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Gargantuan, gross, and cynical, the patrician boss Boies Penrose descended from aristocracy to dominate Pennsylvania Republican politics for thirty years
October/November 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 6
He sought the companionship of all kinds of people; yet he was essentially lonely. To his niece and nephew he was the classic uncle: a generous giant who spoke few words and was, perhaps, therefore especially impressive. He refused the invitations of Philadelphia dowagers with a bland formality. On the few occasions when he did appear at a dinner party, he was usually taciturn and bored, a graceless hulk of a man. He was surely different from other patricians of his era who had ventured into politics. It is difficult to imagine Boies Penrose contemplating the French châteaux as wiry, wispy Henry Cabot Lodge did, in the company of an intellectual wife with the tea-cake name of Nannie.
He never married; he never had a durable relationship with a woman. He was attractive to women when he was young; even when he had grown enormous, some of his attraction remained. He frequented brothels; these were especially numerous in the south end of the eighth ward, where he started his political career. His legendary appetites were reputed to have been sexual as well as alimentary. Yet during his career there was but a single instance when his enemies could pin the scarlet letter of scandal on his coattails. In 1895 he wanted to run for mayor of Philadelphia. At the last moment his nomination was withdrawn. The story was that the opposition had produced a photograph of Penrose issuing from a known house of prostitution. It was a grave disappointment, perhaps the greatest of his career.
In a largely unknown novel, The Great One by Henry Hart, the young protagonist—Penrose, only thinly disguised—has a searing and exceptional affair at Harvard with a beautiful society girl who flings herself at him on the rebound from an unhappy affair. Their affair, too, is unhappy and deeply wounds the protagonist. His carapace of cynicism hardens. The hero will never marry. This kind of construction seems plausible. (Hart knew Penrose well and at one time considered writing his biography.) Yet there is not a shred of evidence, or of family reminiscence, sustaining it. Penrose’s sentiments about women remain a mystery.
His personal habits, too, were full of paradox. Penrose’s strength and size made him a coveted candidate for the college football team. But he refused because he hated any kind of physical contact with other male bodies, especially muddy and sweaty ones. He hated to be touched. People who placed their hands on his arm or shoulder were pushed away; so was anyone who tried to lean close and whisper in his ear. He had a phobia of germs; yet his huge and hairless hands were often dirty, his fingernails unkempt. He had a fine dark head of hair; yet he, who made few compromises in his quest for comfort (he would leave his vest unbuttoned even on certain ceremonial occasions), wore large hats even on the hottest of days. He had an extensive wardrobe, with suits made of the best English cloth; they were often spotted with food stains. His boots were always polished, yet at times tied with string and, on one occasion, it was said, with a corsetstring borrowed from a prostitute. He drank cheap gin and whisky in low dives. Did he have what the French call the nostalgie de la boue , the desire to wallow in the mud? Perhaps—but there is little evidence that he behaved indiscreetly. He kept his dignity at the lowest of tables and, perhaps, in the lowest of beds.
He was magnificently coarse. His eating habits were said to be gargantuan: a dozen eggs for breakfast, with twelve rolls, a quart of coffee, a halfinch-thick slab of ham; an entire stuffed turkey for lunch. There is the story told by Pennsylvania congressman J. Washington Logue, in whose presence Penrose had ordered reedbirds for dinner; the waiters brought a chafing dish containing twenty-six, which he proceeded to devour one by one, finishing the wild rice and drinking the gravy out of a cup, all of this after having drunk nine cocktails and five highballs. Yet Penrose cared little for luxuries: his favorite drink was Pennsylvania Highspire whisky. His table manners were ugly. Toward the end of his life he told the manager of the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia to put a screen around the table when he was eating his lunch. Otherwise, he did not care. His sloth, too, was legendary. It grew with the years, eventually to be incarnated in the huge layers of fat which rendered him nearly immobile. Immobile, but not helpless. He was bearlike, not elephantine. In his youth, while hunting in Wyoming with his brother, the latter was badly mauled by a bear; disregarding the advice of the guides, Boies carried him out of the wilderness on his shoulders. Now he was the big boss of Pennsylvania, of the Republican party, in the Senate of the United States; friends and enemies alike called him Big Grizzly.
He hardly exercised in his later years; yet his strength did not desert him until near the end. It would be, I think, a mistake to speculate that his growing immobility, his sloth, was the result of hormonal imbalance, of a faulty metabolism. It was rooted, rather, in a deep and permanent sense of futility. There lay the tragedy of Penrose. He had an enormous appetite. He had little appetite for life.