Passager 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.
After 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
“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
Can bad taste
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.
- Read about Henry’s book, A Sunday in Purgatory
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.”
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
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.
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.