Molly Malone Cook was a great Bohemian American. An accomplished photographer in her own right, she set up the first photographic gallery on the East Coast, was sometime assistant to the writer Norman Mailer, and lived with Mary Oliver, perhaps America's best-loved living poet. Even in the last decade of her life she remained - perhaps more than ever - a fearless spirit of immaculate taste and fierce opinions, stocky of build, with a shock of white hair. "She could be acerbic, but underneath it, she was the warmest woman I've ever met," as her friend the publisher Helene Atwan observed.
Cook lived with Oliver in the Bohemian enclave of Provincetown, at the end of Cape Cod's outstretched arm; a place historically home to artists, writers and, latterly, tourists and gays. Its Commercial Street runs the gamut of American life: from sandy windswept beaches to the west, through a town centre thronged with transvestites and day-trippers with baby-buggies, to the East End, aestival home to Waspy families on vacation. It was here, in the quieter end of town, that Cook and Oliver made their year-round seaside home. The pair kept a boat, captained by Cook (with help from their young friend Josiah Mayo) like some salty sea-dog. After clam pasta, the pair would sail their friends out into the bay, lulled by the waves, keeping the conversation moving along with their dry double act.
Molly Malone Cook was born in San Francisco, and grew up idolising Frank Sinatra and Perry Como. She spent her early twenties travelling in Europe, where she worked for the US government in Heidelberg and began to be interested in photography. In New York, she worked as a photographer for the newly established Village Voice, but soon followed a well-worn path to Provincetown - then the summer home of writers such as Norman Mailer, and painters such as Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko. There she set up her ground-breaking photographic gallery. The VII Photographers' Studio represented the work of Edward Steichen, Berenice Abbott and Eugene Atget, among others, but it was an era when photography was yet to be rated as an art in itself. Indeed, when Cook asked Steichen to join her roster, he said, "Are you rich or crazy?" Her reply was typical of her laconic wit: "I'm not rich."
The gallery was well patronised, but it did not pay the rent. Cook diversified with her idiosyncratic East End Bookshop, purveying what she deemed "good literature"; a rep who tried to sell her Jacqueline Susann's The Valley of the Dolls was sent away with a flea in her ear. None the less, in 1966 Cook had the acumen to hire a six-foot-one, skinny speed-freak with long hair and a pencil moustache. It was the beginning of a 40-year friendship with John Waters, who was about to shock the movie world with such counter-cultural landmarks as Pink Flamingoes (1972) and Female Trouble (1974). In his book Shock Value (1981), Waters wrote,
I really wanted to work in the bookstore owned by Molly Malone Cook, a wonderfully gruff woman who allowed her help to be rude to obnoxious tourist customers. I nagged her for a job until she finally gave in and let me work "when it rained" to take care of all the tourists who flocked in from the beach.
She was beautiful and grumpy and smart in both senses of the word - brainy and fashionable at the same time. She was my Bohemian mother and father in a way.
Cook continued to work as a professional photographer, making portraits of such luminaries as Eleanor Roosevelt, Walker Evans, Robert Motherwell and Adlai Stevenson, but her career was cut short by the breathing problems which were later to curtail her life: her lungs were unable to cope with the chemicals of the darkroom. Meanwhile, her relationship with the playwright Lorraine Hansberry - author of To Be Young, Gifted and Black and A Raisin in the Sun, the first drama by a black woman to be produced on Broadway (in 1959) - ended with Hansberry's early death from cancer, aged 34, in 1965.
Cook had met Mary Oliver in 1958, at the former home of the poet Edna St Vincent Millay in upstate New York - the two women having come to visit Millay's sister Norma. Six years later Cook and Oliver moved into a Provincetown boathouse owned by one of the port's Portuguese families, the Seguras. They travelled together on Oliver's trips to give readings or classes, and spent several years visiting Virginia in search of Cook's Southern roots - she was delighted to discover that her ancestry stretched back to Judith Jefferson, aunt of President Thomas Jefferson.
In the 1970s, Cook worked as assistant to another friend and near neighbour. Norman Mailer had summered in Provincetown since the 1950s, memorably describing it to Jacqueline Kennedy as "the Wild West of the East". The famously irascible writer's relationship with Cook was colourful, to say the least: both were strong-willed personalities, with deeply entrenched opinions of their own. Their friendship ended on a down note, yet both still spoke of each other with affection.
Cook went on to establish her own literary agency, representing Mary Oliver and other writers; "I know I wouldn't want to have to negotiate with her," says Waters. Cook was duly proud when Oliver - who dedicated many of her exquisite works to her partner - won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1984 collection, American Primitive. In 1992, when Oliver won the National Book Award for her New and Selected Poems, she turned her acceptance speech into a tribute to "Molly Malone Cook, the best reader anybody could ever have. She is the light of my life, and I'd like to thank her publicly."
Molly and Mary were at their best in Provincetown. Their house seemed to have grown around them. Its windows looked out from grey-shingled walls on to the limpid light of Cape Cod Bay and past the harbour breakwater, where schools of dolphins swam. At night they watched the blinking green light of Long Point lighthouse. Their rooms were filled with light, books, people and animals, all seemingly spilling in from the beach that ran outside their back door. The walls were equally filled, with an extraordinary array of art; from Molly's own photographs, to a rare screenprint advertising an appearance by Andy Warhol and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable in Provincetown.
And here, even as she was increasingly disabled by illness, Molly Malone Cook sat in splendour, drinking in all the local gossip while scanning the piles of magazines and papers John Waters brought her each day. When I last saw her, in July, sitting up in bed, she was as thirsty for news as ever, as she watched the boats sail past her window.
Philip HoareReuse content