Provincetown’s days as a nexus of contemporary art may be (temporarily) behind it, but the purchase by Tony Kushner of 6 Central Street in 2012 underscored that it still holds a place in the American literary firmament, more than a century after the “Great Provincetown Summer.”
The structure, which dates to about 1830, was once the home of Capt. George Henry Bickers (1858-1944) of the U.S. Life Saving Service; his wife, Abbie L. (Caton) Bickers (1860-1955); and their son Arthur H. Bickers (1890-1975), who became the director of the Provincetown Historical Museum in 1960, after it had moved from the Lancy mansion at 230 Commercial Street and up to the Pilgrim Monument.
“Captain Bickers belonged to the now fast-vanishing race of men who spent their lives intimately with the seas in the days of sailing vessels with all the dangers attendant upon that traffic,” The Advocate said in his obituary. He came from a time before the Coast Guard’s mechanized equipment, “when rescues were made with brawn and sheer, downright courage.” Captain Bickers spent several years before the mast as a seaman in the coastal trade, then went whaling. At 33, he joined the Life Saving Service and was assigned to the Race Point station. Just after the turn of the century, he was appointed keeper at Wood End. “One disaster followed another near his station soon after he assumed command,” said The Life Savers of Cape Cod (1902), “yet not a life was lost, and nearly every craft was saved from destruction by his brave and vigilant crew.” The 59th anniversary of his wedding occurred the day before his death.
More recently, this was the home of Carrie A. Seaman, the namesake of CASAS – the Carrie A. Seaman Animal Shelter at 5 Sandy Hill Lane, which perpetuates her humanitarian work as one of the founders of the Provincetown Animal Shelter in 1971.
Kushner is the writer of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes and the screenwriter of the 2012 movie Lincoln. His husband, Mark Harris, is a former executive editor of Entertainment Weekly and the author of the 2008 book, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. They were married in Provincetown in 2008. Four years later, they found themselves at a summer benefit for the Fine Arts Work Center, amid familiar faces and common causes. They realized they’d “established roots” in the town, Kushner recalled in an interview with Brett Sokol for The New York Times. By year’s end Kushner had purchased 6 Central Street.
The playwright has famously wrestled with one of Provincetown’s unlikeliest residents: the influenbtial and unprincipled lawyer Roy Cohn (1927-1986), a disciple of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, friend of Nancy Reagan, and mentor to young Donald J. Trump. Cohn was a tenant of Norman Mailer in the last couple of years of his life, spending parts of his summers in the converted boat house and garage at 627 Commercial Street.
Cohn died at 59 of AIDS, though he went to great lengths to impart the misimpression that he did not. The New York Times carefully stated in its obituary that the “immediate cause of death was ‘cardio-pulmonary arrest,'” and that the secondary causes were “dementia” and ”underlying HTLV-3 infections,” adding that “most scientists believe the HTLV-3 virus is the cause of AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome.”
In Angels, Kushner famously imagined the scene in the office of Cohn’s physician, Henry, at the moment the doctor delivered the true diagnosis. Cohn, of course, denies it, because — by implication — it would mean that he was homosexual.
ROY: Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who, in 15 years of trying, cannot pass a pissant anti-discrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout. Does this sound like me, Henry?
ROY: No. I have clout. Lots. I pick up this phone, I punch 15 numbers, you know who’s on the other end in under five minutes, Henry?
HENRY: The president.
ROY: Better. His wife.
HENRY: I’m impressed.
ROY: I don’t want you to be impressed. I want you to understand. This is not sophistry. And this is not hypocrisy. This is reality. I have sex with men. But unlike nearly every other man of whom this is true, I bring the guy I’m screwing to the White House, and President Reagan smiles at us and shakes his hand, because, what I am is defined entirely by who I am. Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man, Henry, who fucks around with guys.
HENRY: O.K., Roy.
ROY: And what is my diagnosis, Henry?
HENRY: (after slight hesitation) You have AIDS, Roy.
ROY: No, Henry, no. AIDS is what homosexuals have. I have liver cancer.
In a 2012 interview for Provincetown Magazine, Stephen Desroches asked Kushner whether he ever felt haunted by the presence of Roy Cohn in Provincetown. “No,” the playwright answered emphatically. “I don’t think about Roy. I think about O’Neill, Norman Mailer, [Tennessee] Williams. But no, I don’t think about Roy at all.”
More recently, talking with Tim Teeman of Daily Beast about the play he had begun writing around Trump, Kushner laughed when asked whether Cohn might turn up. “I think I’ve done all I want to do with him,” he answered. “Maybe not. We’ll see.”
¶ Last updated on 24 March 2018.