627 Commercial Street

 
Norman Mailer Writers Colony

Brobdingnagian. There. Done. The adjective was almost certainly going to come up in a discussion of Norman Mailer (1923-2007), and now we’ve gotten it out of the way. But he was that: a giant in a town of giants. Visitors who knew nothing else about Cape Cod’s literary and artistic patrimoney knew that Mailer lived — big — in this big brick dwelling in the East End. “I loved that house,” his last wife, Norris Church Mailer (1949-2010) wrote in her memoir, A Ticket to the Circus. “It was big enough for all of us — five bedrooms and four-and-a-half bathrooms, with Norman and me splitting the attic floor for our offices. Granted, he had three-quarters of the space.”

Mailer is a bookend across the 20th century to Charles W. Hawthorne. Hawthorne endures as a force in Provincetown because he made himself a part of the town. Mailer did the same thing, which may be why a Brooklyn boy seems so deeply rooted here.

 

Mailer loved “dragging” the town as a fishing boat would drag the sea, ceaselessly searching for its surprising treasures, recalled Dwayne Raymond, Mailer’s aide-de-camp in his final years, in Mornings With Mailer. “Norman and Provincetown intertwined so well because they were alike — with both, you got what you did not anticipate,” Raymond wrote. “Townies would boast about having Mailer in their midst, but what they didn’t know is that Mailer likewise bragged about living among them.”

His legacy is vouchsafed for the foreseeable future by the Norman Mailer Center and the Norman Mailer Writers Colony, founded in 2008 by Lawrence Schiller (b 1936) and Norris Mailer. Schiller is the president. As of 2012, the board of directors is composed of Tina Brown, Dylan Jones, John Buffalo Mailer, Michael Mailer, Susan Mailer, Sam Radin, Spas Roussev and Schiller. The Colony offers week-long workshops in writing; month-long fellowships in fiction, nonfiction and poetry; and retreats up to two months long.

Though Mailer’s occupancy predominates any history of No. 627, he was only the last in a line of significant individual owners. Built in 1930 for Dr. Percival J. Eaton (1862-1938), a leading citizen of the town, it was at one time known as Etonia. It was subsequently home to the artist Lily Harmon (1912-1988) and to the author and art critic B. H. Friedman (1926-2011).

Eaton was a leading pediatrician, educated and trained at Harvard College, Harvard Medical School, Children’s Hospital and Boston City Hospital. He wound up in Pittsburgh as chief of pediatrics and chief of staff at St. Margaret’s Memorial Hospital. He came to Provincetown in the early ’20s to retire. What a retirement! He threw himself into town affairs, serving at one time or other as president of the Provincetown Art Association, chairman of the Provincetown Public Library, cofounder and treasurer of the Provincetown Tennis Club, president of the Anchor and Ark Club and board member of the First National Savings Bank.

The building’s next turn was as the Collins Guest House – a “six-room cottage on the waterfront” – run by John J. Collins and his wife in the 1940s and ’50s.

They sold the house in 1956 to Harmon, who was newly divorced from Joseph H. Hirshhorn, the multimillionaire art collector and, later, founding patron and namesake of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Gallery in Washington. Harmon left the marriage with $5 million for herself and $1 million in trust for her daughters, Amy and Jo Ann Hirshhorn, according to Little Man in a Big Hurry. Her purchase of the Collins Guest House, through John C. Snow, was “one of the most significant sales in recent years of waterfront property along the exclusive East End harbor front,” The Advocate said. She remaned the place Harmony, but that name came with her when she moved next door, to 629 Commercial Street. Harmon attended the Yale School of Fine Arts and the Art Students’ League in New York, and studied in Paris. She came to Provincetown in 1929 and studied with Henry Hensche. “By the early 1930s she was working in a Social Realist style that, with adjustments, would be the mainstay of her work,” Roberta Smith wrote in The New York Times. “Ms. Harmon’s art could lean toward social satire similar to Philip Evergood’s, or scenes of poetic introspection, like some of Philip Guston’s early works. But it usually followed a tradition of sympathetic portraiture personified by Raphael Soyer.” Today, her work is represented by the Ernden Fine Art Gallery.

It was Harmon who clad Eaton’s frame house in a veneer of red brick, the historian Irma Ruckstuhl informs me. While it certainly stands out, it is not “the only brick building in town” apart from the high school, as one recent guide book asserted. (There’s the Post Office, Seamen’s Bank and the old First National Bank — now Joe — for starters.) It isn’t even the only brick dwelling (Cf. 92 Bayberry Avenue.)

Bernard Harper “Bob” Friedman and his wife, Abby (Noselson) Friedman, bought No. 627 from Harmon in 1967. Friedman was a fascinating figure. Through his mother, Madeline Copland Uris, he was related to the composer Aaron Copland and — more importantly — to the brothers Harold and Percy Uris, leading New York real estate developers in the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s. For many years, Friedman worked for his uncles at Uris Brothers and Uris Buildings Corporation. “But he was hardly a conventional businessman,” his obituary noted. (Bruce Weber, “B. H. Friedman, a Novelist, Art Critic and Pollock Biographer, Is Dead at 84,” The New York Times, 10 January 2011.)

“A jazz aficionado, an art collector, an experimenter with drugs (his 2006 memoir, Tripping, recounts his mind-bending experiences with the guru of psychedelia Timothy Leary), he was, while going to the office by day, also writing fiction and contributing articles on literature, art, architecture and music to a variety of publications.” These included Art News, Art in America and Art International. Friedman had begun collecting Jackson Pollock paintings early, and was a friend of the artist. In 1972, 16 years after Pollock’s death, McGraw-Hill published Friedman’s Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible. “This is the first biography of the artist we have had,” Hilton Kramer wrote in The Times. “It brings together in a clear, readable form most of the stories about Pollock that have circulated in the art world — and in the larger social world where his name has acquired a mythic aura — since his death.” Kramer was not otherwise much impressed by the book and took special exception to the notion that Pollock was a victim of anything but his own demons. “Yet the book will be read — and should be read — for the valuable details it brings us about a period of American art that is only now beginning to acquire a serious historical literature.”

Friedman was active early on in the fledgling Fine Arts Work Center, after writers were added to its program in 1969. He “was long an important factor in F.A.W.C. fortunes, a man most graceful, urbane, generous and wise, who carried his wealth very lightly,” the writer Roger Skillings told me in 2012. “He and Abby gave grand parties, which gave the writing and visual arts sides a chance to socialize on neutral grounds.”

There was another side of the Friedman family that could only have been appreciated by a contemporary of their son Jackson. (Yes, named for Pollock.) Jill Kearney, the daughter of John and Lynn Kearney, recalled Jackson Friedman as the center of a teen-aged gang that also included Lise and Jeannie Motherwell, David Michaelis, Danielle Mailer and Danielle’s cousin Peter Alson. Their capers included a “terrible” basement band that was first called the Turning Tide, and then Hand. “Jackson was an exuberant, brave rascal who helped to engineer a very memorable childhood for the rest of us,” Kearney told me in 2012. “You could count on him to take every risk imaginable and live to tell the tale.”

In an interview for the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, B. H. Friedman recalled using the garage at No. 627 as a studio. Roy M. Cohn subsequently lived as a tenant of Mailer’s in the renovated garage, which is now a freestanding condo known as 625 Commercial.

Mailer had rented the house from the Friedmans in 1971. Title to the property was transferred in May 1983 from the Friedmans to a lawyer in Orleans. In turn, he conveyed the deed in October 1983 jointly to Peter Manso and to the Six Hundred Twenty Seven Commercial Street Realty Trust (Mailer, in effect, through an entity that would protect the real property from claims against Mailer personally). Mailer had rented the house from the Friedmans in 1971.

Manso (b 1941) is the son of the artist Leo Manso. He grew up not far away, at 592 Commercial Street. (More about him will be found in that entry.) When Mailer ran for the mayoralty of New York in 1969 on a ticket that included Jimmy Breslin, Manso wrote position papers for the candidates. He also edited Running Against the Machine: The Mailer-Breslin Campaign. At the time he purchased 627 Commercial Street, Manso was completing the authorized biography, Mailer: His Life and Times, which Michael Korda, editor in chief of Simon & Schuster, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in biography.

“Given Mailer’s stature as a literary figure, the potential of our sharing a house was hugely attractive, in fact irresistibly Boswellian,” Manso wrote in afterword to the 2008 reissue of the biography. The idea was that Manso and his partner, Ellen Hawkes, would share the house with the Mailers and their large brood for the summer of 1984, after which the 6,000-square-foot structure would be divided into separate side-by-side condominium units for use by the two families. But this inherently awkward living arrangement “was to prove problematic, indeed terminal for our relationship,” Manso wrote. It did not last too long into 1985, especially since separate quarters had yet to be constructed. “I felt driven from the house,” Hawkes later said. In April 1986, Manso quit the real estate partnership.

That isn’t to say that life turned suddenly conventional at No. 627. After the summer, several rooms of the house were pressed into service as location studios for the filming of Tough Guys Don’t Dance, a feature movie set in Provincetown, starring Ryan O’Neal and Isabella Rossellini, that was directed by Mailer from his novel of the same name. One of its most affecting moments was unscripted: a brief scene in which O’Neal’s character awakens to find enormous waves washing over the deck of his house. It is foreboding and chilling; a small cinematic reminder of how much the town — even today — lives at the mercy of the sea. Little else in the film rose to that occasion. “Nobody could figure out what the movie was trying to do, or even what it was,” Norris wrote in her memoir. “Was it a comedy or a thriller? People laughed when they should have been scared. They were befuddled when they should have been laughing. … It closed soon after it opened.”

The movie’s legacy on the house lasted longer. It wasn’t until 1994 that the Mailers got around to covering up the “Easter egg colors” that rooms had been painted for the filming of Tough Guys, Norris related. A visitor to the house can’t help notice how much wallpaper there is; not a domestic image that reconciles easily with Mailer the Pugilist. But Norris said: “Norman enjoyed going to the wallpaper store and poring over sample books as much as I did. … In fact, he chose most of the papers in the house, but he did it with an eye to the colors I liked, the warm colors of fall.”

While living at No. 627, Mailer wrote the novels Harlot’s Ghost, The Gospel According to the Son, and The Castle in the Forest. He also wrote Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery, collaborating with Lawrence Schiller, with whom he worked on The Executioner’s Song and Marilyn, among other books and projects.

Christopher Busa twice placed Mailer on the cover of Provincetown Arts, in 1987 and 1999. In a memorial essay, Busa recalled that the pull quote used over Joel Meyerowitz’s photo — “This is a town you could see yourself digging in and fighting for” — had become in time the “unofficial mission of the magazine.” For the 1999 cover story, Busa described Mailer’s quotidian work habits: “Mailer writes at a desk under the apex of his brick house on the waterfront in the East End. A picture window looks west along the shoreline to the wharf and Monument, and when the late afternoon sun is bright, he is obliged to cover the view with a curtain. On one side of his desk, a Ping-Pong table supports stacks of research materials. On the other is a simple mattress on the floor, where the author rests his eyes while working. One senses from the arrangement that the author is the ego who manages the sleep/work cycle between the researcher and the dreamer.”

As if Mailer had just stepped away from his preparation of the second volume in the Castle in the Forest trilogy, his desk is still strewn with an Oxford Duden German-English dictionary, two copies of The Psychopathic God: Adolf Hitler, one copy each of Explaining Hitler and Little Man, What Now?, what looks to be a coyote skull, a roll of Scotch tape, cans full of pens and pencils and fluorescent-colored 3-by-5-inch index cards. Manila file folders in a nearby case are labeled “Crisis of German Ideology I & II,” “Speer: His Battle With Truth,” and “Last Days of Hitler.” In rapidly declining health, Mailer left the house on 22 September 2007 for one last trip back to Brooklyn.

Within a few weeks, he was in the I.C.U. at Mount Sinai Hospital, where Schiller visited him one day. A week earlier, Mailer had instructed a nurse who aspired to be a writer to bring in an example of her work. “And there he was, pencil in hand, editing some text,” Schiller wrote. “The same nurse was sitting there at his side, her back to the window, listening in awe to his every word as he went line by line through the typed pages she had given him. Finally, he handed her his corrections. She just sat there reading his notes, over and over and over. And Norman, tubes and IV’s stuck all over his body, went back to reading the newspaper. The groundwork for the Colony was being laid without anybody saying a word about it.”

Mailer died on 10 November 2007 of acute renal failure. His body was brought back to Provincetown for burial. Led by the hearse, the motor entourage prepared to make the short trip from the Gately McHoul Funeral Home to the Town Cemetery. “I told them to drag the town instead of taking the fast way there,” Norris Church said. “People on both sides of the street stopped, and some took off their hats; some put their hands on their hearts. They were all saluting a man who’d been one of them, a man who’d loved that place and wanted to spend eternity there.”

Eternity? Mailer would have known as well as anyone that nothing lasts eternally on the shifting sands of Cape Cod. Speaking through the voice of Dougy Madden in Tough Guys, he wrote:

Perhaps this is why Provincetown is so beautiful. Conceived at night (for one would swear it was created in the course of one dark storm) its sand flats glistened in the dawn with the moist primeval innocence of land exposing itself to the sun for the first time. Decade after decade, artists came to paint the light of Provincetown and comparisons were made to the lagoons of Venice and the marshes of Holland, but then the summer ended and most of the painters left, and the long dingy undergarment of the gray New England winter, gray as the spirit of my mood, came down to visit. One remembered then that the land was only 10,000 years old, and one’s ghosts had no roots.

Assessor’s Online Database


Historic District Survey, main house • Historic District Survey, cottage ¶ Updated 2012-12-09

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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