Henry Morgenthau III, 101, pioneering producer

Photos by Kramer Morgenthau

Henry Morgenthau III, producer who helped shape public television, dies at 101

From the Washington Post – July 14, 2018

Henry Morgenthau III, a TV producer and documentarian who helped shape public television in its early days and provided a forum for the nation’s civil rights conversation in the 1960s, died July 11 at a retirement community in Washington. He was 101…

A scion of a prominent German-Jewish family, Mr. Morgenthau was a son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s treasury secretary, a grandson of the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire under President Woodrow Wilson, the older brother of former Manhattan district attorney Robert M. Morgenthau, and a cousin of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Barbara W. Tuchman.

He grew up moving comfortably among Washington and New York political and literary society, although he said his Jewish heritage made him often feel like an outsider at times. That contradiction would inform his professional life as a teller of stories, on screen and in print.

His years as a producer at WGBH in Boston, from 1955* to 1977, coincided with the birth of public television. Mr. Morgenthau was inspired by “the whole concept of using television to educate and also tell stories of marginalized people in society,” his son Kramer Morgenthau said.

He was among the first American TV producers to bring a crew into apartheid South Africa. He also produced “Prospects of Mankind,” a weekly show hosted by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt featuring roundtable discussions of foreign and domestic affairs with political, academic and media experts.

As executive producer at WGBH, one of the country’s premier public television outlets, his shows won Peabody and Emmy awards, among other honors. His 1963 program “The Negro and the American Promise” consisted of one-on-one interviews with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and James Baldwin. It aired at a fraught period, after Alabama Gov. George Wallace defiantly declared support for “segregation forever” and before the March on Washington. Footage from the Baldwin interview appeared in the Oscar-nominated documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” (2016).

In 1991, he wrote “Mostly Morgenthaus,” a book about his family that chronicles the lives of his great-grandfather, a Bavarian cigar maker who moved to New York in 1866, and his grandfather, Henry Morgenthau Sr., who unsuccessfully pushed the U.S. to intervene in the 1915 mass killings of Armenians in Turkey.

His father, Henry Morgenthau Jr., played an integral role in designing the New Deal and in financing U.S. participation in World War II. He pushed for the U.S. to do more to help Jews suffering persecution in Europe, and continued to help shape foreign policy after the war.

“He grew up at a time when the government — and certainly the New Deal — was looking out for the underdog of society,” said Kramer Morgenthau. “That was tremendously inspiring to him, and at the same time he had tremendous pressure on him to live up to his family’s reputation. . . . I think he needed to find his own voice.”

Henry Morgenthau III was born at home in New York City on Jan. 11, 1917. He was the oldest of three children of the former Elinor Fatman and Henry Morgenthau Jr., and a great-grandson of Mayer Lehman, a co-founder of the securities firm Lehman Brothers.

The family had a home near Roosevelt’s estate at Hyde Park, N.Y., and the young Mr. Morgenthau later recalled slipping out of bed to listen to the adults talk over dinner, with Roosevelt’s sonorous baritone and contagious laughter rising above the other voices.

His assimilated Jewish family inhabited their religion uneasily. His youth was shaped by deep strains of anti-Semitism during the run-up to World War II. In his book, he recalled a playmate asking him, then 5, what religion he was. He asked his mother, who winced and answered, “If anyone ever asks you that again, just tell them you’re American.”

Mr. Morgenthau attended Princeton University, where he majored in art history, ran cross-country, joined the glee club and served on the editorial board of the student newspaper. Despite his family’s social prominence he was, along with several other Jewish students, denied entry into the university’s prestigious eating clubs.

The following year, he “transcended his hurt and transformed a personal attack into a kind of mitzvah,” author David Michaelis, a longtime friend, wrote in an email to Mr. Morgenthau’s children after his death.

Each week during that winter, Michaelis added, “Henry had gone to the rear doors of the most selective of Prospect Street’s eating clubs, and from the African American cooks there in those kitchens, he had received the kindness of large quantities of leftovers and scraped food from the club tables, and he had transported this Depression-era manna back across campus and down Witherspoon Street to the African American parish that ran a food kitchen for the neediest in the community.”

After graduating in 1939, Mr. Morgenthau served in the Army in Europe during World War II and received the Bronze Star Medal.

In addition to his work at WGBH, he also was acting program manager at WNYC in New York, worked with Eleanor Roosevelt on a radio and TV production business, and served as manager of a communication research institute at Brandeis University.

While working on a documentary about Tanzania, he was introduced to Ruth Schachter, an African politics expert who taught at Boston University and later at Brandeis. Her Jewish family had fled Vienna in 1938, and their relationship nudged Mr. Morgenthau to embrace his own religion more fully. They married in 1962.

His wife died in 2006. Survivors include three children, Sarah Morgenthau of Washington, Henry “Ben” Morgenthau IV of Danville, Calif., and Kramer Morgenthau of Los Angeles; his brother; and six grandchildren.

Mr. Morgenthau settled in Washington from the Boston area in 2010 and took up a new vocation: writing poetry. Just before turning 100 he published his first collection, “A Sunday In Purgatory.” The poems draw on his memories coming of age in 1930s New York; his father’s account of Franklin Roosevelt’s final dinner; and musings on old age and mortality.

The poems also explored what he called his lifelong fears of being “uncovered,” that somehow he did not meet expectations. “I try to tell you the truth,/half hoping you don’t hear me,/as I desperately try to expel/something stuck in my soul/I can’t bear to live with,/but don’t want to die with.”

“I don’t know just what or why I started,” he told The Washington Post last year. “I showed it to a few people and I was encouraged to go on. 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.”

*According to a WGBH alum, Mr. Morgenthau arrived at WGBH in 1956 or thereafter.

Henry Morgenthau III On His Poetry

Henry Morgenthau III talks about becoming a poet in his 90s, and the success of his first book at age 99. From “Of Some Renown,” a video series. July 2017.

Henry Morgenthau III, 101, award-winning WGBH producer who turned to poetry

From the Boston Globe – July 16, 2018

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.”

From Kramer Morgenthau

Dear Friends and family of our father, Henry Morgenthau III,

We wanted you to know that he died at home peacefully and gently shortly after midnight July 11th. He was 101 and writing poetry, even this week.

Here are the final details for honoring dad on Sunday in New York and Monday in Washington, DC. We look forward to seeing you and sharing Dad’s life together.

Sunday, July 15, 10:00 AM Westchester NY

  • Interment with military honors and brief service led by Rabbi Norman Janis
    Mt. Pleasant Cemetery
    80 Commerce Street, Hawthorne, NY 10532, 914-769-0397 (Westchester County).
  • Reception to immediately follow at the home of Joan and Tony Barzilay-Freund (25 minute drive)
    375 Pound Ridge Rd.
    Bedford NY, 10506
    United States

Monday, July 16, 6:30 PM, Washington DC

  • A brief religious service led by Rabbi Jonathan Roos, followed by a shiva/reception in the Lounge at
    Ingleside at Rock Creek:
    5121 Broad Branch Rd NW
    Washington, DC 20008
    (Valet parking in the garage)

In lieu of flowers, please consider a contribution to the following:

1. The Henry Morgenthau Poetry Prize (for new poets over the age of 60)

Please make checks payable to:
The Henry Morgenthau Poetry Prize

Please send contributions to Passager Books
1420 N. Charles Street,
Baltimore, MD 21201

Online donations will be possible starting next week at GoFundMe.com and searching for Henry Morgenthau

2. Princeton University

Princeton University
Make a gift online or mail to 330 Alexander Street, Princeton, New Jersey, 08540

Sarah, Ben, and Kramer and the Grandchildren, Teddy, Henry, Mizia, Henry V, Mizia, and Osias

From WGBH – July 17, 2018

The WGBH community mourns the passing of pioneering WGBH Executive Producer Henry Morgenthau III. He joined fledgling WGBH TV just two years after it went on the air, and for the next two decades (1957-1977) created numerous memorable documentaries and talk shows.

WGBH vice chair and former president Henry Becton was a producer trainee under Morgenthau and recalls him as a “beloved mentor to many us,” with a refreshingly understated and selfless style. “Our audience benefitted time after time from Henry’s genuine and far-ranging intellectual curiosity, from his social conscience, often ahead of his time, and from his access to the best minds and leaders in numerous fields,” says Becton, who had the opportunity to work with Morgenthau on a national special about parenting hosted by famed pediatrician Dr. T. Barry Brazelton.

Among Morgenthau’s signature programs were SOUTH AFRICAN ESSAY, a mini-series on apartheid, and ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: PROSPECTS OF MANKIND, a weekly program with Mrs. Roosevelt moderating discussions with world leaders on contemporary themes. In 1963, at the height of the civil rights struggle, Morgenthau produced THE NEGRO AND THE AMERICAN PROMISE, featuring interviews with Martin Luther King, Jr., Nation of Islam Minister Malcolm X, and author James Baldwin. Excerpts from the Baldwin interview were used in the 2016 Academy Award-nominated I Am Not Your Negro documentary.

Morgenthau’s work at WGBH won national acclaim, including Peabody, Emmy, and UPI awards, among other honors. Becton noted that Morgenthau provided some priceless recollections for the American Archive of Public Broadcasting, and WGBH toasted him as a special guest last fall, at the age of 100, for the AAPB’s 50th anniversary celebration of the signing of the Public Broadcasting Act at the Library of Congress. Noted Becton, “Later in life Henry’s creativity found a new chapter as a poet, continuing to inspire us to the end.”


5 thoughts on “Henry Morgenthau III, 101, pioneering producer

  1. Henry was a dear friend from his arrival at WGBH in 1957 until his final days at Ingleside. His contributions to public television, to support for Harvard Hillel, unfailing commitment to the Armenian community, growth as a poet, and, perhaps most of all, as dad of an exemplary family, are just a few of the hallmarks of a remarkable gentleman.

  2. To have worked with Henry Morgenthau was a privilege and is a precious memory. He was generous and instructive and, when appropriate, witty. A living heir to decades of precious history, he drew on the past, examined the present, and looked at the future with wisdom and caution.

  3. Memories of Henry Morgenthau emerging from his office at 125 Western Ave. have stayed in my mind. He would look so deeply absorbed, so thoughtful …. and he somehow made one conscious of generations of American and European history. A treasure, to be sure. Thank you, WGBH and Mr. Morganthau’s family, for giving us this fascinating background.

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