Captain Jack’s Wharf Condominium | Venus, Windswept, and the Wreck cabins.
“The bedroom was a small loft with a great window that held in it all one half of the night sky,” Tennessee Williams wrote in Memoirs (1975). “No light was turned on or off as Kip removed his clothes. Dimly, he stood there naked with his back to me. After that, we slept together each night on the double bed up there, and so incontinent was my desire for the boy that I would wake him repeatedly during the night for more love-making.” Kip was 22-year-old Kip Kiernan, né Bernard Dubowsky in Canada, from which he had absented himself rather than face the draft, as World War II had already begun for the British Commonwealth in the summer of 1940. Kiernan was studying ballet in Manhattan and modeling for Hans Hofmann in Provincetown. Seven years Williams’s junior, he was to be the first man with whom the playwright fell rapturously in love, though their affair lasted only six weeks until Kiernan broke it off, telling Williams he feared becoming homosexual. “The most significant influence Provincetown had on all Tennessee Williams’s subsequent writing was that he fell in love there,” David Kaplan wrote in Tennessee Williams in Provincetown (2007). “The style and substance of the relationship was something he wrote about directly and indirectly for the next 40 years.”
This photo of Captain Jack’s Wharf was taken by Edwin Rosskam (1903-1985) in August 1940, just weeks after Tennessee Williams met Kip Kiernan out on the wharf, possibly in the two-story former smoke house near the center of the picture. Farm Security Administration, Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. (Digital ID No. fsa 8b14626.)
I’m supposing — by the description of Kiernan’s cabin in Memoirs — that it was Windswept, the two-story, mid-wharf loft with a marvelous 12-light window that’s actually larger than the opening into which it was installed. Windswept cuts a distinctive profile on the waterfront. Its narrow, elongated cupola and gabled roof, 20 feet above the deck, date from its days as a smoke house in which herring were cured and preserved. Windswept is flanked on either side by one-story structures: Venus and Wreck. The buildings were arranged that way no later than 1938, possibly as early as the 1910s. Windswept and Wreck have been owned since 2014 by Patrick Herold and Danielle Blanco of Manhattan. Venus is also owned by a New Yorker.
Early in the summer of 1940, Williams was invited out to the wharf by an acquaintance. He walked into the “two-story shack” to find a youth, “facing the stove, up-stage, preparing clam chowder, New England style, the dish on which he and his young (platonic) friend Joe [Hazan] were subsisting that summer through economic need. He was wearing dungarees, skin-tight, and my good eye was hooked like a fish.” When he turned around, Williams could appreciate Kiernan’s “slightly slanted lettuce-green eyes, high cheekbones, and a lovely mouth,” having already taken in his “callipygian ass.” Hazan and Kiernan invited 29-year-old Williams to room with them, on a cot next to Hazan’s on the first floor. There he stayed until the night of a party in a nearby cabin, during which “Sweet Leilani” played seductively on the radio. Williams managed to get Kiernan alone back in their shack and, “with crazed eloquence,” declared his desire. “He was silent a few moments and then said, ‘Tom, let’s go up to my bedroom.'”
Williams would recall three and a half decades later that he wrote The Purification, a short drama in verse, on an upended wooden box in that loft on which he perched his portable typewriter. “In that play I found a release, in words, of the ecstasy of the affair,” Williams later wrote. “And also a premonition of its doom.” The relationship was over in weeks. (Four years later, Kiernan himself was dead, apparently of a brain tumor.)
As he sailed away on the Boston boat at the end of the fateful summer, Williams caught one last glimpse of Captain Jack’s, he said in a letter to Hazan on 18 August 1940.
Before I ever came there by accident one morning, that is the way Capt. Jack’s Wharf looked, a pile of little sticks on the edge of the water — Now it looked that way again, just as though nothing at all had happened in the time between. It is terrible how impervious, how careless things are. Our storms of feeling don’t touch them.
Perhaps that’s what protects them, too.
For an overview of Captain Jack’s Wharf, please see 73A Commercial Street.
For a view of Cabin 8½, please see 73A Commercial Street.
For a view of Australis cabin, please see 73A Commercial Street.
For a view of Borealis cabin, please see 73A Commercial Street.
For a view of the Bridge cabin, please see 73A Commercial Street.
For a view of Hesperus cabin, please see 73A Commercial Street.
For a view of Jupiter cabin, please see 73A Commercial Street.
For a view of the Locker cabin, please see 73A Commercial Street.
For a view of Mars cabin, please see 73A Commercial Street.
For a view of Nautilus cabin, please see 73A Commercial Street.
For a view of Neptune cabin, please see 73A Commercial Street.
For a view of Orion cabin, please see 73A Commercial Street.
For a view of Rainbow cabin, please see 73A Commercial Street.
For a view of Ribbons cabin, please see 73B Commercial Street.
For a view of Spindrift cabin, please see 73A Commercial Street.
For a view of Sunrise cabin, please see 73A Commercial Street.
For a view of Sunset cabin, please see 73A Commercial Street.
¶ Last updated on 14 July 2018.
For further reading online
Captain Jack’s Wharf (Venus) website.
Captain Jack’s Wharf (Windswept) website.