Jake Spencer and the Mayflower

August 17th, 2012 § 4 comments

Provincetown’s Mayflower Cafe is the sort of place you could order a plate of spaghetti and a cup of coffee, or a shot of rye, without the waiter questioning you with words or looks. The name comes from the Pilgrims’ ship that anchored in Provincetown’s harbor for several weeks in November and December of 1620.

The Mayflower opened in 1929, when prohibition had all but ended in Massachusetts (1930 was the official year of repeal for the state, or more properly commonwealth, and 1933 for the entire country). The restaurant now calls itself a “family restaurant.” The caricature portraits along the walls speak of an earlier clientele, of a hard drinking group that made it their home in the 40s, 50s, and early 60s.

Mayflower’s Bar Area with Jake Spencer Self-Portrait, Caricature Portrait of an Unidentified Man, and Memorial Plaque | Drawings done in charcoal on wove paper

The drawings are by Jake Spencer. Over the bar there’s a memorial plaque to the artist, reading:

THESE PORTRAITS ARE
A
 LIVING TESTIMONIAL OF
THE JOY OF LIFE AND
LOVE OF FELLOW MAN OF

JAKE SPENCER
1899 – 1965

SIC TRANSIT GLORIA MUNDY, HURRY,
BOYS AND LET’S HAVE ANOTHER OUZO.

THIS TABLET PLACED BY HIS FRIENDS
MIKE, SR. & MITCH

The artist’s real name was Jacob Kaplun, but he used Spencer for his professional work–portraits, caricatures, illustrations, and writing. He was a summer visitor to Provincetown, spending most of the year in Greenwich Village. Minetta Tavern on MacDougal Street has caricatures by Spencer, and evidently many other bars did too. In the 12 January 1965 New York Times notice of his death, it says “He painted portraits and did caricatures of so many celebrities for ‘Village’ establishments that he would refer to one as having been “wall-papered.”

Interior of the Mayflower, with booths and Jake Spencer Caricatures

The drawings at the Mayflower are signed, Provincetown is given as the location, they’re dated, but the names of the people are missing. For Spencer’s audience it was probably so obvious who the people were, that names were unnecessary. The words “FELLOW MAN” on the plaque might be indicating that they’re just regulars, and not the celebrities of the Times notice. Or, they may be celebrities that I’m unable to recognize.

Jake Spencer | Three Caricatures | Charcoal on wove paper | Mayflower Cafe, Provincetown

There’s a big “NO SMOKING” sign inserted in the long wall of caricatures. That too looks dated. Contradicting the sign are the caricatured, puffing away on cigarettes and cigars, contributing with age, light, and leaky air conditioners to the character of the drawings.

Jake Spencer | Profile Caricature of a Man | Charcoal on wove paper | Mayflower Cafe, Provincetown

Note of 15 September 2013

L. Drapin, a relative of Jake Spencer’s, wrote pointing out a Village Voice obituary on the artist. In her email, Drapin said that he grew up on Staten Island, a fact that is missed in pieces about him. The Voice obituary lists some of Spencer’s fascinating friends. It makes one think that an exhibition should be mounted on Spencer and such colorful people as his friend Romany Marie. She owned a Greenwich Village restaurant (it relocated a number of times, but always in the Village), frequented by artists and writers, including Eugene O’Neill and Arshile Gorky.

§ 4 Responses to Jake Spencer and the Mayflower"

  • Richard Harrington says:

    Very funny. They were no doubt were rescued from decades of a nicotine patination and bilious ill humor. Sterling Hayden would no doubt have been a regular save for the fact that he was one generation removed from this limnified brigade of scoundrels, miscreants and n’er-do-wells.

    J. Pismo Clam.

  • KLS says:

    Thank you so much for publishing this! I have been fascinated by these drawings since I was a kid. Do you have or know where to find any other info about Jake Spencer?

  • Lucy Vivante says:

    Thanks for your comment. I wish I could have found out more about Jake Spencer. In the Times obituary, which I will send to you via email, there’s this:

    He had worked at various times for many publications and once told a friend with a sardonic chuckle that he was doing illustrations for the right-wing Hearst newspapers and The Daily Worker, Communist organ, at the same time.

    “Organ” has a threatening ring!

    The Times notice also says that he was a brilliant conversationalist.

    Courtesy Google Books, here’s a link to the 22 February 1954 Life magazine, where there’s a photograph of Jake Spencer pouring a glass of beer on the ground, in memory of his friend, the poet Maxwell Bodenheim.

    All best,
    Lucy

  • JoJo says:

    When I was really little, my parents took some out of town guests up to PTown and we ate at the Mayflower. The caricatures were so malevolent looking to me that I was really frightened. I never forgot about the ‘scary restaurant’ in PTown. I went up there a lot w/ friends in my teens and during college and always avoided eating there till after college, I was with a group from work and that’s where they chose to eat. Of course the pictures didn’t look quite so scary to my now adult eyes. :)