My Grandfather-in-Law, My Roommate

My wife and I unexpectedly lost our Brooklyn lease in the summer of 2022. With preposterous rents all around us, we decided to save money and postpone our real estate predicament by moving, for one year, into her grandfather’s apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

We made odd roommates, at least for his address, the same building Joan Didion had lived in: the two of us, a couple of kids under 5, and the 97-year-old Robert M. Pennoyer.

Bobby, as he was known, was born into a life of patrician privilege. His education at Harvard was accelerated so he could serve in the Navy during World War II aboard the U.S.S. Pensacola. He earned a law degree, battled Joseph McCarthy as a Pentagon staffer in congressional hearings, married a fellow blue-blooded but free-spirited woman who wrote poetry, helped found a halfway house in East Harlem, and became a staunch abortion rights advocate in his later years.

One time he took a London Towncar to attend a Black Lives Matter meeting — just about the literal definition of a limousine liberal, but nevertheless inspiring for a nonagenarian born four decades before the Civil Rights Act. (“They told me I’m ‘woke,’” he happily announced.)

He was far from religious — the separation of church and state was his other legal passion — but before holiday meals he’d say: “For those who are hungry, give them food. For those who have food, let them hunger for justice.”

He was a throwback to a distant era and mien, speaking in a Locust Valley lockjaw reminiscent of Thurston Howell III, an unerring practitioner of a noblesse oblige that seems to be dying out among today’s one percent.

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