Bohemian Provincetown

Bohemian Provincetown

David Nicolas Recent images (by photographer Norma Holt) of the wives of local fishermen, on display at Fisherman's Wharf, in Provincetown.
David Nicolas Recent images (by photographer Norma Holt) of the wives of local fishermen, on display at Fisherman's Wharf, in Provincetown.
The cast of characters has changed, but Provincetown's reputation as the bohemian mecca of Cape Cod has been a constant for generations. Lucinda Rosenfeld traces her family roots in the seaside arts community.

Provincetown, Massachusetts, was already a thriving art colony when my grandfather Morris Davidson first arrived there in 1919, following his service in World War I, to study painting with the artist George Elmer Browne. My grandfather returned to Provincetown in 1927 on his honeymoon with my grandmother Anne. The two had recently eloped to New York City from their native Baltimore, where both had been born to first-generation Americans.

I have a photograph of the newlyweds posing on one of the many fishing wharves that once dotted Provincetown Harbor. (The majority have since fallen into the sea.) My glamorous, waiflike grandmother sits cross-legged on the edge of the pier, hands perched on one knee, while my mustachioed grandfather leans against a supporting column, pipe in mouth and an expression of youthful bravado on his face. Looking at the picture, I wonder if the fact that my grandmother was two inches taller than my grandfather had anything to do with their respective poses. More likely, they—like so many Provincetowners before and after them—had little use for convention.

One could argue that the tip of the Cape Cod peninsula has been a haven for mavericks and eccentrics since the Pilgrims dropped anchor here in 1620. In any event, for much of the 20th century, the town was a summer home to many of America's leading artists and intellectuals—from writers Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, John Dos Passos, and Norman Mailer (Provincetown's most famous living scribe, along with Hours author Michael Cunningham) to painters Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, Franz Kline, and Hans Hofmann. Yet the town's coming of age as a bohemian retreat on the sea owed as much to its lesser-known creative figures as to its world-renowned ones.

Driving to the Grand Union supermarket, for instance, you might find yourself zigzagging along Harry Kemp Way. The road is named after a poet who lived alone in Provincetown's magnificent parabolic dunes, next to the Atlantic Ocean and miles from civilization, in a tiny shack with no electricity. Kemp had little interest in American materialism: "The poor man is not he who is without a cent," he wrote, "but he who is without a dream." These words might have been Provincetown's motto.

In 1944, my grandparents purchased the old studio of Impressionist master Charles Hawthorne, which was located above the town center, in the foothills of the dunes, and opened the Davidson School of Art. A tide of amateurs and professionals alike took my grandfather's abstract and figurative painting classes. (Today, the studio, with its cathedral-like wall of windows, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.) During the forties and early fifties, Provincetown was at the epicenter of the modern art scene. It was a time of huge beach picnics and great intellectual turmoil, with the creative community fiercely divided over realism versus abstraction—along with the merits of communism and the role of politics in art. My grandfather believed that art and politics should be kept separate. However, as one of the vice presidents of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum (still well worth a visit today, both for its lively retrospectives and its sculpture garden), he organized a lecture series featuring everyone from Mailer to Rothko.

In those days, Provincetown was still, first and foremost, a fishing village, and the resident Portuguese-American community, which ran the town's businesses and oversaw the deep-sea fishing, lent it an air of swashbuckling adventurism. My mother still recalls local teens diving for change off the side of a wharf. "Hey, mista, throw a quarter over," they'd call to the summer folks, presumably as much for the thrill as for the coin's buying power.

In the mid fifties, with the advent of Abstract Expressionism, the modern art scene moved to East Hampton's Springs area, following Jackson Pollock. The exodus from Provincetown included artists like Rothko, Kline, and Adolph Gottlieb; though others, like Motherwell and Frankenthaler (and my grandfather), stayed on at the cape well into the second half of the 20th century.

I have never forgotten my summer visits, as a small child, to my grandparents' place at the top of Miller Hill Road. In addition to the studio, their property included an early-19th-century Cape Cod–style house that had been dragged up from the town center. Before that, as with many of Provincetown's historic houses, it had been floated from across the bay, following the collapse of a short-lived fishing community near Long Point lighthouse. The house had gray-painted, wide-planked floors, antique windows with distorted glass, and a wraparound porch, from which the harbor looked like a blue fingernail at the edge of the horizon. A short boardwalk ran alongside a small dune, connecting house to studio.

I still remember running as fast as I could down that dune, the buoying softness of the sand somehow creating the illusion of flying. Alternately, as I trudged back up the incline in preparation for my next trip down, my bare feet would feel as if they were weighted down with lead. On one such trip, I stepped on a piece of glass and was fascinated with the lightning-bolt design of my gash. It seemed imbued with an aura of magic and mystery—along with everything else about my grandparents' place in Provincetown.

My sisters and I had special names for various locations on the property. We called the decline behind the house China Hill because beautiful, unexplained fragments of blue-and-white pottery could be found between the wild blueberry bushes, themselves a delicious draw. Even today, when I try to picture the place as it once was, it is always five o'clock in the afternoon on a perfect July day, scrub pines shimmying in a robust sea breeze, sand grains sparkling like gemstones, and my grandmother's garden lit up, as if in Technicolor, with bluebells and black-eyed Susans.

The carnival-like scene downtown thrilled me as well. In the late seventies, before the ravages of AIDS, Commercial Street, Provincetown's main thoroughfare, was awash in flamboyantly dressed transvestites and "leather men." Without questioning the how or why, my sisters and I would delight in their outrageous outfits, while the annual Fourth of July parade, with its procession of semi-naked men, was an especially hilarious treat for us.

We found less complex pleasures in the giant bins of shells and soaps and boating miscellany for sale at Marine Specialties, which is still thriving in the center of town. Stopping in last summer, I overheard a young boy exclaiming with puerile delight over a bin of fishing-boat "urine jars"—and was reminded of my own joy at that shop's eclectic mix.

Provincetown's actual marine life was no less wondrous to me. As awe-inspiring as the oceanfront was, I liked best of all to walk the bayside sand flats at low tide, collecting seashells and beach glass and driftwood and studying the tiny air bubbles emitted by subterranean quahogs.

Other times, my mother would take my sisters and me out to the end of MacMillan Wharf to sketch the fishing boats. I would be excited to show my grandfather the fruits of my labor before I'd even started drawing.

Even when I was a child, operations at the Davidson School of Art had wound down, though my grandfather, who was close to 80, was still painting his colorful, Cubist-inspired canvases each morning in the studio. I never thought to wonder where his students were. In truth, I stayed as far away as possible from the place. I found its exaggerated height as forbidding as the pervasive odor of turpentine. Every pewter vase, every purple cloth left draped over a box—remnants of now-forgotten still-life exercises—seemed to be masking a terrible secret. Somehow, I got it into my head that there was a bogeyman hiding behind a row of canvases stacked under the eaves. I didn't dare wonder where the nude models posed.

At the end of the seventies, after my grandfather died, with vandalism in the town an occasional problem—arson had nearly taken down the house a year earlier—my grandmother sold the property.

It wasn't until I was an adult that I finally returned to Provincetown. When I got there, I greeted the sights with a combination of despair and delight. I had never entirely forgotten Provincetown's glorious salt air, and to smell it again was to feel alive in some way I hadn't experienced in years. Nor did I remember there being so many sumptuous gardens as there are now along Commercial Street. What's more, thanks to the Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown is home to a new generation of writers and artists.

With its (now) overwhelmingly gay summer population, Provincetown is also not a village that closes down at 10. From dinner hour on, Commercial Street turns into an offbeat and entertaining pedestrian mall, where shops and clubs stay open half the night and the people-watching can't be beat. During the day Commercial's three flat miles are great for social biking—so long as you don't mind navigating through crowds. And I still think Race Point may be the most dramatic beach on earth. In fact, it's doubtful that Provincetown would be any kind of destination at all if it weren't for the vast, pristine, and protected lands of Cape Cod National Seashore.

Yet Provincetown has now become, in some ways, just another overdeveloped beach resort. People drive nice cars. There's a real estate office on practically every block, and property values seem to double every few years. The place is growing more crowded with each passing summer. (The Portuguese community, meanwhile, has shrunk considerably.) The day-trippers from Boston can't be blamed entirely. There are brand-new suburban-style houses and condo developments all along the hill between downtown and the dunes—including next to my grandparents' old house. (Sadly, the new owners sold off most of the acreage.)

But Provincetown's traditional charms can still be found, if you know where to look: on the clay courts at the Provincetown Tennis Club; in the vinyl booths of the Tip for Tops'n Portuguese restaurant, in the far West End; on the sinuous bike paths through the dunes of Race Point and Herring Cove. If seedy charm is your thing, Provincetown has that, too—the Governor Bradford and Atlantic House bars have been serving their straight and gay clientele, respectively, for the last million years.

Something about Provincetown keeps bringing me back. Every summer, I rent the second floor of a converted "garage" in the town's East End for a couple of weeks. The place hasn't been renovated in 60 years. Standing amid its claw-foot tub, Mexican bedspreads, sea foam–colored walls, and strainers used as lampshades, I can imagine Provincetown the way it once was: relaxed, unpretentious, and just a little bit kooky.

Distinct from the West End of town, which attracts more tourists, the East is where old-timers still reside. These include the owner of the garage, an old family friend named Adlin Loud. Now 88, Adlin first came to Provincetown on her honeymoon, in 1944. Her husband's family owned the house across the street. It was a smaller town then, to say the least. How small?Adlin remembers telephoning her husband from New York—he had arrived in Provincetown a day ahead of her—and being informed by the operator that he was dining with friends, and would she like to be connected to their house instead?

Adlin also recalls a guy in a truck driving down Commercial Street yelling, "Strawberry, strawberry!" (It always sounded to her ears like "Robbery, robbery!") Finally, and perhaps most telling, to Adlin's recollection, back in the early years, there were just three real estate agents in town.

Land's End Inn
Sixteen-room retreat with impressive harbor views. 22 Commercial St.; 800/276-7088;; doubles from $245.

Brass Key Guesthouse
Private compound with terraced courtyard, pool, and spa. 67 Bradford St.; 508/487-9005;; doubles from $225.

Ciro & Sals
Northern Italian cuisine made with local ingredients. 4 Kiley Court; 508/487-6444;; dinner for two $65.

Clem & Ursie's
Fresh seafood in a casual, kid-friendly setting. 85–87 Shank Painter Rd.; 508/487-2333; dinner for two $30.

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