A while back, I was at a cocktail party in East Hampton when an old friend introduced me to a guest.
“This is Irving Penn’s daughter,” he announced.
The couple were duly impressed.
“Actually, I’m not,” I started to protest while my friend heh-hemmed over me.
“Let me tell it my way,” he said and proceeded to re-write history the Hamptons cocktail party way.
Anyone who can Google, can find out in a matter of seconds, that Irving Penn doesn’t have a daughter. He has a son, who I married. Later, we both moved on.
Whatever the connection, there is always a sense of awe when Irving Penn’s name is mentioned – at a Hamptons party, where name dropping is more common than exhaling, or around the gravitas implicit in aficionados of true artistic genius.
His photo shoots were an austere event. He was addressed as “Mr. Penn” – no exceptions to the rule. There was no music and no smoking (even back when smoking was not an indoor issue.)
Fortunately, there were overflowing Balducci trays, if you happened on a Vogue shoot.
While Penn was treated with deified respect by his peers and muses, occasionally, the bold would enter his well guarded kingdom.
A homeless man hung outside of his studio building for days, insisting that he wouldn’t go away until Penn photographed his dog. We heard about the man and dog for weeks, around the dinner table in the Penn’s Long Island farmhouse.
Penn was getting exasperated.
Finally the man and dog went away.
“What happened?,” we asked.
I told him to try Dick Avedon, he smiled. “I even gave him directions.”
It is rhetorical to mention that he had a brilliant eye, but not everyone knows that his keenness of vision had once made him a baseball player, skilled enough to be career-worthy.
He was next to impossible to buy a gift for.
“A briefcase had too many buckles, too much brass,” simply too much, too much. The same went for praise. No matter how genuine a compliment you paid him, he would let you know to take it down a notch or two.
If there was ever a hint of what he perceived to be a negative innuendo in a review, he would take it inwards, viscerally, as if literally wounded.
I loved his son, Thom, for his own gifts. As a parting one, I hope that one day he will share his photographs with the world.
Clearly, genius is hereditary.
Rest in Peace, Mr. Penn.