Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Living by the Golden Rule

Street lamp. 6:15 PM. Photo: JH.
Wednesday, May 18, 2016. A chilly, overcast day yesterday in New York with temperatures in the 50s. That’s not really cold except in late May it seems unusual and not what we’ve been waiting for. Too bad says Mother Nature.

I’m not one to write about politics, although I think about our political world, our political life -- the world’s, yours, mine, ours -- all the time. I like reading commentaries on the Internet rather than in print because they come with the addition of “comment” from those reading them.
I like reading Comments for a couple of reasons. One: I might learn something I didn’t know, or hadn’t thought about. And two: it gives me a sense of where people’s heads are at. There are also a lot of Comments I avoid, even to the point of avoiding certain web sites or articles. Who needs it. There is a tremendous amount of rage in our civilization and everybody is feeling it.

Furthermore we’ve become disconnected with ourselves through our relationship to the cell phone. It’s odd how this magnificent technological breakthrough has turned into a social palliative or sleeping pill. Or a reason to be not present. The victims are all types, sizes, ages, economic, and interests. If you’ve lived long enough to review your own experiences in life, you get to see that all good things come to an end, and all rotten things come to an end, also.

Click to order "As It Was."
With that I am reminded of a book quite contrary, sent to me by my friend Tom McGrath. Tom is a lawyer. He and his wife Diahn, who is also a lawyer, occasionally give wonderful New York dinner parties where a group of people (10 to 16) sit at table and conversation is exchanged with everyone (not just left right). Books often lead to those conversations. This book that Tom sent me is called “As It Was,” by a man named Robert Pennoyer.

I had never heard of Robert Pennoyer.  And as you can see by the cover of the book, he was in his youth at another time. By my calculation from the photo of the bride and groom, it looked to be somewhere in the late 1940s through early ‘50s. My older sisters got married at that time when I was their baby brother, and the wedding dress reminded me of theirs.

So I had no idea what the book was about except very possibly the people on the cover were the bride and groom, and the groom was Mr. Pennoyer. Frankly I wouldn’t have bought the book by this cover because although it’s sweet on one level, it looks like it’s some kind of American apple pie romance book on another.  And what do I care about some bride and groom back then, me, liker of political commentary and its subsequent comments provoked.

However, it also happens that I know a man named Pennoyer. Peter by name. He is a well-known, highly regarded classical architect here in New York. He is married to a very popular interior decorator named Katie Ridder. Both she and her husband have been individually interviewed on our HOUSE section.
Peter Pennoyer and Katie Ridder.
Peter and I have known each other for a number of years. We’ve never been close friends but we know we share certain mutual interests. We know this because I write about them and he reads it. He’s a very pleasant fellow to know with a manner almost unblemished by ego or pontifical self-regard. I know, or knew nothing about his family background although I wondered if he might be related to this Mr. Pennoyer.

Robert Pennoyer.
Paul Pennoyer, father of the author.
Peter is what used to be called (in the 70s and 80s) a WASP (White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant). In those decades, the term was often a left-handed compliment, a kind of despicable, snobbishness that excluded. Now, of course, it doesn’t exist at all. But growing up in New England, as I did, the land of the bean and the cod where the Lodges speak only to Cabots and Cabots only to God (or something like that), I grew up in a community where these people were referred to with an ingrained respect.

So I started reading about Robert Pennoyer’s life. He was born in the third floor nursery of his grandfather J. P. Morgan’s house on the corner of Madison Avenue and 37th Street on April 9, 1925. That tells you something right there, a beginning unlike yours or mine. His father, he reports, was in the entrance hall below pacing back and forth when Mr. Morgan’s butler called down: “It’s a girl, sir.”

And then adding, “But wait, another is on the way….” Twins. Our author.

Soon after the twins – Robert and his sister -- were taken home to “Round Bush,” his parents’ estate (a wedding gift from grandfather Morgan) in Glen Cove, not far from grandfather’s enormous property on the water. Six children, 23 in staff inside and out, acres and acres of gardens pastures, woodland, horses and chickens and cows, where life as the author tells it was almost ideal in anyone’s dreams.

This book is an account of what it was like to grow up as a privileged American in the first half of the 20th century. Blessings and simple advantages were bountiful, as was food, space, light and comfort; as well as safety, attention, shelter (I’ll say…) and education. These were all the issues very much on the minds of American families after the Great Depression and the Second World War ended. You could say these were the last days of innocence.

What is striking about Mr. Pennoyer’s story that extends three quarters of the 20th century into the 21st, is that he has achieved a rich life not from the possession of great wealth like his ancestors, but instead by living by the Golden Rule.  It was taken for granted that children growing up post-Depression and the War would have to make their own way in the world. It was an era that demanded a code of behavior that everyone was required to get along in life.
The young lawyer, Robert Pennoyer, with children, circa 1960, New York City.
Mr Pennoyer is an excellent historian of the so-called American century, using his own life as background material. Being a direct descendent of J. Pierpont (great-grandfather) and JP Morgan Jr. provided many luxurious experiences (never full-time) as well as connections. The author grows up, marries, has children (Peter, it turns out, is his youngest), goes out into the world as a lawyer, where new doors of interest open, where connections lead to Washington working under President Eisenhower. The children grow up, move away, have children, while his work takes him into community affairs.
The famous Steichen portrait of Pierpont
Morgan (the author's great-grandfather) circa 1906.
The author's grandfather, J.P. Morgan Jr.
Nothing exciting there, you say? Ironically it is all exciting. The ensuing years of the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s presented many issues that affected all of us and in some of which had the input of this kind, thoughtful, sensitive, clear-headed man who lived more or less (probably more) by the Golden Rule. The result compiled in this telling is a document of what it was like, what is possible where the rules of behavior, of civility, precede any laws, and what the man achieved practicing them.

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