It seems fitting, at least in some ways, that a store devoted to women and women’s interests — Kathryn Livelli (left) owns Womencrafts and runs it with her partner, Wendy Hinden (right) — should be in what was once the home of one of Provincetown’s most intrepid women: Viola Cook. She earned her reputation for courageousness by accompanying her husband, Capt. John Atkins Cook (d 1937), on his multiyear whaling trips to the Arctic.
A 1901 trip subjected her to two months of unbroken darkness in temperatures nearing 60 below. Mrs. Cook explained how she’d preserved her equanimity: “Sewing helps to dispel the monotony that will manifest itself assertively at times.” During one winter at Pauline Cove on the Beaufort Sea, Mrs. Cook tended to a man who, having accidentally shot himself in the arm, was in danger of dying from infection. Against Captain Cook’s wishes, his wife recommended amputation. Surgery was performed. The man recovered. And she nursed him back to health, gaining the sobriquet “Angel of Pauline Cove.”
But a 44-month journey on the Bowhead, beginning in 1903, proved to be her undoing. Even at best, conditions were almost unbearable: 10-month lockups when the ice was at its thickest and daytime skies at their darkest, interspersed with perhaps a half dozen weeks of good whaling. In the bitter second winter, the crew was desperate to break off. Captain Cook refused, however, because the Bowhead had not yet taken nearly enough oil to make the trip profitable. An attempted mutiny was brutally put down. The hunt continued. Mrs. Cook retreated to her cabin for the last nine months at sea. She returned to Provincetown a changed women, Mary Heaton Vorse wrote in Time and the Town.
“What Mrs. Cook may have seen of brutality, she wouldn’t admit into her consciousness. She would be seen in her yard, brushing out the Captain’s clothes when he was expected back. She would say to herself, ‘Never better a pair of legs went into any pants than Johnny Cook’s legs,’ or, brushing the derby hat which captains wore ashore, ‘Never a better head went in any hat than Johnny Cook’s head.’ She would hang up the Captain’s drawers, remarking contentedly, ‘Takes a big rear to fill these drawers!’
“Especially disturbed was she at the full of the moon, and one could hear her wailing hymns at such times. The story is, too, that when Captain John Cook came home he pushed heavy furniture beside the door of his room because Mrs. Cook had the habit of honing the kitchen knives razor-sharp, as the knives of a whaling vessel are kept.
“Viola Cook’s death was in keeping with the stark tragedy of her life. Neighbors noticed that no smoke had come from her chimney for a day or two, and when they broke in they found her on the bathroom floor, where she had died of heart failure.”
If that sounds to you like the stuff of terrific drama — Eugene O’Neill would agree. His 1918 one-act, Ile, concerns Captain David Keeney and his wife, Annie, aboard the whaler Atlantic Queen, out of Homeport and stuck in the Arctic. The two-year tour for which the crew signed up is just now ending, but there is no end in sight, even though the water to the south is clear enough to sail. There is nothing but ice to the north, where Keeney is still bound to go on his hunt for oil (“ile”). After the captain and his mate put down a brief mutiny, Annie pleads with him to turn around. “If I don’t get away from here, out of this terrible ship, I’ll go mad!” she says. “Take me home, David! I can’t think any more. I feel as if the cold and the silence were crushing down on my brain. I’m afraid. Take me home!”
“It’s June now. The lilacs will be all in bloom in the front yard — and the climbing roses on the trellis to the side of the house — they’re budding.”
For a moment, Captain Keeney relents and promises her that, yes, he will change course to the south. Just then, the second mate bursts in with news that the ice is breaking up to the north and whales have been spotted beyond. Instantly, the captain reverses himself. After he leaves the cabin, she cries his name, begins to laugh hysterically and sits to play an old hymn on the ship’s organ. Despite his imploring, she never says another word. The stage direction says, “Her fingers move faster and faster and she is playing wildly and discordantly as the curtain falls.”
In 1909, Cook commissioned a 125-foot brigantine (a two master with a square-rigged foremast) and named her the Viola. It was aboard the Viola that he took his last trip in 1916. He died in 1937. This property was next owned by Richard A. and Marion E. Jennings (d 1963) until 1965; then by a group including Angela Calomiris until 1966; then by Barbara B. Snyder until 1973 (F. Schoonmaker Snyder advertised the Items of Wood shop in 1967); then by Ronald A. Gray until 1975; then briefly that year by Albert C. Doyle.
Helene G. “Nini” Lyons purchased the house in 1975 and opened a shop called Remembrances of Things Past, specializing in antiques, collectibles and gifts. While the shop is now closed, Lyons continues the business online.
At roughly the same moment, down at Pepe’s Wharf in 1976, Alexea Pickoff and Vashte Doublex opened Womencrafts — furniture crafted by women. “At the time it was the only gender-specific retail store in town,” Karen Christel Krahulik wrote in Provincetown: From Pilgrim Landing to Gay Resort (2005). “Provincetown’s visiting lesbian population appreciated the artistic wares that Womencrafts offered, and many women made the pilgrimage to Land’s End [Provincetown] just to visit Womencrafts. Few women, however, could afford to buy the expensive home furnishings.” The proprietors soon switched to items with an identifiable feminist sensibility, like jewelry in the form of a double-headed axe called a labrys. They also instituted a 10 percent “lesbian discount,” available to any woman; meaning that it was — for once — to a patron’s advantage to identify herself as lesbian. This was seen as discriminatory by some, revolutionary by others. Krahulik quotes one customer who told the store owners in 1991, “I was feeling very small when you gave me that lesbian discount but I left feeling wonderful.”
In 1978, Carol Karlman and Jo Deall of Brooklyn bought the business. They increased the variety of offerings at the store to include books, magazines, records and posters. Krahulik noted that Womencrafts also took credit for being the “first store in Provincetown to openly market lesbian or gay items.” Around 1990, they moved from Pepe’s Wharf to the old Cook house. They sold Womencrafts in 1999 to Livelli and her partner Debbie Estevez (1950-2009), who is memorialized in a plaque at the store’s entrance: “She laughed with abandon, lived with passion and wasn’t afraid to break the rules.”