Sign of the Mermaid Condominium
With the death of Norman Mailer in 2007, it is probably safe to say that Michael Cunningham (b 1952) became the single most prominent literary figure currently living in Provincetown. It’s probably also safe to say that he would not like that distinction at all, that it would make him uncomfortable and that he might he even take issue with it. The fact remains, however, that there are few contemporary writers anywhere in America whose work commands wide attention simply on the strength of being published. And ever since he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for The Hours, and ever since The Hours was made into a highly respected movie in 2002, Cunningham has been one of them.
Since 2001, he and his partner Ken Corbett (a psychoanalyst and the author of Boyhoods: Rethinking Masculinities), have made their summer home at 633 Commercial, known formally as the Sign of the Mermaid Condominium. That name was not picked from some whimsical real-estate broker’s hat. It was given to the property by Roger Donaghue in 1964 when this was operated as a lodging house. Donaghue succeeded Eldred Mowery Jr. in running the place. Mowery had acquired the property in 1959 from the estate of a retired naval officer, Capt. Archibald D. Turnbull (d 1958). Turnbull had been married to Eva Humphreys, to whom Anne Gordon Overholt transferred a Commercial Street property in 1928, suggesting strongly that this may once have been the Anne Overholt Inn. More recently, it was a kind of annex to Sea Barn, 631 Commercial. In fact, Cunningham and Corbett purchased their first unit from the Robert Motherwell Trust.
Cunningham arrived in Provincetown in 1980 as a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center. In an essay for Provincetown Arts in 2005, the writer Maria Flook, who was in Cunningham’s cohort, recalled how they would reward themselves for a day of substantive work with a game of pool at the Governor Bradford. “Everyone there seemed to tolerate Michael, the tall and lanky Californian, and me, the single mom with a punk ‘Monkey shag’ haircut, both of us in ripped jeans and T-shirts, like FAWC Bobbsie twins.”
On a subsequent visit, in 1986, Cunningham exchanged casual remarks with Corbett at a gallery. Later that day, they bumped into one another outside Spiritus — as so many people do. Only this time, they exchanged phone numbers, leaving them to wonder for the next quarter century together whether they would otherwise have ever met again had it not been for the second chance encounter. “It seems doubtful,” Cunningham wrote in the epilogue of Land’s End: A Walk Through Provincetown. “We had little, outwardly, in common. But Provincetown is the kind of place where people who are not technically supposed to meet at all not only do so but see one another over and over again.”
What changed Cunningham’s life so profoundly — and not in every sense for the better — was his receipt in 1999 of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In time, that led to Hollywood, which led to the offer of a sum of money from Scott Rudin, the producer of The Hours, that closely approximated the purchase price of the condo at 633 Commercial. “We’re sitting in The Hours house,” Cunningham told Tim Murphy of Out magazine in 2010. “Sitting on an Hours sofa, drinking water out of an Hours glass.”
With the passage of a decade, it begins to seem as if Land’s End will be Cunningham’s most enduring gift to Provincetown. Though written as a commission, and executed with a light touch, Land’s End is full of deft observation. Cunningham cannot, for instance, look at MacMillan Pier and not think of the many fishermen who have perished at sea. He writes: “The wharf is subtly but discernibly haunted, a midway zone between the gaudy comforts of town and the shimmering immensity beyond.” What’s more, Cunningham is willing to touch live wires that most conventional travelogues avoid. One is the fact that Provincetown — much as we love and respect it — simply isn’t a cultural hub any longer, notwithstanding the presence of many talented artists and writers.
Provincetown has to a certain extent been revived as an art colony. Still, it is not what it once was. Provincetown today is something like an elderly bohemian who once knew people of great influence, who still dresses eccentrically, still lives in defiant poverty, still paints or sculpts with heroic optimism, and flirts only on bad days with bitterness about having been gifted and dedicated and having been left behind.
Another very tender point on which Cunningham briefly dwells is that the town’s celebrated, manifold diversity does not extend to race.
Some of the Jamaicans who come to work in Provincetown for the summer have taken up year-round residence, and it seems possible — it does not seem impossible — that the following reversal is gradually taking place: the white gay men and lesbians, who for so long were the itinerants and outsiders, tend now to own most of the businesses and much of the real estate in town, and the Jamaican immigrants are establishing themselves as the new, marginalized, defiantly embedded population.
None of this disguises Cunningham’s enormous affection for the place and its people. At the book’s end, he allows that he and Corbett “imagine ourselves, only half jokingly, as old coots there, prone to a little more gold jewelry than is absolutely necessary, walking wire-haired dachshunds on leashes down Commercial Street. I can think of worse fates.”