Could there have been a better known lady in Provincetown? I’m not referring to the figurehead that gives 476 Commercial Street its name — renowned as she is — but to Abbie Cook Putnam (±1870-1956), who was the town librarian from 1901 to 1935. Miss Putnam was not to be trifled with. For her, the fact that a 28-year-old playwright who showed up at the library in 1917 had achieved a bit of local renown was of no consequence. Eugene O’Neill wasn’t a property owner, so Miss Putnam was not about to issue him a library card unless someone proper had vouched for him.
When O’Neill showed up drunk at the library after winning the Pulitzer Prize, Miss Putnam tossed him out. Just how little love there existed between them became clear in 1924 with the appearance of his play, Desire Under the Elms. There is in that play an adulterous character who kills her own child. The character’s name is Abbie Putnam. (Jim Coogan, “Pinning a Prig to the Page,” The Barnstable Patriot, 25 January 2010.)
Miss Putnam’s grandfather, Capt. Henry Cook, lived in this mansard-roofed house in the mid- and late 19th century, when it was denominated 437 Commercial Street. His brother, Sylvanus, lived next door in 472 (or 435) Commercial. The wharf and store serving the H. & S. Cook Company was directly opposite Henry’s house, stretching 1,000 feet into the harbor.
On the Indian Ocean in April 1867, the A. L. Putnam, a whaling schooner in the Cook fleet (named for Henry’s son-in-law), came across an eight-foot-long figurehead, provenance unknown. She was taken aboard, cut in half and brought to Provincetown, where she was placed first on the Cook store, then on Henry’s house. The figurehead that is currently mounted over the front portico is a plaster replica.