Eleanor Roosevelt slept here. And not before or after, either, but while she was First Lady. This little-known episode, long overshadowed by the stories of Jacqueline Kennedy’s evening visit in 1961, occurred on Tuesday, 1 October 1940. It was a very grim moment in world affairs that seemed to point ever more inevitably to global war: Germany, Japan and Italy had just days earlier signed the tripartite agreement creating the Axis. And the presidential election was only a month away. Roosevelt, The Advocate reported, had come to Provincetown for a “short respite … from telephones, turmoil and other distractions.” The First Lady was accompanied only by her private secretary, Malvina “Tommy” Thompson, and was at the wheel herself as they drove up to the Colonial Inn around five o’clock.
Because a young employee of the inn saw to them, Marjorie Pell Oliver, the proprietor of the Colonial, didn’t know at first that the First Lady was among her lodgers that evening. (And times being what they were, and Provincetown being what it was, it’s hard to imagine Oliver being too much impressed by the fact.) Roosevelt and Thompson enjoyed a dinner at the Flagship, then went to the telegraph office to send off several messages. It was only during breakfast at the Colonial Inn that Roosevelt evidenced an unspoken concern. “When the morning Boston papers were handed to her,” The Advocate reported, “she turned, not to the political situation, but to the latest news of the war.”
The Colonial Inn was opened by Oliver and her husband, Joseph, in the 1930s. Not long after Roosevelt’s visit, the dining room was redecorated by Peter Hunt, who held a dinner party there in August 1942 to honor the opera star Lily Pons. In the 1960s, the restaurant was known as S’il Vous Plait. The Olivers’ very successful business was expanded to include an annex at 603 Commercial Street called the Colonial Inn Beach House. The Olivers lived in the waterside property, which also included the Driftwood Room lounge and nightclub. Designed by the painter George Yater, it opened in 1953. What was the Colonial Inn Beach House remains a transient accommodation, now called the Watermark Inn.
Mrs. Oliver sold the property in 1960 to Raymond Smeraldo of Morristown, N.J. He reopened the dining room in 1962 as the Colonial Inn Restaurant. The property was re-divided in 1967 when Smeraldo sold the beach house to his son and daughter-in-law. They continued to operate under the name Colonial Inn. Meanwhile, the older Smeraldo and his wife, Clara, offered accommodations in the main house at No. 586, but now under the name Ship’s Bell Inn and Motel, the name under which it is still known as a condominium. Eric Dray, former chairman of the Provincetown Historical Commission and a lecturer in American and New England studies in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Boston University, was involved in the redevelopment of the property.