592 Commercial Street

 
Creative fires burned everywhere in 1916 during the “Great Provincetown Summer,” as it was called by the painter Marsden Hartley (1877-1943). But 592 Commercial was a furnace. Hartley himself was living here as a guest of the journalist and activist John Reed (1887-1920), who had recently returned from covering the European conflagration. Reed was accompanied by his lover and future wife, the journalist Louise Bryant (1885-1936), who would also take Eugene O’Neill, from across the street, as a lover that summer. Added to this stewpot was Hippolyte Havel (1871-1950), the household chef — or “kitchen anarchist,” as Reed called him, after he’d branded Reed a “parlor socialist.” Among the many others coming and going from the house was Hartley’s friend, the painter Charles Demuth (1883-1935).

Just one such summer would have been history enough for any house, but No. 592 is further distinguished as the home from 1951 to 1996 of the Manso family. Leo Manso (1914-1993), was an eminent painter, collagist and teacher who came to Provincetown’s attention during the influential Forum 49 series at 200 Commercial Street. In 1952, Manso ran a New York University-affiliated art workshop here. He was also a cofounder of Gallery 256, at 256 Commercial Street; of the Provincetown Workshop, 492 Commercial; and of the Long Point Gallery, which took over the workshop’s space. His wife, Blanche (Rosenberg) Manso (1917-1996), was an expert collector of ancient Asian art [?] who ran a store here called Arts of the Past in the late 1960s. Their son, the author Peter Manso (b 1941), wrote Brando: The Biography, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, in this house.

Given the hot-blooded group that was about to move in, it is somewhat remarkable to think that this house — once known as Bay View Cottage — was owned until January 1916 by Hugh E. Ross (±1872-1971), a dealer in undertaker’s supplies in the Boston area. During the “Great Summer,” it appears to have been owned by Corrie Genevieve Howard.

The concatenation of such formidable artistic and intellectual talent in the East End was scarcely accidental or coincidental. Most of these many planets had a common sun, and her name was Mabel Dodge (1879-1962), Reed’s erstwhile lover and a wealthy patron of the arts whose home at 23 Fifth Avenue was the principal salon of the Greenwich Village avant garde in the 1910s: “artists, actors, anarchists, Socialists, I.W.W.’s, celebrities, eccentrics and nonentities,” Granville Hicks wrote in John Reed: The Making of a Revolutionary (1936). Demuth and Hartley were in that circle, as were Hutchins Hapgood, Neith Boyce, Emma Goldman and other East Enders.

Reed and Bryant were among the first to arrive that summer, Robert A. Rosenstone wrote in Romantic Revolutionary: A Biography of John Reed, and even had some precious time to themselves in June. But by July, the informal parlor group that had begun producing plays the previous summer was gearing up for a true season: electricity, benches and a 10-by-12-foot stage were installed in the fishhouse on Lewis Wharf, 571 Commercial, which was owned by Mary Heaton Vorse. Reed’s satirical play Freedom was on the first bill. In it, three of four inmates plotting a jail break decide — before they execute their escape — that they would rather remain imprisoned, each for his own self-centered reason. They then turn on the fourth, whose thirst for freedom never lessened, and implicate him.

Of course, it was a short play on the second bill that immortalized the Provincetown Players: Bound East for Cardiff, by Eugene O’Neill, who was living in Truro. The excellence of the play was instantly recognized by the players and by the public, so legend tells us. It was time for O’Neill to move to town. “Reed found him a shack, diagonally across the street from his own house, where he thought O’Neill would find it more comfortable to write,” Barbara Gelb wrote in So Short a Time: A Biography of John Reed and Louise Bryant. That proximity brought the handsome young playwright directly into Bryant’s frequent gaze. She watched him take long swims and joined him on the beach when he was finished. In case O’Neill didn’t get the point — and apparently he didn’t, at first — she slipped a note into a book of poetry she presented him one evening: “Dark eyes. What do you mean?”

Having persuaded O’Neill that Reed was all but facing death in an impending kidney operation (not entirely untrue) and that his kidney disease had left him incapable of sex (apparently not true at all), Bryant managed to coax him (not that he needed much coaxing) to enter into an affair that lasted all summer. It seemed everyone in town knew O’Neill and Bryant had become lovers. Except Reed. The three stayed in town through September. “And Louise continued to divide her time between the two men,” Gelb wrote, “pleased to be regarded as essential by each, and committing herself wholly to neither.”

According to one account, Hartley even outstayed Reed and Bryant at No. 592. He was joined in the fall by Demuth, who’d spent the summer in a beachfront cottage with the artist Edward Fisk. After returning to New York in November, Hartley and Demuth took off together for Bermuda. They had known one another since their days in Paris in 1912 among the many expatriates orbiting around Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Gees Seckler wrote in Provincetown Painters, 1890s-1970s. It was in Paris that Demuth had also met Fisk, who was eventually to marry the sister the sister of Agnes (Boulton) O’Neill — as if things weren’t complicated enough already. Demuth and Fisk had spent the summer of 1915 together in a boarding house run by Polly Holladay, whose Greenwich Village restaurant was a significant meeting place for artists, anarchists and other bohemians in New York City. (Did we mention that the cook at Polly’s was Hippolyte Havel, her lover, who brought his cooking skills to No. 592 in the summer of 1916?)

Hartley and Demuth both painted Provincetown scenes, in their own ways. Hartley’s work along those lines includes Movement No. 5, Provincetown Houses of 1916, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Movement No. 1 (Provincetown) of 1916, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Demuth’s After Sir Christopher Wren, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a magnificent evocation of the Center Methodist Church (now the Provincetown Public Library) — not, as the title might suggest, the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House. Demuth’s Stairs, Provincetown, at the Museum of Modern Art, was also painted in 1920 and may show the staircase at Day’s studios (now the Fine Arts Work Center). Thirty years after Demuth finished the painting, it was still attracting criticism; in this case from Irv Freeman, former proprietor of Freeman’s General Store at 491 Commercial, who said: “This is only a sample of some of the crazy pictures supposedly painted from scenes in Provincetown. … It would be a good thing if some of the would-be artists and writers … [were] prohibited from painting and writing of the town.”

(The two Demuth paintings above are in the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, Pa.)

Gladys (Kissel) Rokos (1888-1976) bought the property in 1937, near the end of a 10-year sojourn in southern France, where she painted. The war in Europe forced her to return to the States for good in 1940. Five years later, she opened the Tray Shop at this address, with the motto, “Kumyn and Luque.” (Say it aloud a couple of times. All will become clear.) The store’s name told the story. It offered “unusual and colorful hand-painted trays” made by Rokos. Many of the motifs were flowers, which The Advocate praised for their rich color and design before noting, “There are some gay, amusing ones, too, of animals and fascinating scenes of Provincetown.” (“New Shop Open in East End,” The Advocate, 9 August 1945.)

The Manso family — Leo, Blanche and Peter; Victor was not yet born — began spending summers in Provincetown in the late 1940s. In 1951, they bought 592 Commercial. Leo used the rear building, No. 592A, as his studio and classroom. A year after buying the property, he undertook a collaborative experiment with New York University, where he taught during the school year. He opened the N.Y.U. Adult Education Art Workshop, a 10-day summer program with as many as 12 students in each two-week segment.

Manso (profiled on the Provincetown Artist Registry) was described in his Times obituary as a “leading influence on the art of collage,” whose work was “known for its fluid composition and its use of color.” (Marvine Howe, “Leo Manso Dies; Collagist, Painter and Teacher, 78,” The New York Times, 9 February 1993.) He is represented by two works in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, Ascent 3 and Earth 2, both from 1962; and by two works at the Whitney Museum of American Art. He was also a prolific illustrator of book jackets, including a 1947 edition of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and the first American edition, in 1954, of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale — theoretically making Manso one of the earliest artists to attempt a depiction of James Bond.

It was, however, as a collagist that Manso stood head and shoulders above other artists. “Manso’s work is small in scale, secular and intimate in its subjects, but no less implacable in its ethical integrity, its aesthetic of formed sensuousness,” Robert Motherwell said. “Seductively beautiful as the work is at first sight, it holds its own like iron, a visual poetry that never compromises, never loses its inner life.”

“My own work is based in nature,” Manso told Frank Crotty in 1959.

I have found that I am not an intellectual artist. … Only through reaction to nature can I form my painting into which I seek to pour every reference, nuance of feeling and meaning which is the result of my reaction to something seen, felt, intuited. The problems of form, I feel, are organic with what you wish to say. … A fixed position for the artist blunts the inner vision. To react to forms and colors in the making of a work is the artist’s road. To unify and express is to have arrived at the goal. … The bird should be caught in flight but not arrested in motion.

 

 

At 28, the Mansos’ son Peter, with a bachelor’s degree from Antioch and a master’s from Johns Hopkins, helped direct Norman Mailer’s candidacy for the mayoralty of New York. Manso wrote the position papers, which earned this assessment from John Leonard in The Times: “He has more to say about transportation, air pollution, schools, crime and city economics than anybody I’ve seen on television, and most of what he says is astonishingly sensible.” Leonard had occasion to mention Manso in the context of his having edited Running Against the Machine: A Grass Roots Race for the New York Mayoralty, an account of the campaign. It was not the last campaign Manso would influence. As an interviewer for Playboy in 1982, Manso elicited some astonishingly parochial wisecracks about suburban and rural life from Mayor Edward I. Koch of New York. The magazine appeared on the stands a day after Koch announced he was running for governor of the largely suburban and rural state. Thanks in part to his candor with Manso, Koch’s race was foredoomed.

Manso is now better known as the author of the 1985 authorized biography, Mailer: His Life and Times and the unauthorized Brando biography. He has also written Ptown: Art, Sex, and Money on the Outer Cape (2003) and Reasonable Doubt: The Fashion Writer, Cape Cod, and the Trial of Chris McCowen (2011).

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