Hazel Hawthorne Werner...
was the doyenne salon-keeper, literary hostess, of Provincetown, Mass, during the town's formative years as a beaux-arts colony, extraordinaire.

She also kept a salon in Greenwich Village during the 20s, 30s, 40s...Edmund Wilson, E.E. Cummings, (perhaps before he lost his upper case), Eugene O'Neill, the whole literary mob we were raised on...all hung out with her and her husband, Morrie Werner (editor, writer, drunk) in the Village, then followed them up to P'Town on the Cape and hung out on the sand. Hazel rented O'Neill the shack on the dunes in which he lived when he was writing his early stuff. Rented, then gave it to him. Kept him up and working. Didn't let him slip into the booze and the end of life drama he seemed to be writing himself into at the time. Hell, the "Sea Plays" were all written in Hazel and Morrie's shack on the beach and performed in a little potting shed down off Commonwealth Street (I think it was off Commonwealth -- it 's been a while since I've been there) before the plays went to New York and that City's "Provincetown Playhouse."

I knew Hazel when I lived in P'Town, 1970-71. She was lean, straight, palsied, her voice, thin, reedy, cut-glass-proper. But despite seeming infirmity, Hazel, using no authority but strength of character, kept the Northeastern American literary establishment proper...not on-track artistically (she didn't seem to care about that), but she kept, at least, minding its table manners through the 70s.

She did, indeed. I watched.

Ernestine and I were at a political meeting on behalf of George McGovern and a local candidate for the House of Representatives, Gerry Studds, in a church basement in P'Town.

I had spoken passionately of efforts past back home in Philadelphia on behalf of McGovern, of my ongoing dedication to that race. Finally, I committed my wife, talents and sacred hours to working not only for the McGovern presidency but for Mr. Studds election. It was the right thing to do...

Our chum, the just-down-from-Harvard editor of the Provincetown weekly paper, rose, too, in personal defense of the Democratic Party, of McGovern; he spoke of the perfidy of Richard Nixon and the ineffectiveness of the incumbent House Member from the Cape. We were all so filled with the rightness of our cause, the new rising of the young. Yada, yada.

Though it all, Norman Mailer bullied, railed, raged, threatened...called down the full wrath of celebrity upon any who disagreed...

Without standing, with barely a look, a whip-thin, horsey, elegant old woman spoke. Pale, in a flowered dress, white socks rolled over sneakers, her voice ullulating like a 78 Victrola on a bad road, her head quivering when she spoke. She froze Norman, all of us...

"Oh Norman, do sit down, for heaven's sake! You're behaving like a very bad boy!" Such was her authority, that he did.

That cut through the crap, the blowhardery. In 3 minutes, she'd focused the chatter and formed the kernel of a group to support Studd's candidacy and, almost incidentally, to help McGovern.

Though, if Senator McGovern couldn't take THIS state without our help, she thought aloud, we can forget him, period. That was that.

Simple.

Hazel was the great-great-something-granddaughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne. That didn't impress her, in particular, she wasn't easily impressed. It did, however, impart to her an impeccable authority as a New Englander. At least to other New Englanders...that sort of thing is important in New England, a place where, if you arrived at 15 and lived to be 85, you were still referred to as "the new fellah," to the natives.

Maybe that's true everywhere...

Hazel and Morrie had split up years before. I have no real idea why. Why do those things happen anywhere?

She lived in the converted garage near where their house once stood. Fire, I believe, had removed the place. That was out on Shankpainter Road, I believe it was. My memory wants it to have been there...such a grand name for a forested trail along the dunes.

Morrie kept their apartment in New York. She stayed in P'Town until each year became too cold to have her, until the winds threatened to stop her dead or rush her off her feet. Then she'd go spend a few months to the South, in brick, with Morrie on the Upper East Side.

In Spring, she'd be back on the dunes.

For whatever reason, Hazel adopted my Ernie, me; took us under her wing, the year we lived there.

I had come, there, commissioned by the Annenberg Center in Philly, to write a play -- a musical comedy about the Black Death. Really!

For this endeavor I was reasonably well-accepted into the Confraternity of P'Town artists. Most of the people we hung with were Pulitzer winners, National Book awardees, such and the like. A good part of our social life consisted of going to readings, openings, showings, presentations, lectures, events... Like that.

Hazel was not part of it but seemed to hover, invisibly around it; a mentioned absence, a spoken-of non-presence, a noted absence.

When our laureate chums found that, in addition to the serious -- and understandable -- work of writing a funny play about the Bubonic Plague, I was also interested in -- and actually DID write -- science fiction and fantasy, there was much side-glancing, wide-eyeing, and staring... Uncomprehending squints, starings and slow turnings of heads.

Norman and Beverly Mailer, whose children we used to babysit from time to time, seemed to get it, to be okay with it.

Others, simply stared.

Hazel, it seems, came to our rescue. By inviting us to dinner, by attending a few events with us, with her as our "guest", she turned the questioning stares of the entire arts community.

I don't doubt that it was a conscious choice on her part, this small intervention. She never did like pomposity. She disdained arrogance.

Maybe she liked that I didn't care if this group accepted me. I actually didn't. Not too much, anyway.

Perhaps she liked Ernie's bread or that fact that we used to sit and chat with her at her place Saturday mornings, coffee and oatmeal, steamy windows and foggy skies, rolling ocean beyond her trees and dunes, and talk of city streets, of Philadelphia, of chums. Maybe she liked that we had time to talk about life and things other than bookish things.

Maybe she liked science fiction.

Whatever it was, I liked her and so did Ernie. I got over her being the great great-grand-something-daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Hazel seemed, at once, fragile and razor strong. As I say, she was palsied. Her hands ran a constant little round-and-round circles and quivers. Her head bobbed, voice quavered. Watching her eat, pour a cup, water a plant, was painful. Once, early, I made the beginning of a move to help her pour from her coffee pot.

She looked. That was enough. I relaxed, so did she.

Despite multi-planar shakes and quavers, she didn't spill a drop; each move of each hand somehow finding its correspondent move on the other.

Not

a

drop

Not important, her acceptance of me, her by-her-acts defense of me, not important at all in the long run of anything, but it was typical of her. She placed her person and the tradition which she seemed, unconsciously, to represent, at the service of a person whom, for whatever reasons, she liked.

After her "acceptance," Stanley Kunitz and his lady-woman embraced us; Alan Duggan, almost always drunk but still writing god-wonderful poetry, seemed to forget I wrote pulpy things and began publicly sharing his 16oz cans of Blatz with me up on Commonwealth by the coffee shop. Jack and Wally Twarkov had us in and that was that...

By accident less than a year ago, April, 2000, I found out, that Hazel, doubtless over a hundred now, is still alive. Standing possibly, probably, with one foot in the 19th century, another in the 21st, she's the oldest resident of Cape Cod.

How amazing.


Copyright 2000 Lawrence Santoro


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