535 Commercial Street

 
Condominium 535 | Waterfront Apartments | “The Kibbutz”

Please do not disturb. One of the foremost American poets, Mary Oliver (b 1935), whose plain-spoken verse employs the cape end’s poignant beauty as a perpetual lesson in life, makes her home in this complex. She is a greatly private person, whose affection for solitude is evident in her writing. And, you might say, this is really not her home anyway; her place, her roots, her spiritual nourishment seem to be found at Blackwater Pond and in the woods around it. Oliver is also one half of a marvelous love story, with Molly Malone Cook, that began at the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay in 1958 and endured until Cook’s death, at the age of 80, in 2005. These women were only two in a remarkable cast of characters that has inhabited 535 Commercial Street over the years.

In the 1950s and ’60s, this large building was known as the Waterfront Apartments. It was owned and operated by Eldred Mowery Jr. (b ±1926), who’d been a classmate of Robert F. Kennedy at Harvard. Besides running the Waterfront, Mowery worked as a builder in winter months and served at one time as president of the Chamber of Commerce. He was also not above more than a bit of misadventure. In December 1966, he was involved with the theft of 41 paintings from the former Hans Hofmann residence at 76 Commercial Street, in what was apparently to have been an insurance scam until it was broken up by the F.B.I.

Mowery is best known as a friend and collaborator of Norman Mailer, who stayed at the Waterfront in 1961 and 1962. They are buried near one another in the town cemetery. In Ptown, Peter Manso describes the head-butting contests they used to conduct in the front window booth of the Old Colony Tap. Beginning in 1964, Mowery and Mailer worked together on an enormous scale model “Vertical City,” a six- or seven-foot structure made of thousands of Lego blocks, each of which was meant to represent an apartment. It occupied Mailer’s apartment in Brooklyn Heights until 2004, when it was taken down.

Mailer’s pithiest description of Provincetown was the “Wild West of the East.” J. Michael Lennon, Mailer’s official biographer, reports that he used the line when explaining the place to Jacqueline Kennedy in 1960, during a visit to the Kennedy enclave at Hyannisport. He repeated it a year later when asked to comment on the town’s planned publicity campaign: “Public relations, great! Let Provincetown call itself the wild west of the east.” And he put the words into the mouth of the Acting Chief of Police, Alvin Luther Regency, in Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1984).

The Waterfront Apartments were known to residents as the Kibbutz, the writer Claudine Zap recalled in DameNation (10 August 2006), adding that the place was “about as close to one as I’ve ever come.”

Provincetown has many surprises to offer. One of the more delightful is the sign at the east end of the Kibbutz parking lot banning anyone not named Joyce. That would be Joyce Jaffee. Her husband is the artist and humorist Al Jaffee (b 1921), who has been contributing to Mad magazine since 1955 and was the creator in 1964 of the “fold-in” — the magazine’s answer to Playboy‘s fold-out — in which a hidden image and message are revealed by folding the back cover in on itself. He is also the author of the popular “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” series. If you teethed on Mad, as I did, you may find it odd at first to think of Provincetown as the second home of one of that irreverent magazine’s defining talents. But Jaffee recognized early on that “authority figures in his life could be oppressive and absurd,” as a 2010 profile noted. That would make him a perfect fit. (Alison Leigh Cowan, “New Sketch of a Madcap’s Mad Life,” The New York Times, 1 October 2010.)

Besides the “no parking” sign, some of Jaffee’s other artistic benefactions to the town include a 1983 “no smoking” sign for the Public Library and a 1991 illustration for Provincetown Arts supposing that one of John “Jack” Kearny’s dinosaur sculptures has been unearthed by intergalactic explorers in the year 5091. They give it the scientific name Kearnyasaurus autobumperus and surmise that its “soft inner body was probably a food source for primitive local populations.”

Among the other residents in 1980 were the writer Carolyn Maisel (b 1942) and the artist John Benvenuto (b 1945), who had designed the cover for Maisel’s book, Witnessing.

For Oliver and Cook, 535 Commercial was the last of several homes they shared in Provincetown across five decades. The first, in 1964, was “a boathouse on the property of the Seguras family,” The Boston Globe said in 2005, suggesting strongly that they briefly lived in the former Blanche Lazzell studio. Their home in the 1970s was at 205A Bradford Street. They moved to 561 Commercial Street and then to 531 Commercial Street before arriving at the old Waterfront Apartments.

Cook, a photographer herself (one of the first to be hired by the embryonic Village Voice in the 1950s), opened the VII Photographers Gallery in 1960. “Her ambition and her hope were great, as was her valor,” Oliver wrote in Our World (2007). “Photography was scarcely, or at best only by a few, regarded as an art. People bought paintings certainly but had not yet begun to purchase and cherish the photographs that now cost thousands of dollars, if one can find them.” The gallery lasted only four years, morphing into VII Paperback Books, 340 Commercial Street, before Cook opened the East End Book Shop at 349 Commercial Street. She also worked briefly for Mailer and ran the Molly Malone Cook Literary Agency. Among her clients was Mary Oliver.

“The poet’s role, for Oliver, is to learn to listen to what has no tongue, perhaps even to become that tongue, a translator for the lessons of moss and hawk and lily,” Mark Doty wrote in a profile published in the 1995 issue of Provincetown Arts. “Wonder awakens the moral sense; in the face of the marvelous, we say, how can I live up to this? What is my life next to it?

“Those creatures which the poet of Genesis asserts were made before us can teach us, Oliver suggests, how to live. No wonder the poet, as she noted in a recent interview, hides pencils in the trees along her favorite walks; the world through which she moves brims with incipient revelation.”

And it certainly extends to human affairs, as shown so movingly in her own words:

“If there is life after the earth-life, will you come with me? Even then? Since we’re bound to be something, why not together. Imagine! Two little stones, two fleas under the wing of a gull, flying along through the fog! Or, ten blades of grass. Ten loops of honeysuckle all flung against each other, at the edge of Race Road! Beach plums! Snowflakes, coasting into the winter woods, making a very small sound, like this

sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo

as they marry the dusty shoulders of the pitch-pines. Or, rain — that gray light running over the sea, pocking it, lacquering it, coming, all morning and afternoon, from the west wind’s youth and abundance and jollity — pinging and jangling down upon the roofs of Provincetown.”

2 thoughts on “535 Commercial Street

  1. Very nice. Good pictures.

    I lived here in the ’70s. My partner, Don Sterton, and I were the year-round caretakers. It was an amazing job. We had a two-bedroom apartment (first-floor, middle), a floor-through with a fireplace with access to the huge common deck. We paid no rent and were given a stipend of $100 a month. Selma Dubrin, the antique jeweler who had a shop at 423 Commercial, got us the job.

    The Kibbutz was a joke name because all the owners of the apartments were Jewish and were very leftist, progressive activists from New York. I think Roz and Larry Roose got the thing started and bought it from Eldred. Roz was a Trotskyist who was sort of famous. The New Yorker did a long profile about her in the 90s. The Rooses had three apartments (first and second floors, east end) and above them, on the third floor, in a sleekly designed loft, was Robbie Garfield, the widow of John Garfield, the movie star, and her husband, Sidney Kohn, who was a well known labor lawyer.

    There were always parties on the summer weekends, with all of the East End artists and whatever guests anybody had. Don and I were always invited since it was a communal place and we could have guests come if we wanted. I loved living at the Kibbutz. That’s what everyone called it and I hope the name doesn’t disappear.

    • Thanks to a reminiscence as vivid and full of details as this, Mr. Regan, the name Kibbutz will live on. Thank you.

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