“The Shores of Bohemia,” John Taylor Williams’s atmospheric, gossipy book, recaps the 50-year history of Cape Cod — Provincetown, Truro, and Wellfleet in particular — as the summer home of impoverished artistic, intellectual, and political radicals who were willing to do without indoor plumbing, electricity, and heat in return for carefree sojourns in an arcadian landscape. Overfishing and the collapse of the whaling industry at the end of the 19th century caused an economic decline that made the region’s old Yankee families willing to rent or sell at bargain prices, even to the loose-living Greenwich Village-based bohemians who found the Cape a pleasant refuge from their battles against American puritanism and unfettered capitalism.
In the 1910s and ‘20s, they studied at Charles Hawthorne’s Cape Cod School of Art, put on plays at the Provincetown Players, and put their faith in the socialist revolution forecast in the pages of The Masses. In the ‘30s, they split into bitter factions of Stalinists, Trotskyists, and anarchists, while figurative painter Hawthorne handed over his school to avant-gardist Hans Hoffman, mentor to the Abstract Expressionists. After World War II, local modernist designers joined Bauhaus refugees in building cutting-edge architecture along the coast, and a new generation of intellectuals dismayed their freewheeling predecessors by combining bohemian lifestyles with jobs in academia and government. In every decade, they drank to excess and changed partners frequently; Jack Hall, whose Cape Cod adventures across the decades give Williams’s account its minimal focus, went through three wives between 1937 and 1954, and his marital career was not untypical. (It should be noted that Hall’s fourth marriage, in 1957, proved enduring, and he quit drinking in 1954.)
The author married Hall’s daughter Noa in the 1960s and has spent time on the Cape ever since. Hall introduced Williams to many of the characters who populate his pages, and he represented a number of them as a lawyer or literary agent. His interviews with several dozen longtime Cape denizens, combined with his firsthand knowledge of the area, give “The Shores of Bohemia” an engaging immediacy. Loving descriptions evoke the golden light that attracted generations of painters, the kettle ponds nestled behind towering dunes, the golden sands fronting the Atlantic. You can practically smell the fresh fish roasting and hear the clink of ice cubes at the annual beach party celebrating the Perseid meteor shower thrown by Jack Phillips. Phillips was Jack Hall’s best friend, and his wife was famous for removing her beach-party bathing suit “at the first sight of a man,” though, to be fair, skinny dipping was a bohemian Cape tradition. In earlier chapters, Williams draws on the numerous memoirs about early 20th-century bohemia to provide vivid thumbnail sketches of everyone from Eugene O’Neill to Mary Heaton Vorse, the crusading labor journalist who was also “the glue that held Provincetown’s bohemian population together.”
Indeed, the plethora of names he showers on readers is a mixed blessing. On the plus side, sentences like this one about a 1933 visit to Truro certainly make palpable bohemian Cape Cod’s messily intertwined social networks: “On that first trip with Harl, Dodie was welcomed by Susan, who was still recovering from her much younger lover, Norman Matson, having run off with the pregnant eighteen-year-old Anna Walling.” Harl is the son of Provincetown Players leader Jig Cook; his new girlfriend Dodie will later be Jack Hall’s second wife; playwright Susan Glaspell is Cook’s widow and Harl’s stepmother; and screenwriter/SF author Norman Matson eventually marries the pregnant Anna, who is not further identified except by “her famous watercress sandwiches” at Jack Phillips’s Perseid beach parties. It can be difficult to keep all those names straight as Williams’s very loosely organized narrative zigzags through the years and a large cast of characters.
His aim, achieved somewhat at the cost of coherence, is to convey these bohemians’ sense that it was all connected: artistic experiment, political activism, sexual freedom, and intoxication of every kind. A chapter about the children “raised in fairly careless marriages at one long, large, and rowdy cocktail party,” frankly but unjudgmentally acknowledges the personal costs of the bohemians’ commitment to excess, including the ubiquity of alcoholism. Nonetheless, Williams celebrates people open to varieties of experiences, eager to learn and grow. The stories of Jack Hall and his four wives nicely encapsulate the bohemian zeitgeist: multiple occupations among the five of them ranged from Martha Graham dancer, painter, and artists’ model to interior decorator, industrial designer, and architect, while practically everyone did at least some farming and fishing. The only surprise would be to find that someone in this crowd was a banker or an accountant — or had never been divorced.
Williams closes by recreating Jack Hall’s 1959 New Year’s Eve walk around his beloved Bound Brook, a tidal island bordering Wellfleet Bay on which he had maintained a home since 1937. Imagining Hall’s musings (and throwing in a few last thumbnail biographies of his neighbors for good measure) Williams gives us a poignant final glimpse of the private Eden soon to be incorporated into public lands. Passage of the Cape Cod National Seashore Act in 1961, he writes, “marked the end of bohemia as the park became a huge tourist attraction.” Dirt roads and ramshackle barns inhabited by impecunious artists gave way to quaint inns and paved highways for vacationing families, but the spirit of that vanished era breathes again in Williams’s meandering, affectionate tribute.
THE SHORES OF BOHEMIA: A Cape Cod Story, 1910-1960
By John Taylor Williams
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 128 pages, $35
Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”