Two significant properties on Miller Hill are connected with the painter Charles W. Hawthorne (1872-1930), who is credited — above all others — with having been the force of nature responsible for the transformation of Provincetown into an artists’ colony in the early 20th century. There is his barnlike class studio building, which still stands at 25 Miller Hill Road, and this structure — also gambrel-roofed — that was the home he shared with his wife, Marion Campbell Hawthorne (d 1945), a respected painter in her own right, and their son Joseph “Jo” Hawthorne (d 1994), an accomplished conductor nationally in the mid-20th century and the founder, in 1955, of the Provincetown Symphony Society and Provincetown Symphony Orchestra.
The younger Hawthorne, who grew up in the house, recalled its origins as having been “built very early in the century, on the highest point of Miller Hill, then but a high sand hill with a few scrub pines, beachplum, blueberry and shad bushes on it. The two largest rooms were used as the class studio and my father’s own studio.” The house did not last long as a class studio. No later than 1907, Hawthorne had built a freestanding studio for the school. Though these are two separate properties now, the original Hawthorne tract encompassed them both. It ran from Bradford Street almost to the New Haven Railroad tracks, whose route is traced by Harry Kemp Way.
In the late 1920s, Jo Hawthorne recalled, “the whole hill bloomed.” The grounds had been landscaped into a “series of terraced beds intertwined with paths, the background of the interlaced trees and bushes giving the whole a natural quality,” offering not only enchantment but something more practical: vegetables. Hawthorne credited his mother with the transformation “with the help of the devoted John Caton (model for the Portrait of a Portuguese Gentleman) and uncounted loads of manure, or ‘dressing,’ in local parlance.”
Charles Hawthorne died in 1930. The following year, “J. C. Hawthorne” placed an ad for swimming lessons in The Advocate, giving his address as 1 Miller Hill Road. (This would make sense, since the undivided Hawthorne property — at the time — would have been first up the hill after the Bradford Street intersection.) In 1937, he and Richard Malaby performed a public concert at the house. That was not the only chance that townsfolk had to peek inside. The Hawthorne house was also on the benefit tour circuit. Its Gothic room, The Advocate said, “showed visitors that all Provincetown interiors are not of the early American vintage. This room, fascinatingly mediaeval, excels in deep rich colors, and has as its main features imposing arches and a large window of small-paned glass to suggest the stained-glass windows of the Middle Ages.”
After graduating from Princeton, Jo Hawthorne studied at the Conservatoire Américain at Fontainebleau, the National Orchestral Association in New York (under Leon Barzin) and the Juilliard School. At the time he founded the Provincetown orchestra, in a meeting at the Beachcombers, Hawthorne was also the conductor of the Toledo Symphony Orchestra in Ohio. In the 1950s — as always — the town was wrestling fiercely with its future and who best represented it. There seemed to be broad awareness that gay men favored the place as a vacation spot. Accordingly, The Advocate warmly welcomed the orchestra, in its issue of 28 July 1955, as an antidote to “certain growths which have taken root in this Cape End town, robbing it of its wholesomeness, cleanliness and charm.” Rather than use “brute force,” as some had espoused, the newspaper said, “We can in our community life as in our individual lives crowd out deplorable activities by the concentration on and development of those that are satisfyingly profitable.”
Hawthorne’s summer tenant in 1950 was the young author Norman Mailer. This was the first house in Provincetown in which Mailer spent much time. Before 1950, he had been something of a transient. He’d arrived — by railroad — in 1942, in the company of Beatrice Silverman (b 1922), whom he married two years later. They stayed in a rooming house on Standish Street, about a block from the railroad station. “Naturally, as kids, we were worried whether we would be taken for husband and wife,” Mailer told Christopher Busa in a 1999 interview for Provincetown Arts, “but it was obvious the landlady couldn’t have cared less.”
“Provincetown has always been ahead of the nation,” Mailer said to Busa. “One of the things I love about this town and which I always tell people who haven’t been here, is that this is the freest town in America. People can argue. But it’s free now, with the gay population, and it was free long ago when the artists came here. One of the reasons they came was they loved the freedom of the life here. You could live with whomever you wanted and in any combination you wanted.” Mailer’s first long stay on the Cape tip, while beginning The Naked and the Dead in 1946, was at the Crow’s Nest bungalows. “I always thought I was in Provincetown that summer,” he told Busa, “but in fact I was in North Truro.”
He rented Hawthorne’s house in 1950 and kept coming back. J. Michael Lennon, author of Norman Mailer: A Double Life, said Mailer spent seven summers here. It was during this time that he first began making his presence known in town. In August 1950, for example, Mailer, Hawthorne, Nat Halper and Donald Waxman took part in a panel discussion on “Trends in Contemporary Music and Literature” at the Provincetown Art Association. The admission charge was 25 cents. (Sounds in retrospect like a quarter well spent.)
Mailer — who was then married to Adele Morales (b 1925), his second wife — continued renting the house after Hawthorne sold it in 1957 to Nicholas “Nicky” Wells and his wife, Ray Wells. (Nicky Wells is the namesake of Nicky’s Park, the conservation area at 82 Harry Kemp Way.) Among their many activities in town, the Wellses opened the Mews restaurant in 1961 at 359 Commercial Street. They were also the proprietors of the Wells Shack, one of the most imposing dune shacks.
On his way home to Miller Hill Road early of a June morning in 1960, Mailer called out “Taxi! Taxi!” to a passing police car. Not a good idea in any case, it was an especially bad move since the patrolman in the car was William “Cobra” Sylvia, who administered a bit of extra justice at the end of their unscheduled trip together. Chief John Meads told Peter Manso in Mailer: His Life and Times (1985): “Our cop, Billy Sylvia, said Norman had hit his head on the cruiser’s bumper. Norman said he was blackjacked. Knowing Cobra, Norman was blackjacked.” A judge found Mailer guilty of having had “enough to drink to act like a fool,” but not guilty of disorderly conduct.
Mailer’s last summer in the house was 1970. Dr. Richard W. Barr bought the house in 1972 and continues to own it. It is also the home of Austin P. Knight, a member of the Board of Selectmen.
But Mailer — naturally — gets the last word. Lennon says that the Miller Hill Road house is the basis of this evocative description in Advertisements for Myself, published in 1959:
“It was isolated, especially in fall and winter, reached by a sandy road that dipped down one dune and up another to give a view of rolling furze, rain water ponds, and the ocean and beach of the back shore. In bad weather the wind was a phenomenon, a New England wind of the lost narrow faiths that slashed through open doors, tempted shutters loose from their catch and banged them through the night, vibrated every small pane in every Cape Cod window and came soughing out of the sky with the cries of storm water in its vaults.”
• Assessor’s Online Database ¶ Posted 2013-04-08