I think I can say with some confidence that for over 25 years I’ve been writing this column centered on the history of our beautiful city, a 38-year-old high-end contemporary next to Plantation Lane in Saunderstown is indeed the newest house I have ever focused on. And you might be wondering why, in an older community where century-old homes are so common that people hardly think about them, I would even consider investing my time and attention in such a young home. Well, you see, the story here, as is most often the case, is not this beautiful house, but the people who have owned and lived in it since it was built. Because this house was designed and built in 1984 as a peaceful summer getaway for Henry and Ruth S. Morgenthau. Henry and Ruth, their ancestors and offspring, were not only witnesses to history on a grand scale on the world stage, they were, and still are, actors in this great drama. It is therefore a wonderful story to explore during Women’s History Month, as more than a generation of Morgenthau women associated with this house have left their mark on history.
Henry Morgenthau III spent his business career as a television executive producer and writer and was among those responsible for making his Boston station WGBH-2 one of the crown jewels of our country’s public broadcasting system. His most famous documentary for the station was a groundbreaking series about Eleanor Roosevelt and her impact on our nation, this work was personal to him, as his childhood was rooted in the Roosevelt administration while his father Henry Morgenthau Jr. was secretary to the FDR Treasury. and Henry III, literally grew up during those difficult years surrounded by people who marked history on a daily basis. Henry Morgenthau Jr will forever be remembered not only as the architect of the Morgenthau plan for post-war Germany, but also as one of Roosevelt’s “brain trusts” behind the New Deal and his innovative tax policies. and efficient. Henry III’s grandfather, Henry Morgenthau Sr., was also a “mover and agitator”. A longtime diplomat, he served as ambassador to the former Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century and was one of the first and only senior American officials to speak out against the Armenian Genocide. The foresight and irony of it all was not lost on his son Henry Jr. You see, all of Morgenthau’s roots go back to their heritage as German Jews, who left Germany around the time of the American Civil War, but who were active in World War II speaking out against the next great global genocide; the Jewish Holocaust. The Morgenthaus also worked behind the scenes actively participating in and financing the rescue of Jews from Hitler’s Europe. The other owner of the house at the time of its construction in 1984 was Henry III’s wife, Ruth (Schachter) Morgenthau. Ruth was a professor of international politics at Brandeis University and was the founder of that university’s international sustainability graduate program. During the 1980s, Ruth was the recognized expert on African aid policy and, as such, was an adviser to President Jimmy Carter and a member of the United States delegation to the United Nations. His ground-breaking research which highlighted that “top-down” aid to developing countries in Africa and elsewhere was fraught with pitfalls and encouraged corruption; Ruth’s strategy used a ‘bottom-up’ approach to aid that emphasized getting resources into the hands of villagers and rural communities. This assistance strategy still informs US international assistance planning today. Ruth, too, was rooted in European Jewry and fled Vienna to Austria with her parents, just before the Nazis in 1940. Some of Ruth’s last work, just before her death in 2006, was done at the Center for Global Development, a Washington and foreshadowed everything we discuss today, emphasizing that well-managed foreign aid was essential to American security because poor nations became havens for terrorists, pirates, and other criminals.
After Ruth’s death in 2006, this beautiful summer house became the property of their children; son Ben, a prominent San Francisco pediatrician, and Kramer, a cinematographer and cinematographer for television and feature films (movies like Fracture, Too Big to Fail, Thor and The Express, TV series like Sleepy Hollow, Vegas, Game of Thrones, and Boardwalk Empire), and his daughter Sarah. While Kramer certainly followed in her father’s career footsteps, Sarah got into her mother’s political activism, along with, oh yeah, a bit of her uncle, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau ( inspiration from Adam Schiff’s character in the TV series Law And Order) added for good measure. Sarah, after earning a law degree, served as a clerk in the US District Court in New Jersey. After that, she took a job as a lawyer for the US Security and Exchange Commission, then followed that up with a stint as a planner for New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker. She also served on the National Finance Committee for Obama’s campaign, then worked as Director of Response for the Peace Corps. She’s now a deputy assistant in the Biden administration’s Commerce Department and recently threw her hat in the ring to try to become our next US Congressman.
So as you can clearly see, while this house is not in itself historic, as a getaway place for all those exceptional people, it has indeed seen its share of history and is just a many extraordinary stories involving incredible people who are connected to the sleepy little village of Saunderstown. While researching this story, I couldn’t help but be drawn to the old Yiddish tradition of placing a stone on a person’s grave and the similar Yiddish concept of “mentsh” or as the Jews Germans from the Morgenthau family traditions would have done it. says “mensch”. In my mind I can see people from all walks of life, Jews and Christians, whites and blacks, Europeans, Americans and Africans heading to the Morgenthau family grounds, wherever it is, and placing a stone on the graves of various members of this incredible clan and remembering them as true “mensch”. You see the ancient tradition of bringing a stone from a significant place and placing it on a tombstone, it’s a way of saying “You were important to me; I made the effort to remember you by bringing this piece of my world here and offering it to you, a “mensch”. The word mensch of course means “human being”, but in reality the word has more meaning than that. As Leo Rosten, a well-known Yiddish writer, so aptly put it, “a mensch is someone to admire and imitate someone of noble character. Nothing less than character, rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right. Mensch is an expression of the rarity and value of the qualities of this particular individual. Sounds like a Morgenthau to me.
The author is the town historian of North Kingstown. The opinions expressed here are his own.