There is a beguiling myth about Provincetown — and the embrace of this myth speaks well of the town — that it has forever been a tolerant place, where outliers have always found haven. There’s certainly truth to that, but the generality hides the vehemence with which Provincetown’s establishment descended on nonconformity in the 1950s and ’60s. I’ve centered discussion of the case of “Tralala” here because this was the home of William V. Ward (1928-2006), publisher of the Provincetown Review, when he was arrested for printing and selling a short story by Hubert Selby Jr. that authorities deemed “obscene, indecent or impure.”
The case itself sounds like something out of the 19th century (or 2012), but it began in the summer of 1960 when Ward autographed a copy of the latest Provincetown Review which Glenn Stuart, a teen-ager visiting from Warwick, had just purchased. The issue included Selby’s short story about the brutal gang rape of a prostitute named Tralala. Back home, Stuart’s father — scandalized — sent the magazine to the Rhode Island Commission on Youth, which forwarded it to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office, which contacted Police Chief Francis H. Marshall of Provincetown, who arrested Mr. Thomas on two counts: publishing obscene material and corrupting the morals of youth. The latter charge was dismissed when it turned out that Glenn had been 18 at the time.
A cast of literary luminaries — the poets Stanley Kunitz and Allen Tate; Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary; and Jason Epstein, the vice president of Random House — appeared as witnesses for the defense in the district court trial before Judge Robert A. Welsh in August 1961. They testified that “little magazines” like the Provincetown Review were enormously important incubators of new talent, and that Selby’s tale in particular was a highly moral one told in a compellingly naturalistic style, and that it certainly warranted inclusion in the magazine. Both Podhoretz and Epstein invoked Ulysses as they sought to explain its signifance.
In the end, Judge Welsh was unmoved. He fined Ward $1,000. The next stop was to have been an appeal at Superior Court in Barnstable. But then, from the state capital in Boston, came an astonishing twist: the office of Attorney General Edward J. McCormack declared it was “nolle prosequi,” unwilling to prosecute. Chief Marshall learned of this by chance in a conversation with an assistant attorney general in Barnstable one day. He was outraged that the trial process had suddenly and unilaterally been ended. Chief Marshall said the case should continue to be prosecuted “in order that this will be a wholesome resort for the families and children who live here and visit with us.” His indignation was further provoked when the Winter 1961 issue of the Provincetown Review reported on the controversy and reprinted Selby’s story. “Tralala Shows Her Nasty Face Again; Police on Alert for Distributors Here,” The Advocate said on 1 February 1962.
Chief Marshall says that he is not indulging in any idle threats when he warns that if the so-called magazine is found on any newsstand in Provincetown and offered for sale here, an arrest will follow, and he promises to be his own prosecuting attorney and will carry the case to Superior Court himself should that be necessary.
Crusading moralists never seem to learn that blustery campaigns against “obscene” or inflammatory literature and art typically do nothing more than elevate the public profile of the work in question. Instead of curdling people’s interest, crusaders make readers, theater patrons and gallery-goers even more curious. “What is it they don’t want me to see?” is a powerful inducement to take a look for yourself.
“Tralala” put Selby on the literary map. It was gathered with several other short stories into a collection called Last Exit to Brooklyn, published in 1964 by Barney Rosset at the Grove Press. It is arguably Selby’s best known work. The 1989 movie of the same name, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh as Tralala and directed by Uli Edel, was well received.
William Ward was one of many residents of 423 Commercial over time, since it was run for decades as Mrs. Ogilvie’s boarding house, by Annie B. Ogilvie (1863-1956), and then as the Harbor View Apartments by Miriam H. Evans. In 1958. Evans opened the Fish Inn restaurant here. This was succeeded by Selma’s Jewelart, a jewelry store run by Selma Dubrin. F. Ronald Fowler, a figurative and landscape painter and commercial illustrator, ran the Fowler Galley here until 2005. It is now the home of the Alden Gallery, which was opened in 2007 by Howard Karren, a magazine editor in New York, and Stephen Syta, an art collector who had run a video store in Boston. Among the artists they represent are Anne Salas, Robert Morgan and Laurence Young.