Kenneth Stubbs
(American artist, 1907-1967)

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Guest Writer Tells of 'The Beachcombers'

Kenneth Stubbs of Washington, D.C., and Provincetown is guest author of today's "Slightly Salty" column.

Mr. Stubbs has been a Cape summer resident for 31 years, mostly in Provincetown where he now owns a home in the east end and spends much time with his wife, Miriam, and two children, Keith and Pamela. He originally came to Cape Cod as an art student, then for many years as an artist, and nowadays is a combination artist-writer.

Today's columnist has lived most of his life in Washington where he has been a well-known artist since the early 1930s, with many successful exhibitions. He taught painting and drawing there for 17 years at the Corcoran School of Art and for almost as many years at George Washington University.

During World War II, while in the Navy, he worked on training films, and since then has spent more and more time at his work, becoming a recognized writer of educational motion picture scripts.

Mr. Stubbs is a member of several art organizations, but the meetings of the Beachcombers of Provincetown, the subject of his "Slightly Salty" column, are the only ones he ever attends. The Beachcombers are an almost legendary group of artists and writers who organized as a loosely-knit unit back in 1916, the same year the Provincetown Players started on their way to fame. During the many summers that followed the initial get-together, the Beachcombers have presented plays, musicals and costume parties that have invariably highlighted each season and which eventually financed a permanent home for the group.

The Beachcombers has never been an actual club, and yet many of America's leading artists and wirters have considered it their only worthwhile meeting place.

Says Mr. Stubbs: "Literally hundreds of creative people have come and gone from Provincetown in the last 46 years, and it is safe to say that most of them carried away with them some of the spirit of the Beachcombers. While the Provincetown Players have long since gone the Beachcombers remain in Provincetown., adding yearly to a tradition that must be lived and that cannot be put into words."

Mr. Stubbs adds: "Every Saturday night there is a dinner, always cooked by some members -- sometimes a memorable dinner, sometimes unspeakable. The dinners and meetings are too fabulous to describe." Mr. Stubbs, however, in today's "Slightly Salty," proceeds to describe them -- fabulously.

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Slightly Salty

(George L. Moses, who regularly conducts this column, is on vacation. While he's away, it will be written by a number of guest columnists).

By Kenneth Stubbs

If there's one thing I'm not, it's a cook. And if there's one thing a beachcomber has to be, it's a cook. So it was an achievement of no small proportions for me to be considered a Beachcomber for 23 years without having my secret discovered.

It all came about in this way. Back in 1931, I was struggling manfully to learn painting from E. Ambrose Webster in his fine old studio in Provincetown, a studio long since usurped by the Flagship. Right next door was an old beaten-up building, its two doors closed most of the time. But I noticed that every Saturday afternoon the doors remained open for hours and a stream of characters, some looking distinguished, others seedy, trailed in. Most of them carried swollen paper bags that seemed to enclose bottles.

As the dinner hour came and the evening hours wore on, sounds of hilarity and good cheer rolled from the building onto Front Street and into the harbor, while from the second floor came the intermitten click of pool and billiard balls along with groans and exultant cries. It did not take me long to learn that this was the famous Beachombers building. Being young and energetic, I sought for, and got some, knowledge of this fabulous group. I learned that only men could belong--special men who were artists and writers of achievement. This knowledge frightened me so that I felt I would never dare stick my head inside the door. I was in for a surprise.

His Turn to Cook

Late that summer, Mr. Webster asked me to help serve a dinner to the Beachcombers, for it was his turn to cook. Then I learned the awful truth--a Beachcomber has not only to cook, but to cook for any number of hungry, critical members. That Saturday I entered the hallowed place for the first time, treading softly and clinging to the walls of the huge old room.

Memories of that dinner are vague, for I was only a fumbling art student surrounded by famous people. I only recall carrying full plates to apparently starved men who were banging lustily with all sorts of cutlery on long tables and calling bantering remarks from here to there and back again. After we served them, I ate in a corner, then crept home to find my room looking more dismal than ever.

Three summers later I came to Provincetown again. By then I was in the early stages of acceptance as an artist, but still not qualified to enter The Beachcombers on a Saturday night. But that summer the Ship, a nightclub that glows fondly in my memories, used the building five nights a week. Prohibition had ended, so my extra change went into pitchers of beer which I drank at intervals between dancing with charming waitresses along the length of the room, using finesse to maneuver past the large mast in the middle of the room. I was to learn later the most important function of that mast.

In 1938 I was here again, this time bringing some accomplishment and confidence under my belt. Fritz Fuglister (now of Woods Hole) and Charlie Darby lived here year-round, and were well established among the younger set of Beachcombers. Their luxuriant growths of beard made me feel naked, in spite of which I still considered them friends of mine. The Beachcombers no longer seemed so inaccessible now that these friends belonged, along with Bruce McKain and Phil Malicoat. However, I shuddered inwardly when I learned all four had actually cooked. When Fritz and Charlie asked me to join, I accepted with quickening pulse. One reason for the quickening pulse was that, in addition to the cooking problem, I had heard various rumors about the initiation. By this time I knew artists well enough to know they are capable of devising practically any kind of ordeal.

The fateful Satuday night found me flanked protectively by the bushy beards of my friends. I have no idea who cooked or what. My entire thoughts were on getting through the evening in one piece. Finally the dinner ended and the meeting got around to "new business." Even I knew I was the "new business." At the head table, toward which I now looked with bleary eyes, sat the venerable elders. And from his place of honor at that table, the Skipper, Ted Robinson, one of the most honored of all Beachcombers, ordered me to the mast.

I reached it with shaking knees and clammy brow and was grateful to feel its sturdy strength behind me. By this time I knew John Whorf was also at the head table. This saved me. Either Ted Robinson or John Whorf alone would have nailed me to the mast for all time. But the combination of the two was unbeatable, and they knew it. After a word or two to me they found out what a dull fellow I was. This seemed to incite them into a great competition. There they sat, looming immensely before me, passing out brilliant sayings, jests and jokes like the loaves and fishes. The entire roomful of accomplished people was silent except for its rolls of laughter and approval at these two great men. During all this time I stood motionless against the mast, already learning the important art of being inconspicious at Beachcomber meetings. (This art was to stand me in good stead as the years passed.)

After a time, Ted Robinson noticed I was still present and simply brought my name up for a vote. After the thunderous roar of "No" I was officially proclaimed a Beachcomber, on condition that I immediately pay a year's dues. Then I succeeded in passing under the table, carrying with me the friendly imprints of various hands and feet. I was truly a changed man. A great many of the "Misters" around the room immediately became first names. I am probably the only living person who knows for a fact that the Skipper made one fatal blunder. He forgot to ask me the most important question of all: "Can you cook?" This clearly justifies my later conduct.

I was now qualified to climb the ladder to the second floor and play pool, billiards or chess. This did me little good in the first two, due to woeful lack of talent. However, I made up for it in energy, and many a time succeeded in skipping a ball into the corner of the room instead of into the corner pocket. At chess I sent most of them home muttering to themselves.

Developed Ailments

From 1938 until last year my greatest achievement was my conduct during the business meetings. Whenever the subject of a new cook came up, I froze and allowed my natural coloration to blend with the dimly-lit, weather-beaten planks and beams. At other times I managed to place myself in the shadow of some hulking, be-bearded Beachcomber, or with the mast between me and the skipper.

In spite of these devious tactics, I was spotted now and then by the skipper's baleful eye. On such rare occasions I seemed to develop all sorts of new ailments, ones that fitted the degree of ill health I might be displaying at the moment. Or, I was just leaving town, or had an important engagement. Somehow by the next week, when I crept into the Beachcombers as usual, everyone had forgotten my lame excuses.

Finally, on one fateful Saturday night in July 1961, my sands ran out. Maybe it was because I like Bruce McKain. At any rate, when he fixed me with his kindly eye and asked me to cook, some inner being seemed to say to me, "Be a man. Be a Beachcomber at last!" I looked Bruce steadily in the eye and said, "I'll be here again in September, and will cook then." To show what kind of guy Bruce is, he didn't faint or even stagger. He just said "all right," and we left it at that. That night I left The Beachcombers with the sinking feeling that an era was about to come to an end.

(Editor's note: Due to space limitations readers will have to guess whether Mr. Stubbs ever did cook for The Beachcombers.)