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Molly Cook; Cape gallery owner offered unique lens on life

Artsy, eccentric, and smart, Molly Malone Cook was a colorful fixture on the Provincetown scene for 50 years.

''She was both formidable and lovable, if that makes sense. She didn't suffer fools, but at the same time, she was very warm-hearted," her friend filmmaker John Waters said yesterday. ''She represented everything that is great about Provincetown."

Ms. Cook -- photographer, gallery owner, and muse -- died of complications of lung cancer Friday in the Provincetown home she shared with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver. She was 80.

A former photographer for the Village Voice, Ms. Cook established the VII Photographer's Gallery in Provincetown in the early 1950s, before photography was widely accepted as an art form.

Among the photographers she represented were W. Eugene Smith, Edward Steichen, and Eugene Atget. According to Provincetown folklore, when she went to New York City to ask Steichen to submit work for the gallery he asked, ''Are you rich or crazy?"

''I'm not rich," was her reply.

And she remained so. Her gallery attracted many visitors but few buyers.

''She was ahead of her time," her friend, Helene Atwan of Milton, said yesterday.

But with business on the wane, ''She started selling books."

Waters worked at Ms. Cook's bookstore, the East End Bookshop, for several years in the late 1960s and early '70s.

''She only allowed me to work if it rained, because that's when the store got busy," said Waters. ''When it rained, I'd run right over."

He said it was a great place to work. ''We got to be rude to the customers. Not only was the customer not always right, but he was always wrong."

Ms. Cook was fussy about the books she sold. Waters said if anyone asked for Jacqueline Susann's Hollywood best-seller ''Valley of the Dolls" or said anything bad about Norman Mailer, she threw them out.

Ms. Cook was born in San Francisco. While traveling in Europe she got a position in personnel with the US government, working in the Palace of Justice in Heidelberg. It was during her stay in Germany she became interested in photography as a career.

She was one of the first photographers hired by the Village Voice, which was founded in 1955. Among the people she photographed were Eleanor Roosevelt, Walker Evans, and Adlai Stevenson.

Ms. Cook met Oliver in 1958 at the home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay in upstate New York, after they each arrived independently to visit with the poet's sister Norma Millay and her husband, painter, Charles Ellis.

They began their life together in Provincetown in 1964 when they moved into a boathouse on the property of the Seguras family, with whom they remained close for years.

For several years in the 1970s, Ms. Cook was an assistant to Norman Mailer. Also in the '70s, she began the Molly Malone Cook Literary Agency, representing Oliver and other clients.

''I know I wouldn't want to have to negotiate with her," Waters said.

''She could be acerbic, but underneath it, she was the warmest woman I've every met," said Atwan.

An athletic woman with short white hair and piercing blue eyes, Ms. Cook could often be seen roaring along the coast of Provincetown in her 17-foot boat with a 190-horsepower engine.

''She was a woman who was into power," Atwan said.

Ms. Cook loved animals and liberated many pets from animals shelters. She once had 17 cats and four dogs in her waterfront home.

Oliver, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1982 and a National Book Award in 1992, dedicated many of her books to Ms. Cook, and many of her poems, including ''Freshen the Flowers, She Said," were inspired by her.

In 1986, Ms. Cook traveled with Oliver to Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, and New Zealand on a cultural tour sponsored by the US Information Agency.

''She looked like a Yankee, though she wasn't even born around here," Waters said. ''She was a well-read, handsome woman, who was an intellectual in the best sense of the word."

In addition to Oliver, she leaves a brother, Fred M. of Aptos, Calif.

A memorial service is being planned.

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