The Last Bohemian by Philip Hoare
i was a timid boy, fearful of the sea. I’d grown up next to it, in a port city, Southampton, but the sense of it filled me with dread. I never learned to swim. The sound of foghorns drifting over suburban roofs was a lament for my incapacity. The gulls wheeling over our house mocked me.
Thirty years later, living in the East End of London, far from the sea, on the dole and adrift, I felt I had to address this failing. I went to the local pool, a tiled Victorian emporium, the kind where you might imagine the Kray Twins to lurk, and I began to splash about in the shallow end. Trying to work out how this thing worked, and why I was so scared of it.
A woman in her eighties, wearing a corseted swimsuit and a rubber hat — it may or may not have had daisies on it — took pity on me. She showed me how to break that membrane, to put my face in the water. I bless that woman every day. She changed my life. She was my first water goddess. My second, my sea muse, lived far away, and would change everything again.
provincetown, cape cod. This is where the land runs away and the sea takes over. A wild place, encircled by whales and sea birds, by sharks and seals. The last place, a barren place. A sandy spit held out into the Atlantic, the ocean all around it, boasting no soil of its own. Even its turf had to be imported from Ireland in the 19th century. The philosopher Henry David Thoreau said that, “A man may stand there and put all America behind him.”
It’s the beginning of America. Or its end. White America, that is: Provincetown is where the Pilgrims first made landfall, four centuries ago. They soon left. Perhaps it was too pagan for them. This is where the rebels and outcasts ended up — whalers and sailors and those who came with them. Marginalised people; sinners, in the Puritans’ eyes. Hence its other name — Helltown.
Here, beyond the land’s jurisdiction, where the law ran out, you could be anyone or anything you wanted to be. Gender, identity, species: the sea allowed any kind of indistinction. Even the houses were fluid, floated off one eroding beach and onto another. At the end of the 19th century, Provincetown became America’s first art colony. Bohemian artists and writers took the ferry direct from Greenwich Village straight to Provincetown. The ocean bounced the light around. The place was luminous with it. The sand and the sea went on forever. Playwright Eugene O’Neill lived in a shack in the dunes built from driftwood; he was visited by his friend John Reed, who’d witnessed the Russian Revolution. Later, Tennessee Williams took up residence nearby. When a young actor named Marlon Brando hitch-hiked his way from New York to audition for A Streetcar Named Desire, he didn’t have to say anything. Williams only had to take one look at Brando, in his T-shirt and jeans.
The bars and clubs in town were always uproarious, an inheritance of lawlessness. Billie Holiday sang at the Atlantic House; Judy Garland at the Pilgrim House. Later, Andy Warhol brought his Exploding Plastic Inevitable show; my friend, the late Mary Oliver, had the original silver and green and purple screenprinted poster on her wall. Norman Mailer moved in, and built the only brick house in town. He used to eat at a restaurant where a gay friend of mine worked. He challenged her to an arm-wrestle. She won. At one of John Waters’ wild parties in his studio, I met a young man whose face seemed familiar; John explained to me, over his pencil-thin moustache and his martini, that he was Anthony Perkins’ son.
Another friend, an artist of advanced years, asked me and my friend Dennis for a drink one evening. Her house lay across the street, set back from the beach. It was beautifully, modestly, efficiently designed, like many Cape Cod houses; more ship than house. I admired the galley kitchen with its Forties roll-out plate racks. “Yes,” she said, “Mark designed them. He told us not to change them when he sold us the house.” Mark was Mark Rothko.
Provincetown in the Forties, Fifties and Sixties was full of artists. Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Hans Hoffmann lived here; Max Ernst and Jackson Pollock hung out. Deep in its woods lurked modernist houses by Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius, all glass and steel perched over dark, glacial kettle ponds. The shouldering dunes became a shifting utopia for gay men: Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours, described them as latter-day satyrs, cavorting in the sand.
Then came John Waters and his unruly crew, dropping acid out there in the wilderness. Waters’ star, Divine, rented a cottage, but when he couldn’t meet the rent, he sold the furniture to pay his landlord, greeting him with the door kept half open so the man wouldn’t realise that the house was empty.
It was John who introduced me to this place, and to his mysterious landlady, Pat de Groot. He was living in the top floor of the house, a place surrounded
by tall trees on one side, and the scoured beach on the other. To get there, you had to walk up a rickety set of outside stairs. The first time I met Pat she was naked. Lying face down on the first floor deck, sunbathing. She was already in her late seventies, but it was clear she had an informal approach to life. John told me she’d been out in the dunes, naked, when a park ranger tried to give her a ticket. It was against the rules. “You can do what you like,” Pat told him, looking at his pathetic scrap of paper. “I’ve been doing this all my life. Do you think that’s going to stop me?” John called her “bohemian royalty”.
Pat was as much animal as woman. Gamine, browneyed, a shock of centre-parted silver hair. Her body was taut — she could stretch and raise her foot above her head. She didn’t really relate to her fellow species, or to the land. In her art, and in her self, she was the sea, concentrated.
John showed me a small painting above his bed. Pat lent him a different one each year. It was almost entirely white. But as you looked more closely, you could distinguish the bones of the ocean. John explained that Pat painted the same view from her studio window downstairs. The sea in a fog, in a snowstorm, under a pagan moon, burning with the midsummer sun. The same, every time. Every time, utterly different.
The picture hung above John’s bed like a true icon. It drew you into the sea. The one became the other. You could dive into them both. So I did. In the freezing waters of January, when the snow lay feet thick on the beach, I’d pad across to the water and skinny-dip in waves that had almost turned to ice.
Pat began to show an interest in me, this scrawny English visitor to her tenant upstairs. I’d become obsessed with the Cape’s non-human persons — its whales. I’d spend all day on the whale-watch boats, and when I showed my photographs to John, he sneered, “That’s just whale porn”.
As my punk literary godfather — John’s review of my first book, Serious Pleasures, in the The New York Times in 1991 had launched my career — he was worried. He took me aside, saying, with mock-seriousness, that I was spending more time with whales than with human beings; I’d become a whale stalker, and that I wouldn’t be happy until I’d had sex with a whale.
Pat agreed. She approved of crossing boundaries. For years she’d been paddling her state-of-theart Kevlar kayak out to the breakwater where a colony of cormorants had established itself. Stinky birds, despised for stealing fish, they too were rebels. Balancing a board on her kayak, Pat drew them with a waterproof marker, investing each bird with the profile of a Hapsburg. When a female orca arrived in the bay, she kayaked out to feed her with a fillet of flounder, and drew her, too — this time on flat stones taken from the beach. The result was something more like tribal art.
Somehow, I’d won her over. Pat had invited me to stay in her first floor studio, below John’s. It became my second home. Every time I walked into the place, I felt a rush of happiness. I found it, or it had found me. I liked it best out of season, in the bleak beautiful months of winter, when the empty town was full of ghosts. Mailer wrote that on moonlit nights, you could believe the place had fallen back to the Forties, if not the 18th century.
On long winter afternoons, the bayside windows darkening with the evening, Pat would kick another log into her wood-burning stove, and I shivered around it, fresh from my swim. She began to tell me about her life. It took me hours and years to put the story together. Even now, I find it difficult to recognise it as anything other than a kind of fiction; a sea of love and tragedy and abuse and glamour and art, out of which she emerged, taking another deep breath.
“i was a refugee,” said pat. She was born in St John’s Wood, northwest London, in 1930. As a child, she remembered running into the woods of the park, wanting to get lost, wanting to be a wild animal. She hated her nanny because she wore fur coats. Her father, Ernald Richardson, was a professional army officer, scion of landed gentry with an EnglishWelsh-Irish background. Pat loved him. She always kept a photograph of him in his white skiing uniform when he was stationed in Canada. A handsome man, but he drank. He’d been skiing in New England in the Twenties when he met Evie Weil.
Evie was a flapper, a New York socialite who’d stepped out of a story from an F Scott Fitzgerald book. She and Ernald married and moved to London. It didn’t last. By 1940 they’d separated. Evie was having an affair with a man who was later to become surgeon to Elizabeth II. World War II had begun in earnest. Notices appeared in The Times informing Americans living in Britain that the government would take no responsibility for their safety.
As a Jewish woman, Evie knew the potential consequences. Her own uncle, Nathan Straus Jr, would
later be honoured for his attempts to get Anne Frank’s family, and other Jewish people, out of Nazioccupied Europe.
Evie sent Pat and her brother, Peter, across the Atlantic; the ship that sailed before them had been stopped by a German U-boat. This was a fatal sea. Pat did not know that her great-grandfather and great-grandmother, Isidor and Ida Straus, had made this crossing in 1912 — on RMS Titanic. They were depicted in James Cameron’s 1997 film as the elderly couple who refused to get in a lifeboat, preferring to await their fate in each other’s arms. They also left behind a legacy. Isidor co-owned a store he’d bought from a man named Macy. He was one of the richest men in Manhattan.
None of this interested Pat. She felt abandoned by her mother, palmed off to live with an aunt, and never forgave. Evie remarried, then remarried again. She was now on her fourth husband — George Backer, publisher of the New York Post. He knew everyone in New York. That explained the signed copy of Albert Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and the General Theory I’d found on Pat’s bookshelf.
By now, Evie had reinvented herself as a society interior decorator. Her closest client was Truman Capote, who nicknamed her “Little Malice”, on account of her petite frame and love of gossip. Evie designed Capote’s apartment in the United Nations Plaza — all gilt Victoriana, very outré for the time. In 1966, they started to plan a little party: Capote’s “Black and White Ball”. Evie and Truman were snapped by paparazzi outside smart restaurants on the Upper East Side: Capote in fedora, Evie in sunglasses, holding a clutch bag. Everyone wanted to know who had made the list. Jackie, Andy, Frank and Mia? Was it true the president hadn’t got an invite? Capote’s ball may be the most famous party of the 20th century. And Evie designed it.
All of Manhattan clamoured for a ticket; Pat couldn’t have cared less. She was already living a life apart. In 1947, her mother had rented John Dos Passos’s house in Provincetown. It was a revelation for Pat. She met Charlie Mayo, a fisherman whose partPortuguese Cape family dated back to 1650. He took her to sea. “We sat on the bridge of his boat watching the animals,” she told me.
Charlie taught Pat to fish. A photo shows her and Charlie with a huge bluefin tuna between them, so silver and spiky and surreal that it looks superimposed. Pat had reeled in the fish, not Charlie. She won the Governor’s Prize for it, exchanging her pedalpusher jeans for a cinched shirtwaister dress. She could have been a Hepburn, or a Bacall. “I was a bad girl,” she said.
She’d already spent time in Europe. (She never understood why I was so interested in her past. “All these questions,” she would protest.) In 1947, Evie had sent Pat to Vienna, to be finished, in the way of wealthy young women. Instead, Pat was sexually assaulted by a former Nazi officer. Something else to blame her mother for. After getting an English degree from the University of Pennsylvania, Pat went to France to work for The Paris Review, under its famously stylish editor, George Plimpton. She shared a St Germain hotel with Jean-Paul Sartre and Lucian Freud, who scared her. That stern, predatory look of his. She’d cycle round Paris, picking up manuscripts from Samuel Beckett. On a trip to Dublin, Brendan Behan hit on her in a pub. Pat exuded appeal, partly because she didn’t care. She was still the tomboy she’d been as a girl.
Pat met the love of her life in Provincetown. Nanno, a rangy, sexy artist, a peer and drinking mate of Franz Kline and the other Abstract Expressionists. He was a kind of proto-hippie. He never wore shoes, a habit Pat soon picked up. Nanno was already married but that didn’t matter. He used to sit on the post outside Pat’s house, waiting. Evie did not approve. Pat and Nanno married in 1958. A photo shows Pat and her mother at the wedding. They look more alike than Pat might have admitted: these two fierce, smart, beautiful women, each creative in their own ways. Their expressions tell the story.
In 1963, Pat and Nanno bought a plot of land on the beach in Provincetown. Pat designed their double-gabled house, almost organically. “It rose up from the mud,” she told me. It was mid-century perfect: austere, utilitarian; an extension of their art; layered and shingled in Western red cedar, armoured against the elements but part of them, too. The sea actually flowed under the house. It had niches and conduits from which, later, Pat’s semi-feral cats would leap out unexpectedly. A place so neatly cupboarded and chambered and magical that even after a decade staying there, I discovered a staircase I’d never seen before.
Pat and Nanno moved in just before a big storm broke and nearly wrecked the house, the sea crashing in at the bulkhead, the only barrier between them and it. A few days later, JFK was assassinated. These seemed
like omens. Nanno was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died in the house, nursed by Pat, a few weeks later. Pat would never remarry. The sea became her lover now.
anyone who knew pat saw the sea through her eyes, through her art. She applied paint by knife. It was a physical process; she was almost sculpting out the waves. There were no preliminary sketches. Pat shortcircuited the creative impulse, turned it into an animal instinct. Her eyes might have been those of a gannet or a cormorant or a whale, far more focused than any human's vision. Like JMW Turner, she turned the sea into a transcendent state: anxious or becalmed, ecstatic or despairing.
Maybe Beckett was the source of her minimalism. When working for The Paris Review, Pat had to type up an extract from his novel, Molloy, for the magazine. In the process she seemed to absorb some of its power. She remembered the passage in which Beckett’s character takes a stone out of his pocket, sucks it, puts it back, takes out another stone, sucks it, puts it back. The almost moronic action is reduced to an existential, elemental connection. “Those stones stay with me,” said Pat.
A friend wondered if Pat’s work was so empty because she was denying her emotion. That she felt betrayed by her mother, then deserted by her lover. Read this way, the blankness of her paintings might seem brutal, misanthropic, even. But then, this is a brutal place. I’ve often wondered if one of my winter swims from its frozen beaches might be my last. These waters hold other dangers, too. Great white sharks patrol the Cape’s shores. My friend Mary gave me some joke notepaper the other day. It depicted a grinning shark, with the slogan, “Send more tourists, the last ones were delicious”.
In the Sixties and Seventies, Pat did drugs. All of them, as far as I can work out, except heroin. She told me she was tripping on LSD when one of her lovers got violent. She locked herself in the bathroom, sitting of the edge of the bath, tripping, and thinking, “He can’t kill me because I’m not here.” Her hair grew long. In an archive film interview, talking about Nanno, she sits on a stool looking so cool, like a member of The Velvet Underground. There’s something about her eyes. So detached. As if she were always focused on the far horizon. I ache to have known her then, at her wildest, when she’d throw parties and everyone got busted and landed in jail. I could have come downstairs and found Nina Simone there. Or Elvin Jones, the drummer in The John Coltrane Quartet, playing congas with Pat. The two became lovers. The town protested. Some folk didn’t want people of colour around. They left rotting fish on Pat’s doorstep.
pat’s past haunted me. I felt it, absorbed by the timbers of the house. The ghosts of the decades, of the ramshackle town, and of its animals — those birds and whales that flew and swam around it as its sentinel spirits. A photo of Pat shows her standing on the beach, accompanied by one of her canine familiars, in the company of wolves, a female Prospero with her Ariel, ready to summon up a tempest.
She’d come to my room in the middle of the night, waking me up to see a storm raging in from the sea. She knew it was more important to bear witness than to sleep. She looked as though she’d been fed by the lightning.
She retained her ferocity to the end. I remember one bitter night a couple of years ago when she insisted on taking me to dinner downtown. The street was knee-high in snow. We made it to Napi’s, then walked all the way back. Pat needed a pee. She just crouched down and did it there, carrying on talking to me all the time. I was used to this. But I’d never seen her fall, as she did. Oh God, I thought, she’s going to crack her hip. She just rolled like the skier she was and got back up — and promptly told me off for trying help her. She was 87.
Back in the house, the trees had grown tall around the back yard, as if to protect its mistress from the land, rather than the sea. Where whales’ bones hung from the rafters and dead birds lay sleeping in scallop shells. I told Pat that I was going to write about her. She protested, of course. But something made her change her mind. Maybe she was seeing something I couldn’t, or didn’t want to see.
Three months before Pat died, on 26 July 2018, I took her out whale-watching. We stood at the prow of the boat as we left the land behind. She’d grown lame and weary. But that afternoon, her eyes came alive with the sea, glittering with excitement and potential. There hadn’t been any whales seen for days. Suddenly, there they were, all around the boat, diving and leaping in every direction. Of course they were. They’d come to salute, and perhaps even reclaim, one of their own.