The Last Act

posted in: Aging, Poetry | 0
Henry Morgenthau III portrait

Two poems by D.C. poet Henry Morgenthau III from his book, A Sunday in Purgatory, published by Passager Books in 2016.
3 minutes


Henry Morgenthau III had a long and distinguished career as an author and as a producer of public affairs programs for public television. And he came from a distinguished family, as well, one that he said he sometimes hated carrying around with him: his father was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Treasury Secretary, and his grandfather was Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

Passager published Morgenthau’s first book of poetry, A Sunday in Purgatory, just before he turned 100. Here are two poems from that book in which he reflects on old age. He said that the title came from living in an assisted living community, a “purgatory” that exists for people between their active lives and “waiting for the end.”

The Last Act

I’m telling you my dear,
dying is the most important
event in your life.
You can rehearse it
in your head and with your body.
You can prepare for it
all your life,
you can only do it once,
there is no looking back.
You can never ask,
“Did I do it well?”
You will never know.
No one will know.

It will be said,
“Surrounded by his loving family,
he died peacefully.”
Cold comfort for the warm-blooded:
a sugar-coated lie.

“The Last Act.” And here’s a second poem by Henry Morgenthau, “Wow.”

At ninety-nine
I can’t say I have had
everything I expected out of life,
but I have had about all I want.
These days my family and good friends
are relentless cheerleaders.
Their cheers I can do without.
They look me over and say, “Wow!”
I yell, “Ow!!”

. . .

“The Last Act” and “Wow,” by Henry Morgenthau III.

After Mr. Morgenthau died in 2018, Passager established a prize in his honor for a first book of poetry by a writer 70 or older. The first winner of the Morgenthau Prize is Dennis H. Lee, for his book Tidal Wave.

To buy Henry Morgenthau’s book A Sunday in Purgatory or learn more about Passager and its commitment to writers over 50, go to By the way, after Passager published 100-year old Henry Morgenthau’s work, he said that since Passager is for writers 50 and older, he’s doubly qualified.

You can also download Burning Bright from Spotify, Apple and Google Podcasts, and various other podcast apps.