I first heard about Fire Island the way I think a lot of young queer people outside of New York first heard about Fire Island: by getting really into Frank O’Hara’s poetry. I remember reading “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” and imagining it as a place where magical, wonderful things (like having an extended conversation with the sun) could happen. After that initial introduction, I then learned about O’Hara’s tragic death on Fire Island and that some of my favorite writers — Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, James Baldwin — spent time there, too, but beyond learning the very basics of what Fire Island is actually like, I didn’t fully understand its impact on LGBTQ history and culture.
As I understood it then, Fire Island is mostly a haven for rich gay white men with a storied history of also being a haven for artists, writers, and musicians. Because of this perception, I’ll be honest in saying that I wasn’t thinking about Fire Island much until more recently when I was doing research on the gay island I currently live on. In the research I was doing about Wilton Manors, I learned that even though the population looks a certain way, there was still so much struggle in its birth. Like Wilton Manors, it’s tempting to paint Fire Island in very particular lights because of the parts of it that get the most attention, and I was guilty of that. It’s easy to think of it as a place where NYC’s most elite gays go to party and hook up, and while that’s still very true, there’s much more to it than that. As Jack Parlett proves in his new book, Fire Island: A Century in the Life of an American Paradise, it is also a place full of contradictions and of stories you probably wouldn’t expect.
More a place-based memoir than a straightforward history of the two parts of the island that have come to be most associated with the LGBTQ community, the Pines and Cherry Grove, Fire Island provides unique insight on the history, present, and future of this almost mythical place. For at least the last century, the region itself, a small island two hours away from Manhattan, has been a popular vacation spot for NYC families who had the means and ability to make the trip over to the island regularly. But over time, Fire Island’s seclusion drew people looking for privacy and a place to be more fully themselves without the threat of persecution or violence. As more “unmarried men and women” made their way over, it “offered space aplenty for frolics and transgressions, whether that was behind closed doors, or at a secluded point on the beach.”
Naturally, this drew artists and writers of all types who were looking for a place to escape the hustle and bustle of the cities where they were living to do work or to simply let loose in ways they couldn’t anywhere else. Throughout the course of the text, Parlett gives several accounts of the artists and writers who made Fire Island their temporary homes or permanent vacation spots. Everyone from the writers I’ve already mentioned to Paul Cadmus, James Dean, and Patricia Highsmith spent time there, and Parlett describes in great detail exactly how their time on the island altered their lives and what they did when they weren’t there. With these descriptions, Parlett helps us understand the heart of the project he’s doing in this book: showing the myriad ways that people are responsible for a community’s becoming, even if their work isn’t intentional.
Parlett’s descriptions of the ways the Pines and Cherry Grove grew from family-oriented vacation spots to bastions of queer celebration and expression illustrates the ways the communities come together in the face of great oppression. But they also reveal much deeper truths about what these communities look like and how utopias are very often not as euphoric as they seem. As Parlett documents so expertly, Fire Island has historically been exclusionary and inaccessible to people of certain identities — most notably Black queer people, single women, trans people — and still is to a certain extent today. What’s even more pressing about the history Parlett narrates for us, though, is how it shows the ways in which communities built on shared identity alone often fail to come together to create a cohesive vision of what that community should look like. Where the Pines was a place of sophistication, respectability, and an adherence to sharp gender roles, Cherry Grove was a place of letting go of inhibitions gender play, and queer radicalism. This set these places and the people who frequented them at different ends of the political spectrum, which meant they were often at odds with one another in terms of what the people there believed they needed to do for themselves and each other. As the histories of the Pines and Cherry Grove show, it takes a lot more than shared identity and shared space to build the kind of solidarity and kinship that leads to true liberation.
While there is much to be learned from the example of Fire Island and the people who made it what it is today, Parlett is at his best here when he’s weaving his ruminations on the events of his own life with the histories of those that came to Fire Island before him. The greatest example of this, perhaps, is when he intertwines his feelings about the also historically exclusionary and prejudicial gay dating scene with the poet W.H. Auden’s own experiences on Fire Island as a gay man with “famously pasty skin and an aversion to the sun.” These moments of recognition and reconciliation help give an even broader scope to Parlett’s work here. They serve as an important and welcome reminder that progress happens but it is also often slow, hard won, and impermanent. Whether he means to or not, these recollections and connections form powerful arguments about what queer liberation truly looks like.
At the end of the text, Parlett gives an accounting of what is going on in Fire Island today and how the communities there and the people who spend time there are trying to change it for the better. He notes the importance of these improvements but is also quick to remind us that we don’t have to think of Fire Island “as a false paradise, or a paradise already lost” but can instead think of it as “an extant, changing site, alive and livable, suspended in the present of a shared moment, and still ripe for rewriting.” And Parlett’s work here — from his personal reflections to his narration of the history of Fire Island — can help us learn what is possible when we’re willing to look back at history with intent and use what we’ve gathered to help us create a better future.
Fire Island: A Century in the Life of an American Paradise is out now.