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Bohemian Provincetown

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.

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