Frank Schaefer

Arts patron and innkeeper


Frank Schaefer, art patron and inn-keeper: born Konigsberg, Germany 5 February 1937; three times married, third 2006 Mary Martin; died Boston 14 September 2007.

Frank Schaefer was a patron of artists, a fine photographer, and a man of immaculate taste, but he will be best remembered as the proprietor of the White Horse Inn in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a collection of eccentrically decorated suites and rooms described as "one giant Joseph Cornell box". Here he played host to Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, Gore Vidal, Grace Paley, Emily Mortimer, John Waters and Divine, to name just a few of his guests.

Provincetown, a former whaling port perched at the tip of Cape Cod, was famously described by Thoreau as a place where "a man may stand and put all America behind him". When Schaefer arrived there as a German émigré in the 1950s, it had long been a hotbed of bohemianism, revelling in its nickname "Greenwich Village by the sea".

Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Eugene O'Neill, Mark Rothko, Stanley Kunitz, Michael Cunningham and Mary Oliver all lived or live there, rejoicing in its outsider status, as well as its natural beauty and lambent light. Schaefer, a rangy, distinctly European figure, forever had a camera in his hand, recording the extraordinary place he found himself in.

In the early 1960s, he acquired the building which was to become the White Horse Inn (named after his favourite Manhattan watering-hole, the tavern in which Dylan Thomas drank). The house, in Provincetown's East End, on oyster-shell-covered Daggett Lane, had belonged to a whaling captain in the 1830s. The front door was supported by a ship's knee, carved out of a huge piece of oak. Indeed, like many Provincetown houses, it seemed part house, part boat.

Together with his close friend, the artist Jackson Lambert, Schaefer set about creating the White Horse Inn. Whole rooms were decorated with bits of carved wood: finials and bedheads, altar rails and intricate panels, creating an idiosyncratic, three-dimensional collage. Windows were set with reclaimed stained glass and leaded lights. Schaefer made a point of sleeping in each suite, so as to ensure its livability; many had large windows for use by artists as studios. One apartment rejoices in a bright yellow floor, a statue of Buddha on its terrace, covered in a hundred bead necklaces, and overlooking it, a wooden sculpture by Lambert. Another, set at the top of the building, has a kind of tree house, complete with an eyrie deck, more like a crow's nest.

Schaefer regarded his guests – one needed an introduction even to be considered to be allowed to stay there – as his friends, and as part of an ongoing cultural project. As one friend, Mary Norris, remembered: "Frank kept the inn as if it were a living, breathing thing ... and filled the rooms with art." On her first visit, he took her to a Boxing Day party, "featuring men in kilts".

Schaefer had come to America on a Fulbright scholarship to study journalism in 1956, escaping a divided post-war Germany. He told vivid stories of his father, Horst Schaefer, a publisher in peacetime, who found himself working for Josef Goebbels and the German propaganda ministry. Frank's father had been responsible for malfunctioning loudspeakers during one of Hitler's speeches, and Goebbels proclaimed, "Schaefer must pay". He was sent to the Russian front – his own family had no idea where he was – and returned home six years later, wearing a suit but no shirt beneath his jacket. Horst Schaefer told his son, "The best work is making a living off your own ideas."

It was advice Frank took to heart. "I was always surrounded by artists," he recalled. He was himself a serious painter and photographer, but also an intimate collaborator and member of the Provincetown Art Association. He also helped create of the town's world-renowned Fine Arts Work Center.

It was fascinating to travel through Cape Cod with him. He'd drive off the road and into the woods to show you a private kettle pond in which to swim, then point out – in his still evident German accent – the summer house Marcel Breuer designed for himself, and the cottage where Tennessee Williams lived with Marlon Brando. Nor was he fazed by Provincetown's latest incarnation as a gay resort – he relished cross-dressing drag queens parading outside his house on carnival days.

John Waters remembers his own stays at the White Horse Inn as "an extended bedroom apartment all my friends shared ... I liked Frank so much that I performed the wedding service for him and his talented wife Mary Martin through the mail order ministry Universal Life Church." Martin, an elegant "wash-ashore" from Nova Scotia and a gifted ukulele player – among many other things – made Schaefer's last years happy.

Philip Hoare

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