Peter Manso, 80, author of best-selling biographies of Norman Mailer and Marlon Brando, died of an apparent heart attack that he suffered at home in Truro on April 7, 2021. He was pronounced dead at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis. A lifelong part-time resident of Provincetown and Truro, he was the husband of Anna Avellar.
He was born in Manhattan to the late abstract expressionist painter and collagist Leo Manso and Blanche (Rosenberg) Manso. Leo, who ran the summer art school Provincetown Workshop starting in 1958, founded the legendary Long Point Gallery in 1976 in the same space, now the Schoolhouse Center.
Peter graduated from Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art at 16 and from Antioch College in 1961. His 1962 master’s was from Johns Hopkins, and he did doctoral work in American literature at the University of California, Berkeley.
He worked on Mailer’s campaign for New York City mayor in 1969, and they shared a house in Provincetown’s East End in the 1980s. But after Mailer: His Life and Times, an authorized biography, was published in 1985, filled with the sordid details of Mailer’s exploits, the two became estranged and traded public insults.
“Peter was like a second father to me,” said Norman’s son Michael, a filmmaker, by email. “He taught me how to drive, took an interest in my education, and was the older male figure that I needed instruction from. It was a blow to me when he and my dad had their irreparable split.” Michael reconnected with Peter in recent years and they began working on a documentary on the Lady of the Dunes murder in Provincetown. “Peter was sui generis, a flashpoint personality,” Michael wrote. “You either took to him or you didn’t. I am mourning the loss.”
Peter spent seven years researching Brando: The Biography, published in 1994. The unauthorized 1,118-page book is dense with debauchery, from the bacchanalian set of Mutiny on the Bounty to the murder of Dag Drollet by Brando’s son Christian.
Peter’s specialty was celebrity scandal: his Playboy interview with New York City Mayor Ed Koch included impolitic put-downs of the suburbs and upstate that helped deflate Koch’s gubernatorial campaign. But his interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger for Oui, revealing kinky sex and drug-taking, didn’t stop Schwarzenegger from becoming governor of California.
The 2003 publication of Ptown: Art, Sex, and Money on the Outer Cape brought the drama back home again. Though purportedly an attack on wealthy gay gentrifiers destroying the salt-of-the-earth cultural diversity of Provincetown, the book instead details the town’s lurid and pansexual history of drugs, crime, and corruption. Woven throughout are the personal stories of artist Jay Critchley, historic preservationist Regina “Ginny” Binder, and fisherman Tony Jackett.
The book was attacked for being homophobic and filled with inaccuracies and distortions — Dr. Brian O’Malley, for example, requested a damning misquote be removed. “Manso is controversy personified,” Artforum editor Jennifer Liese told the New York Times.
“The book itself was like an explosion in town,” Critchley told the Independent. “It was right after 9/11, and it was one of those times — an awakening — when people realized that the town was changing. Peter conflated gentrification with LGBTQ affluence.”
Binder enjoyed talking with Peter about growing up in Provincetown with her twin sister at the Pied Piper with her neglectful mother, Linda Gerard, and the club’s owner, Pam Genevrino. “I appreciated his interest in my family story,” Binder told the Independent, “but my mom and Pam were very mad. My mom stopped speaking to me. I wished he used his reporter skills in a way that was transformative, but he was so angry. His anger colored his perspective.”
Peter followed up Ptown with Reasonable Doubt: The Fashion Writer, Cape Cod, and the Trial of Chris McCowen in 2011, about the murder in Truro of Christa Worthington, who had had a child with Tony Jackett. Peter accused the criminal justice system on the Cape of racism and was a passionate advocate for McCowen, who was Black and found guilty.
“Let me just say that he had a pugnacious personality,” Critchley says. “Some people were offended by it. But he had an incredible mind.”
Robert Weinstein, chair of the Truro Select Board, agreed. “I’ve known him for more than 40 years,” Weinstein told the Independent. “He was always a fixture in the community, and I’m sorry he’s no longer a part of it. Controversy seemed to follow him wherever he went. He left a trail of sparks flying. People didn’t have passive reactions to him. They could be very much enthralled or very much appalled. He was extremely well educated, and he had a self-assurance that he was not shy about. He was a man of short stature who took up a lot of air space. But I enjoyed his company. My heart goes out to Anna and his extended family.”
Besides his wife, Peter is survived by his brother, Victor Manso; two stepsons, Chad and Anson Avellar; and his grandchildren, Kupala and Aaron Avellar.
A memorial will be held this summer in Provincetown at a date and time to be announced. Condolence messages for the family may be left in the online guestbook at gatelyfuneralservice.com.
Editor’s note: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Peter Manso received a Ph.D. from Berkeley.