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Prescott Townsend: The Brahmin Who Became A Gay Rights Pioneer

In American History, Boston Individualists, Gay History, Hidden History, History, LGBT History, Provincetown on October 6, 2013 at 11:32 am

This story first ran in the September/October 2013 issue of Boston Spirit magazine.

by Mark Krone

Young Prescott Townsend_web.jpg

Townsend during World War I

Prescott Townsend may be the most influential Boston gay rights pioneer you have never heard of. If so, hang on; before we’re through, Townsend will cross paths with Andre Gide, 1960s hippies, John Waters and his star, Mink Stole. And that’s not counting the army of young men who lived with him on Beacon Hill and in Provincetown, as long as their waist sizes hovered very close to 30-inches.

Born in 1894, Townsend was Brahmin from head to toe. He claimed relation to no fewer than 23 Mayflower passengers and bragged that his third great-great grandfather signed the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. Author Douglass Shand-Tucci quotes a sardonic Townsend who referred to this relative as “the only man to be so inconsistent.”

Townsend’s early life followed a prescribed Brahmin path of prep school, Harvard, and military service. That path soon veered sensationally.

At Harvard, he had his first homosexual encounter “with a polo player.” Restless after graduation, Townsend decided to travel in search of a more vital world. He worked at a logging camp out west where he lived among men who seemed not to miss the company of women. That some of them were members of the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies), which opposed capitalism must have influenced Townsend, though he was never particularly sympathetic to organized labor and was a lifelong Republican.
Returning to Boston, Townsend moved to Beacon Hill where he met Elliot Paul, an experimental theater producer. Writer, Lucius Beebe, a contemporary of Townsend’s, described Paul as the quintessential 1920s Bohemian who wore a Van Dyke beard and favored broad-brimmed hats. He and Townsend quickly became inseparable. Together, they created The Barn Experimental Theatre in 1922. Townsend’s steady if modest trust income came in handy. Beacon Hill during the Roaring Twenties bristled with Bohemian culture.

Soon, Townsend and Paul traveled to the tip of Cape Cod were they met members of the Provincetown Players, who were also staging avant-garde productions, including those of Eugene O’Neill, that helped create modern American drama. If O’Neill and Townsend ever met is not known, but he became friendly with other members of the group, including journalist, Mary Heaton Vorse and playwright, Susan Glaspell. Again, Townsend’s trust fund was tapped. Adrian Cathcart, Townsend’s authorized biographer, noted that Vorse “gave (Townsend) to know in no uncertain terms, just how his money could best be spent.”
Townsend loved to travel. In the early 1920s, he and Elliot Paul visited Paris, which was at its Bohemian peak. Since Paul already knew Gertrude Stein, Picasso and Earnest Hemingway, it is impossible to imagine that Townsend failed to meet them. But for Townsend, his most significant encounter was with André Gide. Since coming out in print in 1926, Gide was already known as a potential successor to Oscar Wilde. Years later, Townsend claimed that Gide had presented him with a Bedouin cloak first owned by T.E. Lawrence.

During the 1930s, Townsend entered history by testifying at the State House for a gay rights bill. As a Brahmin, he was politely received but swiftly dismissed. He was back the next year and the next after that, meeting with the same polite indifference. The Depression did not slow Townsend down. He opened several “tea rooms” on Beacon Hill: the Joy Barn, the Brick Oven, and the Saracen’s Head. Though he had no license, liquor was served discreetly.

The year 1943 marked another turning point for Townsend. He was arrested for “committing an unnatural and lascivious act” and sentenced to 18 months hard labor at Deer Island House of Correction. As it turned out, he was released on VJ Day. He said later, when he saw the celebrations in town, he thought they were for him. This arrest severed ties with most members of his family and got him thrown out of the Social Register, which delighted him.

In the 1950s, Townsend started the Boston chapter of the Mattachine Society, the first national gay rights organization that had began in Los Angeles under Harry Hay. He organized meetings, wrote letters and subscribed to One Magazine, an early gay publication. He also developed his “Snowflake Theory” which essentially posited that a person’s sexuality is as unique to them as one snowflake is to another.

When the 1960s arrived, Townsend enthusiastically welcomed hippies and runaways to his Lindall Place and Phillips Street buildings and his house made of driftwood in Provincetown, called “Provincetownsend.” Joe McGrath recently recounted a story from his time as “one of the boys.” At 15, he had gone to Provincetown in the summer of 1962 with some friends. Somehow, he had gotten separated from them. Without enough money to get back home, he sat dejectedly on a bench front of Town Hall when another young man approached him. “He asked me why I looked so sad and I told him my story. He said, ‘I know where you can stay for 35 cents a night.’ He took me to Prescott’s place. When I got there, Prescott welcomed me and showed me to the second floor where I slept.” There were always boys coming and going. A few years later, John Waters met his future star, Mink Stole, who was staying at Provincetonsend. Waters later described the house and its occupants as “a lunatic Swiss Family Robinson,” meaning of course, that he loved it.

In his last years, Townsend’s adamant eccentricity began to backfire. Hustlers and drug addicts replaced the arty young men who had for so long delighted him. In 1968, “Provincetownsend” burned to the ground, some say, suspiciously. His Beacon Hill buildings, which for years, had failed to meet city code, were also destroyed by fire. With nowhere to live, Townsend moved to a friend’s apartment where in 1973, he was found dead near his bed, in a kneeling position.

Prescott Townsend’s death effectively ended the Boston branch of Bohemia. Power politics had replaced the satiny metaphors and masked allusions of art that had sustained, but failed to protect, LGBT people for generations. [x]


Ferry to Freedom: The Boston – Provincetown Ferry

In American History, Hidden History, Provincetown, Provincetown Ferry on July 7, 2013 at 3:15 pm

Provincetown II in New York Harbor.

It’s been one of those weeks.  Your boss revealed yet another irrational side, you can’t seem to please your partner, and you had so little time to pack for this trip to Provincetown, you must have forgotten something.  When you arrive on the dock, you decide the perfectly quaffed men-boys in front of you are a little too self-consciously handsome and the high-spirited young women in front of them are too happy for this time of the morning.

Looks like you need a little Provincetown.

With the engines grumbling, the boat slowly makes a 180 degree turn and heads away from the city.  When it passes Nix Mate into the Outer Harbor, the seas swell, the breeze cools, and your body slackens.  You lean on the railing facing seaward for the rush of salt air.  Suddenly, you know why the women were laughing and the men-boys were smiling.  The truth is, you’re all lucky to be alive, on this boat, and heading to the unique seaside town you’ve come to love.  Transformations like this do not happen in traffic on Route 6, but are a regular event on the historic Boston-Provincetown ferry route. If you’re a veteran P-Town ferry rider, memories of prior trips dip and dart in the boat’s wake like seagulls chasing tossed pretzels.  For LGBT passengers who came of age in less welcoming times, the boat was a freedom ride to sexual and personal liberation where they could escape landside’s harsh stares.  Though only 55 nautical miles, it seemed like a trip over the rainbow.

Although schooners and steamers have carried supplies and people between Boston and Provincetown since the 18th century, one of the earliest boats dedicated to the tourist trade was The Longfellow in 1883.  Happy passengers in bloomers and stiff collars rode to the tip of Cape Cod for a stroll and some seafood.  They could not know how The Longfellow would meet its end in 1904.  Set to retire after twenty years of service, The Longfellow was given one final mission: to carry a lode of dynamite from Wilmington, Delaware to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  It was fall and a nor’easter was brewing off the coast of New England.  The boat’s seams stretched and broke. Leaks sprouted.  The terrified crew was sure the boat would blow up from a rouge wave or by running aground.  Fortunately, neither happened as the crew was gingerly plucked one-by-one from the ailing ship and put in lifeboats to shore. The boat was left just off shore, wedged between some rocks.  A year later, Truro residents heard a great explosion.  It was The Longfellow, finally blowing up.

The list of Boston-Provincetown ferries that followed The Longfellow reads like a roll-call of New England: The Yankee Clipper, The Romance, Naushon, The Dorothy Bradford, Acorn, Cape Cod, Northern Light and the pious-sounding, Truth. To Provincetown residents, the “Boston boat” has meant crowds and a welcome infusion of tourist dollars.  Provincetown native, Clement Silva remembers looking forward to the boat’s arrival, “As a kid growing up in the East End (in the 1950s), we’d get excited when the boat came in. We’d wait for the big waves it made and body surf them. It was true fun.” Another P-Town native, Peter Robert Cook, remembers diving for coins when The Steel Pier and The Boston Belle brought passengers from Boston in the 1950s and early 1960s.  “My friends and I dove for coins and bought lobster knuckles at the fish market at the end of the pier.   We also used our change to play the pin ball machines, shoot pool, or bowl a few strings at Anthony Perry`s Bowl A Way on Commercial Street.”

Paul J. Asher-Best recently recalled being in his 20s, working the lunch shift at the Post Office Café in the 1970s.  “We’d watch for the boat in the second floor lounge.  (When it arrived), it was our busiest hour of the day.  Bo (of the Bo Winiker Band, which got its start playing on the Provincetown ferry) used to bring a boatload of blue-haired matronly passengers with him.  I remember a woman who brought her grandchildren over on the boat.  At the end of the meal, she did not have enough money to pay the bill, and was mortified. A gentleman at the next table paid the check for her, and told her to save her money for ice cream for the kids. I started weeping right there on the floor, earning the reputation for not being tough enough to handle the boat rush.”

Hard to believe now, but between 1965-1972, there was no ferry service between Boston and Provincetown as auto travel reached it zenith.  In 1972, Dick Nakashian revived the route by starting the Bay State-Spray and Provincetown Steamship Company.  In an interview with writer, Laura Shabott, Nakashian said that when he launched The Provincetown in 1973, there was pent up demand for water travel.  The Provincetown carried 600 passengers and made the round-trip in nine hours.  Nakashian hired the Winiker Band to provide entertainment and opened two snack bars that served liquor.  Eight years later, Nakashian launched The Provincetown II, which held 1100 passengers and cut the round trip to six hours, making it more popular with day trippers.

The top decks of the Provincetown and Provincetown II were nicknamed “Steel Beach” by the crew as passengers, gay and straight sun-bathed and lounged with a languor that is fondly recalled by writer Dermot Meagher,  “On the top deck on sunny days the muscle-boys used to strip down and work on their tans. There were 2 or 3 bars. On the way back to Boston there were some strange couplings as the booze and the music did their tricks.” In 1987, Nakashian sold The Provincetown II to a corporate shipping company. It changed hands several times as ridership decreased.  By the mid-1990s, the future of the Boston-Provincetown run was in doubt as the company went in and out of receivership.

Enter Mike Glasfeld, the current owner of Bay State Cruises.  Glasfeld, a true believer in the history and magic of sea travel (he may be one of the few ferry owners given to quoting Mary Oliver poems), began as a deckhand on the Spirit of Boston in 1985 and by 1998, had risen to become president of marine operations of the boat’s parent company.  One of his assignments was to find a buyer for the ailing Provincetown II operation.  He did – himself. “They had faith in me and knew I was going to leave the company anyway to do something new and different.  …Bay State Cruises was bulked up to six boats at the time and I pared it down to (just the Provincetown II) and we were able to make a go of it.” Glasfeld now leases a “fast ferry” high speed catamaran Provincetown III and says he will add a second fast ferry, the Provincetown IV, this summer. He is committed to maintaining the Provincetown II, which makes selected runs to Provincetown.

In 2000, Boston Harbor Cruises began service to Provincetown from Long Wharf.  The 7,200 horse-powered Salacia, is the largest fast ferry to Provincetown.   The Salacia can reach 40 knots, equivalent to 45 MPH.  Alison Nolan and Christopher Nolan, carry on the family business, begun in 1926.  On a recent sunny afternoon, Christopher Nolan, pronounced business “great.” And Alison gives a lot of the credit to the town of Provincetown.  “They’ve done a lot to make it a place people want to go to.”