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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.