565 Commercial Street

 
Norman Mailer House

Ideally suited to serve as the center of an active family’s life, that is precisely the role 565 Commercial played, beginning in 1966, for Norman Mailer (1923-2007), and his fourth wife, Beverly Mailer (b 1930). “Set on the bay, the house, which had a large wood-paneled kitchen and a huge dormitory for Mailer’s brood of six children, reflected Mailer’s expansive life-style,” Hilary Mills wrote in Mailer: A Biography (1982).

It was also a house with a literary pedigree, as John and Katherine Dos Passos, Frank and Edith Shay and Laura Z. Hobson all passed through it. A century ago, the property, abutting Lewis Wharf, was owned by J. E. Weeks. [Could this structure include remnants of the Sea Captain cottage in which Eugene O’Neill worked in 1919 as he and his wife, Agnes (Boulton) O’Neill prepared for the birth of their son, Shane?] It was sold in 1945 by William H. Richey to Dos Passos and his wife, Katherine “Katy” Dos Passos, who lived next door, at 571 Commercial. No. 565 was referred to by The Advocate as the “Dos Passos house” in a 1948 account noting that Frank Shay and his wife, Edith “Edy” Shay, were staying there. By 1950, the Shays were described as the owners of No. 565, which they rented that year to Laura Z. Hobson, the author of Gentleman’s Agreement. Later that year, the Shays, who lived in Wellfleet, sold the house to Philip W. Conrad.

The Mailers bought the house in 1966 from Albert L. Rubenstein of New York. That year, they founded an experimental theater called Act IV, in space at the Gifford House. “Act IV seemed a good way for Beverly to have a creative life separate from her husband’s,” Mills wrote, “but this was not to happen. Instead, the project stimulated Mailer’s own theatrical interests, and he decided to stage a production of his play, The Deer Park.” When Joe Flaherty approached Mailer in 1967 about writing a piece centered on his life in Provincetown for The New York Times Magazine, Mailer declined. “Provincetown is a special bastion where I go to play, and I don’t like to expose it to the press,” Flaherty recalled him saying, in Mailer: His Life and Times by Peter Manso (1985).

During their time at No. 565, the Mailers separated. Speaking as Aquarius in Of a Fire on the Moon, Mailer wrote about the summer of 1969 that “his wife and he were getting along abominably” and that theirs was “far and away the noisiest house on the street.” In her divorce suit, filed in 1978, Beverly Mailer sought possession of 565 Commercial. But it was seized in 1979 for nonpayment of taxes and auctioned off to new owners in San Jose, Calif. Mailer fought to stay there, arguing that it had been part of her divorce settlement. She lost her legal battle in 1981. Russell A. Gaudreau Jr., a partner in the law firm Ropes & Gray, bought the house in 1982 from its California owners for $156,000.

[Updated 2012-06-17]


 

 

 

 

One thought on “565 Commercial Street

  1. I remember attending Act IV in the cellar of the Gifford House and enjoying it immensely — one performance, in particular, of Deer Park with Beverly (Mailer) Bentley and Rip Torn was especially exciting – but then again, what wasn’t during that period in Provincetown? Anne Meara and her husband Jerry Stiller were relatively unknown and regulars there also. There was a wildness to the place that was intoxicating!!

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