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.”
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.
WGBH alum Henry Morgenthau III is scheduled to be interviewed tomorrow morning (Sat, 1/14) by Scott Simon on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday.
Henry turned 100 on Wednesday and just published his first book of poetry, A Sunday in Purgatory (Passager Books).
Happy Birthday, Henry.