Elinor Morgenthau, who are you?

In Letters from Eleanor Roosevelt I write about a table game called, “who are you?” In the novel, I attribute it to the Roosevelt family as a way they came to know guests at the family dinner table. In truth, it is an ice breaker I would sometimes use when I course I was teaching had a relatively small enrollment. In class, each student would write an answer to the question, “who are you?” I asked the question 10 times, and students responded each time with a different answer. Then we would go around the class and record the responses on the board to get a bird’s-eye view of how we all thought of ourselves. That led to some very interesting discussions. In the (fictional) Roosevelt version of the game, one person volunteered to start, and then each person around the table would query that person, “who are you?” eliciting thoughtfulness and depth in the answers. The game continued rotating the person of focus until everyone responded to the question.

Today I thought I would play a version of that game with Elinor Morgenthau. And so I ask, Elinor

Morgenthau, who are you?

  1. Daughter of Lisette Lehman and Morris Fatman.
  2. Sister of Margaret Fatman.
  3. Wife of Henry Morgenthau.
  4. Mother of Henry III, Robert and Joan.
  5. An athlete who enjoyed tennis and horseback riding.
  6. Alumna of Vassar College.
  7. Teacher of theater at the Henry Street Settlement.
  8. Speaker for the New York State Democratic Committee Women’s Division.
  9. Dear friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and her assistant in the Office of Civilian Defense.
  10. Significant supporter of the War Refugee Board.

Elinor Morgenthau was all of that and more. She was a woman of her time and she was ahead of her times. In 1916, she proposed to her husband in Central Park, New York City. She was a delightful conversationalist, an astute political observer and analyst who supported and advanced her husband’s career and saw to it his appointment as Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury.

Elinor Morgenthau died of a stroke on September 21, 1949. She was only 57 years old. Eleanor Roosevelt paid tribute to her friend in her September 23, 1949 My Day Column:

For nearly four and a half years, Mrs. Henry Morgenthau, Jr. had been ill at times. She suffered a great deal, but she was a gallant soul.

Elinor Morgenthau loved life and took a deep interest in what was happening in the world as a whole, as well as in what was happening in her own world of family and friends and personal affections. . .

There are not so many good people in the world that we can see their passing without grief for ourselves and regret that their share of humanity’s burdens will now have to be borne by others.

Elinor Morgenthau was many things to many people. She was deeply loved. She was deeply missed in her time. And yet, today her many contributions to our world receive little recognition or appreciation.  Her life, and Eleanor Roosevelt’s thoughts about her life, have me thinking about all the people who have died of COVID in the past years. In the United States, 1.03 million people have died of COVID. In the world writ large, over 6.4 million have died of COVID. For each of those unnecessarily lost lives, we could ask, “Who are you?” We could think about who they loved and how they lived. We should remember, “There are not so many good people in the world that we can see their passing without grief for ourselves and regret that their share of humanity’s burdens will now have to be borne by others.”

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