“Hey, come over for lunch!”
“Normie’s is open!”
“Let’s go out on the boat.”
“The side of the house would make a great projection surface for movies.”
“What are you working on?”
This is the patter among friends in our little East End neighborhood.
Our social life in Provincetown has greatly surpassed anything we experienced in Boston, our former home for most of the year. The culture of our neighborhood here resembles the one many of us experienced as kids. We didn’t make playdates; we just went over to our friends’ houses. We didn’t plan dinner parties; at suppertime, we simply asked what our friends were eating.
It’s summer camp.
When the latest resident of the Norman Mailer house (it will always be called that, won’t it?) moved in, she fit in immediately. There is a symmetry to the inhabitants here. We come here to pursue authenticity.
My wife and I share a legacy with someone who might not fit in so easily were he alive today: Roy Cohn, who rented the house where we live in the 80s. We knew that when we bought it, but even so, it called to us.
You know Roy Cohn: right-hand man to Joe McCarthy and architect of the Communist witch hunts of the ’50s. He was Richard Nixon’s lawyer, Donald Trump’s role model, and a self-loathing gay man.
Jo and I had vacationed in Provincetown since 1983, around the time Roy Cohn was living it up here. We were drawn to the West End, staying at several spaces at Captain Jack’s, always wanting to buy, and forever being shown places that smelled like feral cats and were just out of reach financially.
One day in 1988, our real estate agent wanted to show us a new listing, “just for fun,” that had originally been the garage and boathouse for the Mailer house at 627 Commercial St. It was listed for $499,900.
We parked in front of the house — there was a wrought-iron fence and gate out front and a sandy path that ran around the right side of the house to the beach. Several people walked up from and down to the beach while we were there.
I decided I would do anything to have this house. It was a visceral feeling. I looked out at the bay, at the funky banister on the stairs, the painted cabinets, and the large concrete deck, and I knew this was a place I would call home someday.
Jo was more measured.
“Can we afford it?” She asked.
“We can just work harder!” I said.
Jo asked who was selling it. According to lore, the seller was a woman who had cheated just about everyone in town. Norris Mailer (Norman’s last wife) later told us the woman’s dogs pooped all over her yard. There’s something else we learned: Roy Cohn had rented here the last couple of years before he died in 1986.
“I can’t sleep in the same bedroom as Roy Cohn!” said Jo. I knew Jo was thinking of her dad, a man who refused to allow a portrait of then-President Richard Nixon to hang in the federal government office he ran. “Just put it in the closet,” he quietly told his assistant when it arrived after Nixon’s inauguration.
Without missing a beat, the real estate agent said, “Oh, the second floor was not built yet back then, so you’re all set there.
“You can sage the place,” she added.
We agonized and negotiated, then bought the house for the discounted-yet-still-expensive sum of $419,500.
On the day of the closing, we thought we would finally see the seller, but evidently she was at Foxwoods casino. We did run into our old Provincetown landlady, though, a crusty type who laughed at us, saying, “You know, you just bought a garage for 400K.”
Jo still fumes that the broker was wrong about Roy Cohn’s bedroom.
I was trimming the hedges when a man who looked to be in his 30s stopped his car in front of the house.
“You live here?” he asked.
“I used to live here, too. In the ’80s.”
Clicking through the math, I guessed he must have been about 16 in the mid-’80s.
“You rented the place?” I asked.
“Um, no, I lived with someone here.”
I nodded. Jo caught the end of the conversation. There would definitely be more sage burning.
We moved into our new home on a sunny June day. And now Jo shifted her worry to our condo mate, Norman Mailer. We shared off-beach property as part of a condo association, and by silent agreement we left the yard between us pretty and green but unused.
I saw the top of Norman’s white head every day from my bedroom window as he bent over his work. In his 80s at the time, he walked with a cane, wearing his Speedo on forays to the deck, occasionally addressing me in a full-throated voice.
“What’s the dog’s name?” he boomed one day, staring at our pit bull.
“Jack,” he repeated. Pause. “That’s a good name.” (I saw the thought bubble: a fighter’s name.)
Any student of Mailer knows he was not always so mild-mannered. His was a crazy time in the East End. He was known in the 1960s for his booze-stoked blowouts.
The Mailers were very nice neighbors. Norris greeted us warmly. “Norman says I should tell you that you have up to eight feet from your house that you can do anything you want with.”
“You mean I can sunbathe nude if I want?”
“If you’d like,” she said.
“I’m just joking.”
“Norman wouldn’t mind,” she said.
Jo, like a dog with a bone, asked about Roy Cohn’s tenure in our new home.
“What was he like?” she asked Norris.
“Oh, he was a lovely man,” Norris said. “Very masculine. I painted him.”
I’m not sure what answer Jo was looking for. Perhaps something more like, “Oh, he was dreadful. He had a penchant for Italian lacquered bedroom furniture, ceiling mirrors, and underaged boys.” As I think about it now, maybe Roy Cohn was like all of us — he felt that he could be himself here. Still, during the time with the Mailers as neighbors, we tried to erase some of the Cohn aura from the place.
Then, in 2007, Norman died. He was beloved by us and by most of our East End neighbors by that time. When Norman died, Norris and friends walked down to the burial site at the Provincetown cemetery to honor him.
Norris wrote a memoir about her time with Norman and died not very long after him. She had started life as Barbara Jean Church, from Atkins, Ark. She changed her name to Norris, I suppose, because “Norman and Norris” sounded better than “Norman and Barbara Jean.”
Larry Schiller, an author and one of Mailer’s friends, and a group of writers devoted to Mailer’s legacy attracted students to the house. As a result, Jo and I spent a lot of time during our summers inhaling their cigarette smoke and listening to the things writers talk about.
“Yes, I am writing about a community of lacrosse players in colonial America.”
“I am anti-plot.”
“Kind of theater of the absurd-ist?”
“No, more like neo-pataphysics.”
I wrote some of these gems in my notebook.
Larry did a lot of fundraising to buy the house from the Mailer children and create a permanent writers’ retreat. But the project wasn’t sustainable, and the family put the house up for sale, effectively ending the Mailer Writers’ Colony era.
Tatiana von Furstenberg, who bought the house in 2008, is a writer, though. And also a beautiful flower added to the bouquet of characters in our little community. She is a fellow traveler, here to be herself.
Which brings me to our current “summer camp.” And to my original question: what drew me to this place?
I know many of us who have come to this little spit of land have found respite from busy city lives amidst the beauty of the water and nature. But more than that, I think this place enables me to connect with people as I did when I was a kid, without appointments or other premeditated plans. And to create.
Jo no longer wants to sage our place. Instead, we look for more connection and more time to nourish ourselves in the company of our neighborhood friends.
Bette Skandalis lives in Boston and in Provincetown’s East End. This story has been adapted from one she has been working on this summer as part of Provincetown Story Night. She has not read it aloud yet.