Fire Island: A Century in the Life of an American Paradise by Jack Parlett

Review Essay by Walter Cummins

Jack Parlett made his initial visit to the gay village of Cherry Grove on Fire Island in 2017 with his friend Celine by walking a few miles along the beach from a friend’s house in Point O’ Woods. I made the same walk many decades before in the middle of the twentieth century with a group of college-student coworkers. Parlett went back a number of times, staying for days and doing considerable first-hand research to write this book. My small group, curious about what a gay community might look like, roamed the streets and paths there for an hour or so and then returned to our Point O’ Woods worker dormitory rooms. We never went back.

My memory of Cherry Grove is one of brightly painted decorated cottages and groups of men in tight shorts and bathing suits, all of whom ignored us. It was a great contrast to the multi-story ponderous summer homes of Point O’ Woods, covered with weathered brown-gray shingles, looming on rises against the night sky.

Parlett calls Cherry Grove an American Paradise. Actually, it was an attempt at a gay paradise at a time when such an outlet was rare in American life. I suppose Point O’ Woods could be considered a version of a summer paradise for “well-pedigreed families,” one of many along the Atlantic coast from Bar Harbor, Maine, to, say, Maryland. These weren’t the Newport mansions of multi-millionaires like the Vanderbilts, but still many-roomed and expensive. And it was a private community, gated to, I suppose, keep out people such as those living in Cherry Grove, though it was unlikely any would want to invade Point O’ Woods.

I, like all the student summer employees, had a key to the gate if we wanted to spend time in Flynn’s Bar situated just feet from the dividing fence or if we wanted to walk further to the towns of Ocean Bay Park or Ocean Beach. I, having finished my freshman year, was one of a group from Rutgers with several who became friends even after graduation. Other workers were men and women from Ivy League and Seven Sister colleges who seemed to be on a lark for pin money, while I was concerned with paying tuition. The most decadent thing we did in the men’s dorm was mix whiskey sours in a rusty tennis bowl can.

The women served in the dining room or worked in the town store. I was one of the males who bused tables, my roommate the beachboy tasked with passing out umbrellas and folding chairs. He went on to become a recognized American diplomat who played a major role in the Montreal Protocal to save the ozone layer. Other than my Rutgers friends, I have no idea about the futures of the others.

In contrast, the people Parlett writes about who summered on Cherry Grove or the nearby Fire Island Pines were famous in literature, the arts, and the theater, a roster of prominent gay Americans during a pre-Stonewall time of arrests, harassments, and beatings in cities. I don’t recall noise at Point O’ Woods. Cherry Grove was raucous, with loud parties in the bars and, after closing, private homes, drunkenness and drugs a norm, along with unending sexual couplings, triplings, and beyond.

Parlett, a poet and Oxford academic, in addition to writing about the well-known and their antics, includes reflections on his own initially tentative gayness, inhibited, unlike the blatant Cherry Grove behavior, ashamed of his body image in light of the tanned, muscular, gym-toned specimens on the sands and in the clubs of the gay paradise.

Although Parlett titles his book Fire Island, his subject is only a fraction of that island. When I saw the title listed, I thought I would be reading about a long barrier strip thirty-two miles long, with seventeen communities. But Parlett focuses on just two and their unique gay histories. Their aura, especially Cherry Grove, has created the notion of Fire Island for many. When I told a friend I was reading the book, his first response was, “Oh, that’s the gay island.”

Who are the people Parlett writes about? And what kind of a paradise was it? Through much of the mid twentieth century and beyond, Cherry Grove was a haven and a refuge that permitted uninhibited openness for women writers like Carson McCullers, Patricia Highsmith, and Janet Flanner and for men like the poets Frank O’Hara and W.H. Auden. (Sadly, O’Hara was killed at age forty in 1966 walking on the beach at night, hit by a dune buggy that did not see him.) Truman Capote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s there. Oscar Wilde visited on a trip to America. Edward Albee collaborated with Carson McCullers on a stage script of The Ballad of the Sad Café. They all lived in a world where being gay was the norm.

Yet not all gay people approved of the hedonistic lifestyle. Writer Larry Kramer, founder of ACT UP, was very disturbed by the community’s denial of AIDS when it first hit, unwilling to give up partying, and later for its failure to contribute significant money to the needs of the thousands of sufferers. James Baldwin was suspicious of Cherry Grove’s “claim to the status of haven.”

A horrified Noel Coward wrote in his diary, “Never in my life have I seen such concentrated, abandoned homosexuality. It is fantastic and difficult to believe. I really wish I hadn’t gone. Thousands of queer young men of all shapes and sizes camping about blatantly and carrying on—in my opinion—appallingly.”

Parlett questions the notion of a paradise, considering the drunken quarrels and personal tensions. He quotes Toni Morrison: “All paradises, all utopias are designed by who is not there, by the people who are not allowed in.”

Noting that all paradises are fragile and easy lost, Parlett says, “Fire Island feels like a case study of utopian imperfections, of the way norms become entrenched and inequalities perpetuated in a place defined by the fact that it is not, simply, for everyone.”

He concludes his book with a different kind of concern, the possibility of environmental devastation, one that faces many barrier islands, not just Fire Island. By 2100 the communities, gay and straight, may be overwhelmed by flooding seas, homes crashed into violent surf, beaches underwater, nothing left.

During my busboy summer, Point O’ Woods was struck by a fierce hurricane, employees evacuated from our dorm housing near the ocean to private homes on higher ground. Young and innocent, we partied in the storm. But I remember a yacht that had been moored on one side of a dock because of the predicted wind direction, a severely wrong prediction, with a major middle-of-the-night shift. In the calm of the next morning, the yacht was nothing but small bits of splintered wood bobbing in the now-still water. It had been a trophy in somebody’s dream of paradise.