Henry Morgenthau III, 101, award-winning WGBH producer who turned to poetry
Publishing his first collection of poetry just before turning 100, Henry Morgenthau III offered a bracing perspective on both a century of living and a momentous day that lay ahead. In opening lines of one poem he wrote:
I’m telling you my dear,
dying is the most important
event in your life.
Mr. Morgenthau was 101 when he reached that threshold Wednesday, dying in the Ingleside at Rock Creek retirement community in Washington, D.C.
And when he had sat in judgment to decide death was a notch up from everything else, Mr. Morgenthau was comparing it to an enormous wealth of experiences.
During his many years in Greater Boston, mostly in Cambridge, he spent more than two decades as an executive producer at WGBH-TV, where programs he guided received Emmy and Peabody awards.
For 1963’s “The Negro and the American Promise,” he conducted memorable interviews with the likes of James Baldwin and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Excerpts from the Baldwin interview were used in “I Am Not Your Negro,” an Academy Award-nominated 2016 documentary. Mr. Morgenthau also shepherded the “Prospects of Mankind” series hosted by Eleanor Roosevelt, a longtime friend.
Throughout his life Mr. Morgenthau had a front-row seat for historic moments large and small — whether listening as a boy to Franklin D. Roosevelt tell stories during the president’s visits to his family’s home, riding in a car with FDR, or sitting on a hotel veranda in France with a youthful John F. Kennedy as the two friends noticed that film star Marlene Dietrich was sunbathing nearby.
In his mid-70s, Mr. Morgenthau published “Mostly Morgenthaus,” a sweeping, multigenerational family history. The book, among other things, details the prominent roles Morgenthaus took in calling attention to 20th century atrocities.
When Mr. Morgenthau’s grandfather, Henry Sr., was President Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, he criticized the Turkish “campaign of race extermination” against Armenians — decades before the United States officially recognized the massacre as genocide. In a 2003 Globe opinion piece, Mr. Morgenthau himself called for that recognition.
Mr. Morgenthau’s father, Henry Jr., served as treasury secretary for more than a decade under FDR. Henry Jr. helped design New Deal programs, and during World War II he was a leading voice calling attention to Germany’s killing of Jews, when the US State Department wasn’t highlighting emerging details of the Holocaust.
“He became uncompromisingly aggressive in his outrage,” Mr. Morgenthau wrote of his father in “Mostly Morgenthaus.” And once Henry Jr. had raised his voice to FDR and others, “he maintained his lonely stance, enlisting few cohorts and many detractors.”
Even when writing prose, Mr. Morgenthau employed a poet’s eye for detail. He opened his family history by studying an old family photograph in which his great-grandfather Lazarus Morgenthau “appears something of a dandy, sitting erect in a straight-backed chair, immaculately groomed in a Prince Albert jacket, the loose trousers of the day flaring over glossy patent leather shoes buttoned to the ankle.”
In interviews about his 2016 book of poetry, “A Sunday in Purgatory,” Mr. Morgenthau at times tossed off lines that seemed like verses that had wandered into his conversation. “Sometimes I accidentally look in the mirror and I see this rusted, ancient machinery that was built during World War I,” he told Princeton Alumni Weekly last year.
“I kind of naturally have a tendency at times to dress my poetry, what I’m saying, in humor,” he said in a video interview that his publisher, Passenger Books, posted on YouTube. With a quick smile he added: “Very often the joke is on me.”
Henry Morgenthau III was the oldest of three siblings whose parents, Henry Jr. and the former Elinor Fatman, lived in New York City and had a home in Hyde Park, N.Y., where the Roosevelts were neighbors. His mother was active in women’s groups and was friends with Eleanor Roosevelt.
In poems he gave his privileged childhood a few satirical pokes, recalling “the gilded ghetto/of Manhattan’s Upper West Side.” He also wrote: “Pack up your troubles/in your old kit bag/and hand them over/to your psychiatrist.”
Mr. Morgenthau graduated from Deerfield Academy and from Princeton University, where his grandfather took him to Albert Einstein’s home. Young Henry felt intimidated by his host’s intellect. “Einstein was warm and courteous, but I sort of felt he was seeing right through me,” he told the alumni weekly.
In the eyes of others, Mr. Morgenthau may have sold himself short.
“He was a person of many talents: He was a good musician. He sang, played the piano, was a good writer,” said his brother, Robert Morgenthau, a former longtime Manhattan district attorney.
Mr. Morgenthau also was awarded a Bronze Star Medal during World War II, when he had “distinguished career in the Army, but never talked about it,” Robert added. “He was good at almost anything he put his hand to, but never bragged. He was a very modest guy.”
In 1962, Mr. Morgenthau married Ruth Schachter, a specialist on French-speaking West Africa. They met when she was teaching at Boston University and he sought her advice while producing a WGBH show. “It was love at first sight,” he told the Globe interview for her obit, when she died in 2006. “She was beautiful and lovable, a very strong and independent person.”
She went on to serve as an adviser to three presidents and, urged on by Mr. Morgenthau, ran for Congress. Their Cambridge home was an inspirational haven for visitors and family alike.
Mr. Morgenthau “was a gentle and determined and brilliant man who wore his elegance and sweetness for everyone to see,” said his son Ben of Danville, Calif. “He gave us all courage to be who we truly are, to express ourselves.”
Ben’s brother Kramer, a cinematographer in Los Angeles, said their father “was an inspiration to me as a filmmaker, but also as a filmmaker who cares about the world and about social justice.”
Though born in 1917, Mr. Morgenthau “was really very modern in his values,” said his daughter Sarah of Washington, D.C. She said he was “the man behind the woman” during Ruth’s stellar career, and supported his daughter as well: “He encouraged me and gave me the confidence to climb higher and break through barriers.”
In addition to his three children and brother, Mr. Morgenthau leaves six grandchildren.
A service will be held at 6:30 p.m. Monday at Ingleside, his retirement community.
In the days before he died, Mr. Morgenthau wrote haikus. “He was never done,” Ben said. “He was writing poetry to the very end. He was determined to keep exploring.”
In the video interview, Mr. Morgenthau said he chose the image of his book’s title poem because a retirement community “is a kind of purgatory between an active life and waiting for the end.” The poem includes a line that’s both somber and winking with his humor: “Anticipation of death is like looking for a new job.”
“Writing poetry for me is a celebration of the evening of a long life,” he wrote in his book’s introduction, and added: “Now as death kindly waits for me, I am enlivened with thoughts I can’t take with me.”