John J. Healey: Remembering D.A. Pennebaker

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MADRID — Fifty years ago when I was a 19-year-old rebel without a cause who had just dropped out of university to be "a writer," I had the good fortune to attend a dinner at John's restaurant — that is still there — at 302 East 12thS treet in New York City. Seated at the table were Ira Resnick a hairy photographer of counterculture icons, Vali Meyers, Ira's current crush who was a bizarre looking Australian "visionary artist" who lived in Italy with 30 pet foxes and wolves, Freddy Wildman, an expatriate armchair historian and wine expert, and D.A. Pennebaker, who had recently shot to prominence with his breakthrough documentary about Bob Dylan, "Don't Look Back."

Into a third bottle of Chianti, Freddy invited me to stay at his finca in Spain, located back in the hills between M laga and Torremolinos. He told me he had a large library and a good typewriter and that the ageing hispanist and former Bloomsbury member Gerald Brennan was his neighbor. He told me I could work there and see if I had any talent, because if I stayed in New York, I might be too proud to admit I had made a terrible mistake in abandoning my university education. Ira and Vali, stoned out of their minds, ignored the topic entirely, but Pennebaker looked at me, really looked at me, put his hand on my shoulder and said, "This is what you have to do." That trip of mine to Spain a month later changed my life.

I had first met Penny a year before. I was close to a woman he adored, Ginny Gimbel, who he wished to court and marry. Ginny had been a successful fashion model engaged once upon a time to department store heir David Gimbel, but when David suddenly died, she married his brother instead, until Peter Gimbel began doing things like shooting himself up with vodka. In the time I am talking about she was living with her soul-mate Shaun Beary and only wished for Penny to remain a dear friend. Shaun also came to love him. Penny would come to their apartment on 67th Street off Madison Avenue and cook the most wonderful meals for us all.


Trained as an engineer at Yale and MIT his intelligence was keen and quirky, and as he cooked, he talked a blue streak. His accent was that of an American blueblood, an accent found in numerous Upper East Side apartments, and in homes out in Southampton and East Hampton Long Island in those days, an accent that has all but disappeared. Ginny also had a home in East Hampton, a beautiful colonial house of historic value where Penny was a constant guest. When he finally gave up on the notion of seducing her, he took a page from her book as it were and married her daughter.

He loved children. Out in Sag Harbor where he settled down, one often saw him with a baby in his arms. He drove an old Mercedes convertible and dressed, until the day he died, like a prep school teenager; jeans and loafers, and an oxford button down shirt with a Shetland sweater tied about his neck. A pair of reading glasses were often propped atop his forehead. As he divorced and remarried, making more children and more astonishing documentary films, I lost track of him, for I had followed his advice and basically moved to Spain.

But in 1995 I ran into him again in London. I was producing a play there written by a multi-millionaire lesbian about her coming out experience. She was paying for the entire production and had insisted that all of the actresses, the director, and even the local lawyer, be lesbians as well. I was her token straight-man. I was renting a flat in Notting Hill and often went to "192" on East Kensington Road for dinner. I found Penny there one night, dining with film director Stephen Frears. They kindly invited me to join them and Penny and I caught up. We mostly talked about what his children were up to. Frears was doing post-production work on his film "Mary Reilly" and told us some amusing anecdotes about Julia Roberts and John Malkovich.

I could see that Penny only pretended to be interested. He never cared for theatrical movies that I know of. I never heard him speak about a single one, except for his dream to someday make a film out of one of his favorite books, "The Riddle of the Sands," by Erskine Childers.

As the evening went on Penny became increasingly nostalgic for the old days, when Manhattan and Long Island had seemed so pure, and fresh, and underpopulated compared with what was happening then, when the main avenues in the city had two-way traffic and you could park wherever you wanted, when the apartments were spacious and affordable, and when the Hamptons were mostly potato fields leading to beaches that were virtually empty and that smelled of the rose hip shrubs growing on the leeward side of the dunes.


Ginny and Shaun ended up leaving New York and moved to a horse farm in Ireland. By the time I went to visit she had passed away. Shaun and I had dinner out on a patio by the stables, their ivy-covered Georgian manse silent behind us in the twilight. We talked about Penny, who was already listing a little by then, and how we thought he should write a memoir while there was still time. For he had seen, up close, some of the most notable figures of our era, seen them without prejudice, seen them for how they really were.

But then we realized that memoir had already been chronicled, on celluloid, cans and cans of it that his son Frazier is now the faithful custodian of. We raised our glasses to him, to him and to Ginny and to Freddy Wildman, also gone by then, and to the '60s in New York, where and when we had all begun our journeys.

May the road rise up to meet him, and may the wind be always at his back.

A resident of Williamstown, John Healey is an author whose new novel 'The Samurai's Daughter," published by Arcade/Skyhorse (NYC), was released Thursday. D.A. Pennebaker, who received a lifetime Oscar in 2013, died August 1 at the age of 94.


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