What Josephine Del Deo Saved for Us

New York Times MagazineDecember 2016

One day in the summer of 1953, Josephine Couch went with her boyfriend, Salvatore Del Deo, on an overnight trip to the dunes outside Provincetown. They’d been invited by a friend, a former chorus girl who went by Frenchie Chanel, to stay with her at her tar-paper shack by the water. That day, amid the compass grass and rose hips, Josephine, 27, felt the rest of the world vanish: Birds cried, but the white noise of surf and wind enforced a hush. At night, the moonlight caused the dunes to glow. Josephine fell asleep in the arms of Salvatore, whom she married that fall, to the cooing of a dove.

Frenchie’s place was one of a scattering of shacks along a wild stretch of Cape Cod called Peaked Hill. These were modest structures — no electricity or running water, an outhouse somewhere nearby — yet Josephine described them, in her dune-life memoir, “The Watch at Peaked Hill,” as “spiritual temples.” She came to believe that there were settings where the “creative spirit” lived, offering refuge and renewal, and throughout her life she tried to protect such places.

Provincetown itself was the most obvious target of Josephine’s preservationist impulse. When she arrived in 1951, it was both a fishing village and a bohemian mecca, the kind of place where the Portuguese captains would leave the catch they couldn’t sell on the dock so aspiring artists wouldn’t starve over the winter. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Josephine, along with the modernist painter Ross Moffett, led a grass-roots campaign to donate public land to the nascent Cape Cod National Seashore, foiling a development plan that featured a three-story parking garage and a heliport. In 1968 she founded, with Salvatore and others, the Fine Arts Work Center in a lumberyard, giving emerging artists funding and a place to work in what was becoming an expensive town. Remarkably, Provincetown still looks something like the way Josephine found it — a vibrant artists’ colony of modest, handsome buildings near untamed dunes — and today she gets much of the credit.

Yet oddly enough, Josephine’s longest-running struggle pitted her against the officials who oversaw the National Seashore she helped create. The Peaked Hill shacks were on the land given to the Seashore, and the government considered them blemishes in need of removal. One dune resident had a shack where he observed birds and distilled beach-plum wine, but soon after he died, it was bulldozed, leaving his possessions strewn in the sand. Josephine and Sal inherited Frenchie’s shack, and in Josephine’s memoir, she argued that the government had made a destructive fetish of wildness. She pointed to Arkansas’s Buffalo National River park, from which hundreds of families were ejected, along with their traditions of “weaving, spinning, basket-making, chair-caning, the art of the forge and the smithy, and folk music.” Humans had been part of the Cape shore for millenniums. What needed preservation, Josephine argued, was not the physicality of a particular dune feature, or some collection of species, but the totality of what had grown up in that locale, including the people and their ways. She was also convinced that the shacks themselves held poetic and philosophical value. In her memoir, she describes a peerless day at Frenchie’s with her children, Giovanna and Romolo. They explored, played and rolled giggling down a dune. That evening, they walked the beach to bid the sun “good night.” Residency in the shacks created, she wrote, “a metaphysical sense of place over time.” Merely knowing of such spaces — outside and apart — had the power to “refresh a stale vision of the universe.”

Today the shacks are part of our national cultural heritage — they’ve inspired many artists, including Eugene O’Neill and Jackson Pollock — and they are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, in part because of Josephine’s writings. Her son, Romolo, a bronze sculptor, recently drove me into the dunes, his truck fishtailing through turns and shuddering on the rises. The sun had set, and the November light was blue and thin. The shack sat in a hollow, just two rooms and a screened-in porch, with a wooden star at the roof peak, overlooking a dune edge that drops to the beach.

The windows were boarded for the winter, and Romolo had to dig out the front door. Inside he lit a kerosene lamp. “I’m going to leave you with the shack for a few minutes,” Romolo said, “so you can become friends.” I sat at a small table dusted with sand and listened to the wind. Part of the shack’s magic, Josephine explained, was its minimalism, the chance it offered to witness what she called “the oracles of nature”: the passing seals and humpback whales, the wind-waved poverty grass, the bee at a solitary dune flower.

Suddenly Romolo called me outside. He gestured east, where out over the Atlantic, the moon was poking up. It was full, shining lurid orange, its shape unsettled as it rose. As it cleared the horizon, though, the color washed, the disk perfected itself and the dune light became vital. “What else has royalty to offer me,” Josephine wrote, “that equals half this crooked shack?”

Gareth Cook is a contributing writer for the magazine and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.