and into a world actually that I’m not familiar with, of hip hop, where they do just that. I think hip hop is doing a lot to make poetry accessible and popular with a much wider audience.

On writing about death

I do think about death. I live in a community where people are … kind of in a purgatory, a waiting place for the end, people passing away just about every week. So I think about it, but I’ve had more than my time. And it’s not something that frightens me. And actually getting it out on paper is a relief.

February 12, 2017

From the Washington Post

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

Last month, retired television producer Henry Morgenthau III 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…

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.

August 4, 2017

The Atlantic: Poem of the Week

This year, in honor of National Poetry Month, we compiled some of the best poems published throughout The Atlantic’s 160-year history… and we didn’t want to stop. Come back every week to read another poem from our archives, and go here to check out our month of poetry recommendations from staff and readers.

Editor’s note: Henry Morgenthau III is a 100-year-old poet. He published his first collection in 2016 at the age of 99. Before that, he was a writer and a documentary filmmaker at WGBH in Boston, working with subjects from James Baldwin to Eleanor Roosevelt. He’s also a memoirist, and the son of the former U.S. treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., but his family connections don’t define his poems—as he told us, “One of the reasons I started writing poetry was to free myself from all that.”

For Morgenthau, freedom comes with humor and insight, in his own distinctive voice. And in his poem “A Sunday in Purgatory,” he finds this freedom even within the would-be confines of his age. It’s the title poem of his book, and we’re delighted to share it below.

—Jeffrey Goldberg

A Sunday in Purgatory, by Henry Morgenthau III

A voluntary inmate immured
in a last resort for seniors,
there are constant reminders,
the reaper is lurking around that corner.
I am at home, very much at home,
here at Ingleside at Rock Creek.
Distant three miles from my caring daughter.

At Ingleside, a faith-based community
for vintage Presbyterians, I am an old Jew.
But that’s another story.
I’m not complaining with so much I want to do,
doing it at my pace, slowly.
Anticipation of death is like looking for a new job.

Then suddenly on a Sunday,
talking recklessly while eating brunch,
a gristly piece of meat lodges in my throat.
I struggle for breath, too annoyed to be scared.
Someone pounds my back to no avail.
Out of nowhere, an alert pint-sized waiter
performs the Heimlich maneuver.
I don’t believe it will work.
It does! Uncorked, I am freed.

Looking up I see the concerned visage and
reversed collar of a retired Navy chaplain,
pinch hitting as God’s messenger for the day.
Had he come to perform the last rites,
to ease my passage from this world to the hereafter?
Don’t jump to dark conclusions.
In World War II on active duty,
he learned the Heimlich as well as the himmlisch.
Knowing it is best administered
to a standing victim,
he rushed to intervene.
On this day I am twice blessed
with the kindness of strangers.

You can listen to a reading by Morgenthau here; read more about his poetry collection from Passager Books here; and contact him here.

Related stories here at WGBH Alumni


  1. Jay Collier on June 16, 2018 at 1:35 pm

    My poem, “A Sunday in Purgatory,” was just published in “The Way of Kindness, Readings for a Graceful Life” an anthology by Orbis Books.

  2. Jay Collier on August 6, 2017 at 1:06 pm

    From John Kerr: I remember those days of PROSPECTS OF MANKIND so well, and of the parade of amazing people that Henry and Diana brought into the studio to be interviewed by Mrs. Roosevelt: JFK, Kissinger, so many others — a parade of world leaders, right there before my camera. It reminded me again what a pioneering place WGBH really was, and how it became what it became.

    I was just a young BU/WGBH Scholar then, but my god, being around that place was amazing in those days! Lucky, lucky me.

  3. Jay Collier on January 13, 2017 at 7:30 am

    Last night in Washington DC, 35 relatives and friends came together to celebrate Henry’s 100th birthday. Henry read one of his poems, entertained with his usual wit.

  4. joan summerfield-gray on September 22, 2016 at 2:10 pm

    Just want to congratulate Henry on his poetry collection. Where can I find it?
    I’ve also been working on a poetry collection, trying to get it published. I published a novella back in ’97 called “The Francesca Diaries”, which can be found on Amazon. People tell me it’s a great read!
    My memories of ‘GBH are cherished. It was a great time in my life!

  5. joan summerfield-gray on September 22, 2016 at 2:05 pm

    It’s amazing to read that Henry’s writing poems in his ’90’s. I think it’s wonderful. I, too am writing poems, although I’ve been writing them for far longer than he. I’m also working on getting them published, (hopefully), as I think they’re quite good. (I published my novella, “The Francesca Diaries”, in ’97, which was very well received. You can find it on Amazon.
    Joan Summerfield-Gray (1966-68 WGBH)

  6. Dan Beach on August 19, 2016 at 7:05 pm

    How wonderful to have HM III’s sights and insights. I look forward to reading the new book. Working with him was one of my best memories from my time running WGBH’s early “Film Department.” The logistics of getting crew, equipment and special film stock from Kodak to accompany him to Africa, in the mid-’60s, was a new and testing experience for all of us. Totally rewarding. HM III is in my permanent lexicon of acronyms, recognized immediately.

  7. Cyndi Chutter Kahn on August 17, 2016 at 7:42 pm

    After graduating from Smith College in 1961 and UCLA with an MA in African History in 1963, I began working for Henry’s wife Ruth Morganthau when she was teaching at Brandeis. Not long after that, I started working for Henry at WGBH, helping to make several documentaries on Africa: South Africa (2) and Tanzania (1) for PBS. Along with Tom Bywaters, we all traveled to Tanzania in 1965, where I got malaria and returned early to the US. I left ‘GBH in May, 1966 when I got married and moved to Colorado, where I still live w/ husband Ed Kahn, 3 kids and 6 grandchildren, ages 8 to 15. I even worked for a while making documentaries in Denver, initially for the ABC affiliate, then for the public TV station KRMA. Mostly now I work on educational reform issues.

    I just want to say hi to Henry (those were great years!) and congratulate him on his new poetry book. Where can I buy a copy? Anyone know? Dang, it’s been 50 years! Thanks to Caroline Isber, a fellow WGBH employee during the 1960s, who linked me to this site. Anyone know the whereabouts of Ruth Curtis? Or Tom Bywaters? I think we knew each other too, Ginny Kassel.

    • Christopher Lydon on August 19, 2016 at 6:10 pm

      Dear Cyndi Chutter Kahn,

      Delighted to see your mention of Caroline Isber, with whom my Globe teammate Bryant Rollins and I did a old-time freebie weekly GBH Radio broadcast of “This Week at the Statehouse.” Can you point me toward Caroline today with email address or phone numbers?

      Up with you and Henry Morgenthau and Caroline and the pioneers who still think like pioneers.

    • Austin Hoyt on June 23, 2018 at 12:09 pm

      The mention of Tom Bywaters made me jump. The name was so familiar. I Googled him only to learn he died in Dallas in 2016. Turns out we were in the class of 1959 together at Yale. Love to learn when he was at GBH and what he did other than go to Africa with Henry Morgenthau.

  8. Virginia Kassel on August 14, 2016 at 3:38 pm

    Delighted to read the news of HM III new book. What an honor it was to work with him and what a precious memory. I look forward to reading his poetry.

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