Penón, Agustín

S07_Old_ Agustin Penon

Writer and journalist born in Barcelona but of American nationality who lived in Costa Rica and the United States. His parents went into exile shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War in Spain and settled in Costa Rica. A niece of his would later marry the country’s president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias.

From a very young age he was captivated by the literature of Federico García Lorca. Before leaving for America, a friend of his gave him a copy of Gypsy Ballads, which became a fundamental book for him.

Although the inquiry was not easy, Penón managed to determine the place where, according to the testimonies he gathered, Federico and his fellow executioners had supposedly been buried.

He soon moved to live in New York where he met the playwright William Layton (Kansas, 1912 – Madrid, 1994) with whom he went on a tour of South America in the 1940s. Penón set out to awaken in his friend an interest in Spanish culture and in particular in García Lorca. The writing of a script with his friend Layton for a radio serial provided them both with the necessary money to finance the long-awaited trip to Granada. On February 17, 1955 Penón arrived in Granada from New York, while Layton took up residence in Madrid.

Upon arriving in Granada, Penón met Josefina Garrido, an actress in a company made up mostly of students who at the time were rehearsing a version of La Celestina. The mere news of the rehearsals produced such a scandal in that gloomy and timorous postwar Granada that the actress, harassed by ecclesiastical elements opposed to the function, decided to move to Madrid where she became an author of children’s stories under the pseudonym by which she was already known, Marta Osorio.

Marta Osorio. / Photo: El País
Marta Osorio. / Photo: El País

During Penón’s stay in Granada, from February 1955 to September 1956, he interviewed everyone with any relationship with Lorca, from the Rosales brothers to José Jover Tripaldi, a young watchman at the Víznar mill where Lorca was confined before being executed.

Emilia Llanos, a friend of Lorca’s since the 1920s, was another person who came to meet Penón and facilitated his investigations. Although the inquiry was not easy in a city that had not yet recovered from the war or the fierce repression, Penón managed to determine the place where, according to the testimonies he gathered, the poet and his fellow executioners had supposedly been buried. He became so involved that he even planned with Emilia Llanos to acquire the land. Penón was the first to bring to light Lorca’s death certificate, which the family had managed to have issued in 1940.

After a year and a half of research, after spending all his money on this project and pursued by Franco’s police, he fled Spain in the fall of 1956 on his way to New York. The result of his investigations, the diary and the documents collected were transported in a suitcase that, because of all the vicissitudes that followed, ended up acquiring its own name: Penón’s Suitcase.

The fact that Penón did not write the projected book, beyond some initial chapters and the transcription of the interviews, contributed to the mythification of the suitcase.

Marta Osorio defined him as a “free man” but with “many doubts throughout the research about what he was doing, why he was doing it and whether he should publish it (…). In Granada he was very aware of that abyss of pain, hatreds, revenge and resentments that the war had opened among Spaniards and he surely feared that his book would cause even more damage by harming the people who had helped him.”

Cover of 'Fear, Forgetfulness and Fantasy'.

Penón died in Costa Rica on February 1, 1976 in unexplained circumstances, probably by suicide. A few days earlier he had taken the precaution of sending the documents of his research to William Layton who was in Spain teaching theater courses.

Layton then gave the suitcase to Ian Gibson in 1980 so that he could write the book that Penón projected. However, nine years later, when the Hispanist did not write the book they had agreed upon by contract, he demanded the return of the documents. The demand paid off and in 1990 Gibson published Diary of Lorca’s Search (1955-1956) which did not satisfy Layton.

In between, the Hispanist published his biography of Lorca which included previously unpublished data and photographs resulting from Penón’s research and which were part of the documents in the suitcase. In 1995, once the contract with Gibson had expired, Layton gave the suitcase to Marta Osorio to rewrite the book of his friend’s research that finally appeared under the title Fear, Forgetfulness and Fantasy in the Comares publishing house in the year 2000.

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