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.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
When did you start to write poetry?
HENRY MORGENTHAU III: It's a very delayed vocation, I would say. I was in my early 90s when I started.
MORGENTHAU: And now I'm - I've hit the three-digit line.
SIMON: Well - and so we're joined in the studio now by Henry Morgenthau III, who has had an extraordinarily full life. He has produced award-winning television and documentaries. He's raised children. He's written a memoir. And, yes, his father was that Henry Morgenthau Jr. who was secretary of treasury under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. And now, at the age of 100, Henry Morgenthau III has released his first book of poetry. It is called "A Sunday In Purgatory." Thanks so much for being with us.
MORGENTHAU: Thank you.
SIMON: What made you start writing poetry?
MORGENTHAU: I think there were a number of reasons, maybe in a conflict. First of all, I wanted to establish my own identity - not simply to be a member of a distinguished family. And at the same time, I wanted to recall some of the events that I was privileged to observe in making history, like the - my poem "A Terrific Headache," which has to do with my father having dinner with Roosevelt the night before he died.
SIMON: Yeah. I don't get to talk to a lot of people who knew Franklin D. Roosevelt.
MORGENTHAU: Well, I was brought up on Roosevelt. 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. And he was always a larger-than-life person.
SIMON: Yeah. I would like you to read one of your poems. What about the title poem, "Sunday In Purgatory?"
MORGENTHAU: (Reading) A voluntary inmate immured in a last resort for seniors - there are constant reminders the reaper is lurking around the corner. I'm 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'm 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 simply like looking for a new job. Then, suddenly, on a Sunday, talking recklessly while eating brunch, a gristly piece of meat lodged in my throat. I struggled for breath, too annoyed to be scared. Someone pounded my back to no avail.
Out of nowhere, an alert, pint-sized waiter performed the Heimlich maneuver. I don't believe it will work. It does. Uncorked, I'm freed. Looking up, I see the concerned visage and reverse color 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 conclusions.
In World War II, on active duty, he learned the himmlisch as well as the Heimlich. Knowing it to be best administered to a standing victim, he rushed to intervene. On this day, I'm twice blessed with the kindness of strangers.
SIMON: Wow. What can a poem do that other forms of expression may not?
MORGENTHAU: Poems - most poems - my poems - are really metaphor. They're 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, 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 that it has recently in this country.
SIMON: A lot of your poems are about looking over the ledge to whatever's next.
MORGENTHAU: About death, yes.
SIMON: Yeah - about death. Yeah.
MORGENTHAU: I do think about death. I live in a community where people are, as I said in this poem, 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.
SIMON: I feel moved to ask you this question, having read your poems. What's the key to a happy life?
MORGENTHAU: A key to a happy life is perhaps living long enough to look back on things that have happened because anticipating things that I'm going to do or want to do is always clouded with a lot of anxiety.
SIMON: What makes you happy now?
MORGENTHAU: I'm probably not happy most of that time. I think, maybe, the thing that makes me happy is actually getting these things out so that I can distance myself from them.
SIMON: Well, they're wonderful poems. Thank you.
MORGENTHAU: Thank you. It's my privilege.
SIMON: Henry Morgenthau III - he's the author, at the age of 100, of his first book of poetry, "A Sunday In Purgatory." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.