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Henry Morgenthau III dead; producer who helped shape public TV was 101

Henry Morgenthau III in his home in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 9, 2017. / Getty Images / The Washington Post

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.

The cause was complications from aortic stenosis, his daughter Sarah Morgenthau said.

A scion of a prominent German-Jewish family, 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 Morgenthau, and a cousin of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Barbara Tuchman.

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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. 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 Armenian genocide 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."

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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, New York, and the young 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."

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

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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 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, California, and Kramer Morgenthau of Los Angeles; his brother; and six grandchildren.

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."