Today DA Pennebaker (Oscar nominee, 1st ever documentary filmmaker to get an honorary Oscar) would have turned 95 years old. His massive, sprawling family would have gathered in Sag Harbor, Long Island for a big paella and lots of fun, and Penny would have glowed basking in their light. He didn’t grow up with a family. As he often told me, he couldn’t remember his parents ever being in the same room at the same time. So he had 8 kids from three wives and a lot of grandchildren, and so many friends and admirers he couldn’t count them.
He made it to his 94th birthday last July 15th, and I got to celebrate with him and his wife and filmmaking partner Chris Hegedus a few days later. Within two weeks he would pass away at the Sag Harbor house. It was startling because we all thought he’d live forever.
So I’m celebrating Penny’s birthday today. Knowing him for twenty years certainly changed my life. I was very lucky. What I’m remember today is a lot of laughing. Penny loved a good malapropism, a twisted memory of something that might have happened, or might not. He was old enough that it probably did but we always joked about a time when he said, in answer to something, “President McKinley said…” And we responded: “Penny, did you know President McKinley?” He’d pause and say: “I might have.”
The fact is he knew so many people from so many different walks of life. His films had taken him into politics, music, theater, all kinds of things. Think of this: he hung around the White House with Jack and Bobby Kennedy. Like it was normal. He made films about them. He hung around with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Donovan. And Janis Joplin, and Michelle and John Phillips. This week, Richard Brody writes, coincidentally, about Penny filming Stephen Sondheim recording the score to “Company” with Elaine Stritch. And it wasn’t just all these Mt. Rushmore types. He really liked David Bowie, and Depeche Mode, and the films of John Cameron Mitchell and the Coen brothers.
And he really loved Chris. Today she wrote on Facebook: “Missing my dear sweet rascal Penny on his birthday today. We had some amazing adventures together and he was so much damn fun!!”
She ran this little picture, that I thought was so cute and endearing. Look at him beaming.
So happy 95th Penny. I’m toasting you, and hoping you finally met President McKinley!