For a time in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Rosa Lee (Hoffman) of Chicago was among the better known artists in Provincetown. Her remarkable story began with a high school scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago, after which she worked at an engraving company where she honed her skills as an illustrator. She was then asked by her sister Jennie Lee to help in managing Jennie’s stage act. As vaudeville withered, Rosa moved from a back-of-the-house role to join Jennie on stage at night clubs, as Les Petite Sisters, in an act they called the Doll Revue. (“Petite,” indeed. At four-feet-one-half-inch, Rosa was the taller of the two.) To supplement their income, Rosa sketched portraits of fairgoers at the 1933 Century of Progress exposition in Chicago, after which she studied with Oskar Gross (1871-1963) and Wayman Elbridge Adams (1883-1959).
In 1947, after receiving her bachelor’s degree from the Art Institute, Lee purchased a house and studio on Kendall Lane that had been used most recently by Charles Kaeselau, and opened a summer school of portraiture. (“Tiny Artist Plans Art School Here,” The Provincetown Advocate, 27 February 1947.)
Rosa Lee never escaped the theatrical spotlight entirely. She and Jennie would reprise their Doll Revue for Cape Cod audiences. They performed the can can, the conga and the Harlem Strut (Jennie soloed in a hula dance), and offered impersonations of Minnie and Mickey Mouse. Since Rosa was experienced both as artist and entertainer, it’s not at all surprising that she frequently staged demonstration sittings, in which she would rapidly execute a portrait as an audience watched. There was, however, substance to her work, as is evident in her portrait of Arthur Paul Snader as The Town Crier, complete with the witty touch of showing his wristwatch, which completely breaks the 17th-century spell Snader was trying to cast.
In 1962, the Art Institute awarded Lee a master’s degree in fine arts. Her mother had died a year earlier in Chicago, and Rosa herself had been hospitalized. It seems that her visits to town ended around this time. The house at 6 Kendall Lane occupied a corner of what was intended as the parking lot of the “Green Monster,” a/k/a the Surfside Arms and Motor Inn, 543 Commercial Street. A newspaper advertisement appeared in October 1963 saying: “The Rosa Lee House at the corner of Bradford Street and Kendall Lane may be had free of charge by any person who will remove it from the premises. Telephone 1144.”
I’ve been told that the house at 227 Route 6 is, in fact, the Rosa Lee house. A glance at the facade certainly bolsters that assertion. The photo at left below is the house as it actually appears. In the photo at right, I’ve simply added two lines to extend the roof gable into the gambrel shape of the original. It looks as if the proportions are true. If so, it’s very nice to know that a three-dimensional memento survives of the amazing Rosa Lee. ¶ Posted 2013-02-18