625 Commercial Street

Roy Cohn in Provincetown? That snarling, disbarred spawn of Joe McCarthy? That Commie-hunting, Rosenberg-prosecuting, influence-mongering, Studio-patronizing, power-wielding, AIDS-denying closet case who held élite New York inexplicably in thrall in the 1970s and early ’80s?

Yes. And because this is Provincetown, the story only gets stranger. Cohn (1927-1986) was a tenant of Norman Mailer in the last couple of years of his life, spending parts of his summers in the converted boat house and garage just to the west of the big brick dwelling at 627 Commercial, which was owned jointly at the time by Mailer and his biographer Peter Manso. Cohn was no stranger to the East End, either, having spent the summers of 1982 and 1983 at Anne Packard’s home next door.

“Cohn’s presence in the neighborhood caused something of a scandal,” Manso recalled, “what with his big yacht moored out front, his late-night carousings with scads of young men lured to the East End straight from the A-House and Back Room at closing time, and of course because many of Cohn’s neighbors were self-styled liberals who were indignant at having the ex-Red baiter in their midst.”

Life at No. 625 was scarcely an idyll for Cohn, however. By the time he moved in, or not long thereafter, he knew that he had AIDS (though he maintained publicly and privately that it was liver cancer). In 1984, close friends like Russell Eldridge were quite literally dying before his eyes — “a shaking scarcrow, wrapped in towels and lying on Roy’s deck,” as Nicholas von Hoffman wrote in 1988 in Vanity Fair. “That summer on the Cape, there was a tenderness in the way [Cohn] helped Russell Eldridge down to the beach. His neighbors next door were struck by his solicitude — markedly different from the pro forma, stylized gestures they were familiar with.” Cohn lived only two years longer.

This property has been a freestanding condominium since the 1980s, but because it shares outdoor space with No. 627, approval is needed from the Mailer estate for any substantive changes. For instance, Bette Skandalis and Jo Seidler, who have owned the property since 1998, “took great care to preserve the view from what had been Mailer’s study in the house next door,” according to a 2010 article. (Marni Elyse Katz, “It’s a Breeze,” The Boston Globe, 11 July 2010.)

For their renovation Skandalis and Seidler engaged Tom Huth of Huth Architects in Newton. In “New Life for Norman Mailer’s Garage” on the Web site Architects + Artisans (22 January 2010), J. Michael Welton wrote, “The architect’s assignment was to turn a rustic condo where all paths led through the living room into a livable, workable space that takes advantage of its site.”


 

 

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