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Arthur PennAmerican Director$

Nat Segaloff

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780813129761

Published to Kentucky Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5810/kentucky/9780813129761.001.0001

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A Boy of Two Cities

A Boy of Two Cities

(p.5) 1 A Boy of Two Cities
Arthur Penn

Nat Segaloff

University Press of Kentucky

Abstract and Keywords

After relocating several times for various reasons, Sonia Greenberg blossomed into adulthood into an attractive and bright young woman who had no trouble attracting men. Independent, however, she developed a neediness, a hangover from the fact that the two men closest to her had left her. She thus became manipulative, self-reliant, and a prisoner of her own intelligence. She became an opera devotee, promoter of health foods, and fostered a holistic interest in seeking work in the medical field. Gregory Penn, Sonia's soon-to-be husband, arrived in the United States (from Lithuania) at the same time as the Greenbergs had arrived in the country. Gregory changed his name to Harry, and soon after Harry and Sonia were married. Sadly their marriage ended in divorce. Because of this separation, their son Arthur Penn was rarely able to establish long friendships. He felt that he learned more on the streets than in school. In addition to coping with losing their parents, Arthur and his brother Irving had to cope with the upcoming war.

Keywords:   Sonia Greenburg, Harry Penn, Lithuania, Arthur Penn, Irving Penn, war

Sonia Greenberg and Harry Penn had little in common before they got married and less by the time their sons were born.

Sonia had arrived as a teenager in New York with her older brother, Joseph, during the great wave of pogrom-inspired eastern European immigration early in the second decade of the twentieth century. But the Greenberg children were not fleeing Cossacks as much as seeking their father, who they thought had preceded them from Lithuania with vague plans of sending for them once he’d established himself. His summons never came, but his children did, not knowing that he had gone, not to America, but to the Warsaw ghetto, where he remarried and sired a second family.

In Lithuania—which was at the time under Russian domination—the paternal Greenberg had been an accountant. He was apparently a good one, for under the czar, no Jew could practice a profession without royal consent. But he was also an itinerant, and the family relocated time and again to follow his work. Often he would leave them behind; sometimes he would return to wherever they had last lived, and other times their mother would pack up Sonia and Joseph and pursue him to some new town. This last time he never returned, and his children, assuming he had sailed for America, left to find him, never to see their mother again.

Once in New York, Joseph, headstrong before and even more so in the land of opportunity, announced to Sonia that he was (p.6) going to be married and went off to New Rochelle, consigning his sister to whatever survival devices she possessed. These turned out to be considerable: Sonia had blossomed into a bright, garrulous, and extremely attractive young woman who had no trouble drawing men. The problem was keeping them. Having thus been deserted twice by the males closest to her, she developed into a prickly combination of neediness and independence. Though she desperately wanted a man to love, respect, and support her, she simultaneously insulated herself against further abandonment by becoming self-reliant and manipulative.

She was also a prisoner of her intelligence. Smarter than the men she met in her blue-collar world (quite literally; she worked in a shirt factory), Sonia read widely, learned easily, and, had it not been for the chauvinism of the era, would have advanced far beyond her station. An opera devotee who could never afford to attend performances (but who learned the music from radio broadcasts), she was also an early proponent of health foods, a holistic interest that would lead her to seek work in the medical profession.

Sonia’s future husband, Gregory Penn, emigrated from Lithuania on the same wave that carried the Greenbergs. A skilled watchmaker and engraver, Gregory—who, upon his arrival, changed his name to Harry for unspecified reasons—was as emotionally remote as Sonia was effusive. One of several males in a large Jewish family, he was apprenticed in the old country at age eight to a traveling watchmaker, and allowed only occasionally to return home. When he reached the age of military conscription, his parents sent him to live with another family that had only daughters as a ploy to avoid the army on the grounds that he was the sole heir to a family name. The scheme worked, but at the price of alienation from his own kin; the story is told that, during a visit to his birth family, Gregory/Harry got into a scrap with his actual siblings and complained to his mother, “Mother, your children are hitting me.” These words of estrangement were so shattering that she burst into tears.

Arriving in New York, the newly minted Harry Penn found employment as a jeweler. It will never be known where or how (p.7) this reticent craftsman met the ebullient Sonia, but the two of them married and moved to Plainfield, New Jersey. On June 16, 1917, their first son, Irving, was born.

By the time their second son, Arthur, arrived on September 27, 1922, the Penns had moved to Philadelphia; Harry had opened his own shop in Jewelers Row on Sansom Street, and the marriage was beginning to melt. When Arthur was three, they divorced, and Sonia returned to Plainfield with the boys.

“They were not compatible at every level, sexually or temperamentally,” Arthur Penn recalls with a deep sigh. “My mother was a beautiful woman physically and I suspect that men figured in the divorce, though I don’t know it for a fact. I know that, at some point, she took me by train to California to visit parts of her family who were living out there. And I think there was a gentleman. But again, I don’t have any real memory of it. I was barely out of arms.”

If divorce was unusual in 1925 America, Jewish divorce was even more so. Strictly speaking, Judaism does not recognize civil divorce; only a formal document called a get can dissolve what God has joined. But the Penns were not strict Jews, and Harry and Sonia Penn enjoyed the advantage of their Christian sounding last name.1

Harry remained in Philadelphia while Sonia moved with Arthur and Irving to New York. Before the decade was over, the trio would move at least half a dozen more times. The peripatetic Penns didn’t exactly live out of suitcases, but neither did they completely unpack the barrels of belongings that they carted from basement to basement on their residential tour of the city’s boroughs. As the Great Depression gripped America, Arthur spent more and more time in the streets and, on one singular occasion when he was six, in a movie theater.

“It was just a film, not a horror film,” he strains to recall, “but I just got scared.” It so frightened the boy that he didn’t venture back into the darkness of a movie house for years.

Her marriage over, Sonia sought absolution. Recalls Penn, “Throughout early childhood, my mother used to enlist me to be her co-victim. She would start weeping and I was supposed (p.8) to weep with her about how my father was so uncaring, cruel, et cetera. That went on for a couple of years, and then I remember vividly the day when it started on one occasion and I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t feel this way!’ I just put the brakes on and stopped crying. I realized that there was an event going on inside the event: she wanted a partner in self-pity and grief.”

Harry’s business was not strong, and his marginal existence made it difficult, if not impossible, for him to send child support. This caused Sonia to resent him even more. There were occasions when she would place seven-year-old Arthur on the train from New York to Philadelphia, enlist an adult in the next seat to watch over him, and let Harry deal with the boy at the other end. Arthur felt like a stranger in his own father’s apartment. Except for such visits, Sonia struggled to raise her sons alone.

“She was a lonely, rather beautiful woman who was filled with a certain kind of despair at having fallen in love with somebody else,” Penn reflects generously. “It was a more noble life than I gave her credit for. It was the depth of the Depression. Her generation was largely immigrant, so they were carpenters and so forth. These men were illiterate or knew Yiddish but not English. I don’t know why she never sought out men who were her intellectual equal. On the other hand, she just simply couldn’t do it all. It’s a sad story. But she did have the power to say, ‘I want out of this marriage.’”

Sonia craved the financial independence that could come from owning a business. One attempt was a corset and stocking shop. Arthur would clerk the counter after school, but had to send for his mother when a female customer needed a fitting. Another was a food store in Plainfield that catered to what she hoped would be a growing awareness of the value of an organic diet. It, too, failed, but her interest in nutrition and health led her to success at the Good Samaritan Dispensary, a charity clinic. She was hired as a janitress, but her personality and demonstrable learning ability soon made her a nurse’s assistant, in which position she was noticed by the head doctor, who took her as his assistant. This meant a $12 weekly stipend, a goodly Depression-era sum.

Wherever they lived, the Penns shared close living quarters. (p.9) The strain showed. When Irving was thirteen, he fell ill with rheumatic fever, and soon the tension of working, moving, and raising both boys became too much for Sonia to bear alone. When Irving recovered, he was sent to live with friends in Plainfield.

Despite their separation, Sonia and Harry were both concerned that their younger son was learning more in the streets than at school. Years of moving had denied him a continuity of friendships and, although the wiry and athletic boy had little trouble attracting new playmates at each venue, their character varied with the neighborhood. Gangs were the order of the day, and on Fox Street in the Bronx, they played a rough game. “They used to go down in the basement, take coal cinders out of the big furnaces, put them in a sock, and use that as a weapon,” Penn remembers, cringing. “It wouldn’t tear your head off, but it would tear the scalp. It was really dangerous.”

When Arthur was ten and the Depression was at its worst, a solution of sorts knocked at Sonia’s door. Professor and Mrs. Videll were evangelicals who had been run out of Spain for trying to convert Catholics to Protestantism. He was sixty and humorless; she was considerably younger and, Penn recalls, “was blonde, wore her hair in a crown of braids, and was really quite beautiful.” The Vidells ran a camp in New Hampshire and were recruiting young people to spend the summer there. Sonia looked at Arthur and said, “Take him.”

“It was a very painful experience and has probably left untold marks on me,” Penn now says without a dram of sarcasm. “I stayed in barracks with the other kids but they wouldn’t let me into the main house. I took my meals in the kitchen. At the end of the summer all the other kids went home, but my mother never sent for me.”

Abandoned, he spent the next year absorbing the clean air and fresh food, but—pointedly—not his hosts’ religion. “I have had no religious training in my life,” he says. “I will tell you what I think is one of its most appealing aspects: it’s one of the few areas of modern life that is genuinely theatrical. I like that impulse, and on finding it missing, I grieve for it. I have never held any religious beliefs.”

(p.10) The Videll gambit broadened Penn’s horizons in other ways. They had brought with them from Spain a man named Eduadro whom they employed as their handyman, and it was he who fed young Arthur’s burgeoning interest in sex. “Mrs. Videll would be cooking at the big iron wood-burning stove,” Penn says, “and Eduadro would get behind her and go all the way down and look up her dress, and then would look across at me, and I had to keep from giving anything away.” Decades later Mrs. Videll would find her screen counterpart in Louise Pendrake, the horny wife of the pompous preacher Silas Pendrake in Little Big Man.

By the time he was twelve, Arthur was recalled from the Vidells and sent to stay with Sonia’s friends Fanny and Wally Plotkin in Bayonne, New Jersey. It was the Plotkins who ushered Arthur into his adolescence, including him in such grown-up rites as discussions, parties, and even joke-telling. A schoolteacher, Fanny enrolled Arthur at her school and saw to it that he attended.

When he was fourteen, the Plotkins deposited him back with his mother. It was not a happy reunion. Sonia by then had moved to Brighton Beach and taken up with another carpenter, a man named Davidoff, who resented young Penn’s presence. Davidoff, who was living on workmen’s comp and Sonia’s salary, persuaded her to invest her savings in a candy store on Neptune Avenue in New Lots, the last stop on Brooklyn’s elevated transit. The trio lived uneasily over the store until one morning Sonia found a stash of adult magazines that teenage Arthur had hidden. In the fallout, Arthur was shipped off yet again, this time to live with his father and brother, whose influence, Sonia believed, would set Arthur back on course. Instead, it threw Harry and Irving into disarray.

Irving, while with Harry, had been progressing academically and professionally; he had distinguished himself at Olney High School, where he was one of the new institution’s first graduates, and won a scholarship to the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art, where he studied under Alexi Brodovitch from 1934 to 1936. The two Penns had been living comfortably in a small apartment in a residential hotel. Arthur’s arrival forced the (p.11) trio to find larger quarters and hire a cook, an expansion that strained their finances.

“One of the terrible things that happens in a family like that is that it goes out of balance,” Penn analyzes. “Here was Irving, this very good artist with all this adroitness who did very well in school, and here I was, not doing well in school and with no discernable talent. So my father, in classic European view, thought, ‘He should have a trade to fall back on.’”

That trade was watch making, and fourteen-year-old Arthur joined Harry in his Sansom Street shop. The teenager accepted his fate and made the effort to at last get to know his father. He found him “a gentleman, an autodidact—but of high literary taste—and, interestingly enough, an ethical culturalist.”2 But he continued to find him emotionally remote. “I wish I’d known him better,” Penn laments. “He was rather a mystery to me. Not an emotionally available man at all. I really know less about him than I should.”

More to his liking was the joy of bonding with his brother. “We’ve always been very close and fond of each other and respectful of each other’s work,” he appraises. “Indeed, more than respectful. Admiring.”

Arthur’s apprenticeship was not a success. Although Harry’s skills were widely respected, Arthur’s were not, and he still needed to finish his formal schooling, an uphill march. He made it through Jay Cooke Junior High, but when he tried to enter Olney High School he discovered that his latest change of address removed him from the school’s enrollment jurisdiction. The Penns’ new apartment was in the jewelry district in Center City; Olney High was in North Philly. To solve the problem, Arthur used the address of family friends named Nissenbaum who lived in North Philadelphia. With the Penns at Eighth and Pine, it meant that Arthur had to travel from the center of the city to its outskirts every day.

Though he essentially had no neighborhood, a tiny glimmer of belonging soon presented itself through the efforts of Arthur’s French teacher. Impressed with the teenager’s clear, rich voice, she asked him to shout a few offstage lines for a play she was (p.12) presenting. Waiting backstage for his cue, he became entranced by the workings of scenery, curtains, and other theatrical accoutrements. When he spoke, his vocal delivery drew the attention of a producer from WCAU radio who was casting a local knockoff of The March of Time news broadcasts. WCAU paid him a few needed dollars to impersonate Hitler, Stalin, and other figures in dramatized newscasts and exposed him to the discipline of show business.

An even greater influence was the Neighborhood Playhouse.3 A combination school, performance center, and settlement, it became Arthur’s second home and its denizens his adoptive family. One day it was announced that there was to be a directing contest. Surprisingly, he had no interest in entering. Then he happened to hear an Arch Oboler radio broadcast that gripped him enough to want to adapt and direct it himself. As he worked on the project, all the elements he had been absorbing backstage came together, and he won the competition.

The exigencies of day-to-day survival took precedence, however, and Arthur returned to the Sansom Street shop, where Harry’s dismay at his son’s inability to learn watch making devolved into chilly indifference. Feeling this, Arthur spent as much time as possible with his older—and by now quite independent—brother. “Irving taught me everything,” Arthur muses. “He taught me not to spit on the street (what did I know? I was a street kid; it’s what you did). At that time, he was going with a terrific woman named Nonny,4 whom he would later marry, who sort of took me under her wing.” Nonny had studied costume design at England’s historic Dartington Hall and insisted on bringing Arthur to museums where modern art was making its controversial debut. “It was nuts to me,” Penn now blushes, adding, “I was just sixteen.” With Irving and Nonny living together, it allowed Arthur to avoid his father, preferring his brother and Nonny’s Bohemian crowd.

“I was sort of funny and saucy and snotty,” he remembers, “but not with them. It was a nice experience to suddenly be in a kind of community, albeit that they were five or six years older than I was.” Together they explored the rapidly changing (p.13) American creative scene, including WPA [Works Progress Administration] productions of One Third of a Nation and the cautionary anti-venereal disease play Spirochete. Seeing theater at professional levels further nudged Arthur in that direction.

It was while in Irving and Nonny’s thrall that Arthur had his first girlfriend. “She was a woman I’d met through one of their friends,” he says distantly. “She was older than I was, and we had my first real sexual encounter. She got pregnant. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ she said, ‘I’ll take care of it.’ She did.”

Then Harry got cancer. It was Nonny who knew it first, even though Arthur was living with him. “She went to the doctor without my father,” Penn reports. “She was a wonderful take charge woman, and eventually that’s what ended their marriage. But she was a blessing as far as I was concerned because I had no education of any kind and she really helped me.”

The diagnosis was bladder cancer, a malady with a particularly unforgiving prognosis. Harry was not told, and neither was Irving. “Because Irving had been sick with rheumatic fever,” Penn analyzes, “the myth in the family was that he had to be protected from bad news. She told me but she didn’t tell Irving, and she certainly didn’t tell my father. But he knew he had something.”

No longer able to work, Harry stayed at home, tended by Arthur. Satisfied that Harry was in good hands, Nonny and Irving went off to live in Mexico. Confined to the apartment, Harry took up painting and evinced a distinct talent that Arthur describes as “Jewish-American-Lithuanian primitive” but remarkably accomplished.

Eventually his father had to be hospitalized, forcing Arthur to make a circuit almost daily from failing school to failing the jewelry shop to failing his father. Then Harry became verbally abusive. “The abuse was directed at me,” Penn says, “because I was dissembling and acting as if nothing serious was going on with him. I would come bouncing into his hospital room, which led to him one day saying to me, ‘What the hell are you doing, you look like a fairy.’

“The bladder cancer induced a kind of uremic poisoning which affects the brain,” Penn later learned. “My father decided (p.14) that I was taking money. It was extremely painful to go up to see him, because when he asked, ‘how much this week?’ it would be a pittance. He didn’t know I had sold the furniture. I had to give up the apartment and move into a furnished room, and my father was getting worse and worse, and we’re getting more and more distant. Finally, one day, he took my hand and said, ‘I’m so afraid, I’m so afraid.’ It was the only time I’d held his hand or seen him weep. It was the first time I’d seen any demonstration of feeling toward me.”5

Next Harry was taken in by the Nissenbaums, whose household staff could look after the dying man. In the summer of 1942 he died, and Irving and Nonny were called back from Mexico. Only after he was gone and cremated did Sonia deign to see her sons again. It was a frigid reunion. According to Penn, she still expected them to take her side long after the divorce. Neither boy would give her that satisfaction. Later, in private, the brothers discussed their father, at which time Arthur said, “I really have to confess, I didn’t like that man.”

Agreed Irving, “I didn’t, either.”

When Harry’s will was read there were few assets, but he did make a provision for his paintings. Except for one of Arthur’s choosing, he left them all to Irving. At first Irving talked about giving his late father a show. “But as that discussion took place,” Arthur says, “I detected a real reluctance in Irving to have a show for my father. He was enthusiastic but restrained. My view of it is that he was seeing his own sophistication measured against the naiveté of my father’s work. Here was Irving getting increasingly exact while my father had amusing street scenes, baseball, et cetera. And to this day the paintings are in a vault.”

It was a dark time for the Penn boys, not only because they had effectively lost both parents but also because their world was plunging into war. “If you were a certain age and healthy, it was inevitable that you were going to go,” Penn says. Being both, Penn bided his time at the Neighborhood Playhouse while waiting to be called up for service. His father’s will had specified that he be cared for by legal guardians in New York, and one of them, Irene Rose, encouraged his stage pursuits by billeting him (p.15) around New York City with her theatrical friends, one of whom was Canada Lee, who opened his Harlem home to the precocious youth.

Work was hard to find in prewar New York. “I was a liability,” he says. “I was 1-A and knew I was going in, so you can’t get a job because who’s going to hire you?” He changed his draft locale from Philadelphia to New York and awaited his fate in the company of three friends who shared his interest in theater. “I came to New York with Kathy Cunningham, Shirley Grayson, and Vito Christi,” he says. “Kathy and Shirley, two beautiful women, can’t get a job [acting]. Vito walks in and gets a part [in Pickup Girl]. Vito knew he was not going to be drafted. The tragedy was that he went nuts later, totally schizophrenic. He opened and ran with the show, and that was the last I saw of him until I was successful in television, and then he arrived saying, ‘I need money.’”

When Penn’s inevitable draft notice arrived, he reported for induction and was sent first to Fort Dix, New Jersey, then to Fort Jackson in South Carolina, and then to the European theater. What awaited him was another kind of theater.


(1.) Referring, of course, to William Penn (1644–1718), a Quaker who founded Pennsylvania under charter from King Charles II. And speaking of Penns, many people mistakenly assume that Arthur Penn is related to actors Sean, Michael, and the late Christopher Penn. The Penn boys are Irish and are scions of director Leo Penn (1921–1998) and actress Eileen Ryan (1928–).

(2.) Ethical culturalism is a movement founded in the United States by Felix Adler (1851–1933) advocating that human behavior should be governed by a system of ethical beliefs instead of religious convictions.

(3.) Not to be confused with the famed Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City, where acting teacher Sanford Meisner and his acolytes developed their application of the Method.

(4.) Irving Penn’s biographies make no mention of this first wife, noting only that in 1950 he married Lisa Fonssagrives, née Anderson. She was born May 7, 1911, in Sweden and married Ferdinand Fonssagrives in 1935, divorcing him in 1950 to marry Irving. They had a son, Tom. Lisa died in 1992 at the age of eighty-one, Irving on October 7, 2009, at ninety-two.

(5.) This quotation is from Jerome Charyn, Movieland: Hollywood and the Great American Dream Culture (New York: New York University Press, 1996).