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Utopia, Warts & All: Jack Parlett’s History of Fire Island
Martin McGuigan , June 25th, 2022 07:38

Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde had a jolly good time, Patricia Highsmith got drunk, but James Baldwin was left feeling isolated and alone, Martin McGuigan on Fire Island's ambiguous queer utopia

Just off the coast Long Island, there is a mythical-sounding place, a haven where gay New Yorkers could party, protest and make art, away from prying eyes in the city. “Queer people have a particular stake in the question of paradise” and, for those who could make it to this slim barrier island of beach homes and holiday resorts, paradise could mean a day-trip or a regular summer retreat. Jack Parlett’s Fire Island chronicles the cultural history of this hallowed place, examining its significance through the writers and artists who were part of its changing community.

What started off as a beach resort for middle-class New Yorkers to take a “conventional family vacation”, in the 1930s began to attract “theater people” – an epithet that carried with it “deviant associations”. After a hurricane destroyed many of the island’s houses in 1938, rental and property prices plummeted, allowing more artists and “queer people from the city” to move in and build new communities.

Reading the book makes you jealous that you’ve missed the party, but lets you feel, vicariously, that you were there. The two main resort communities of Cherry Grove and the Pines, with their different demographics, atmospheres, their “distinctive cultures, rituals and patriotisms” are painted vividly. Equally as real to the reader is the Meat Rack, the island’s alfresco cruising spot, a “mythic free-for-all” where one can consummate the “the stirred-up desires of brief encounters.”

When it turns to literary biography, Fire Island is filled with gossip-worthy anecdotes about America’s literati. Walt Whitman, who visited Fire Island and noted its “curious and original characters” and who saw in America the potential for a “homosexual utopia”, was paid a visit by Oscar Wilde in 1882. Whitman took Wilde up to his “den” and the two enjoyed a “jolly good time”. In 1953, Patricia Highsmith went to the island on a “drunken rampage”, storming out when her lover Ellen threatened suicide by barbiturate overdose. There, “unaware if Ellen was dead or alive”, Highsmith “got hammered in Duffy’s bar”, ended up in a fight and soothed her bruises with further libations. Truman Capote is even reported to have begun working on Breakfast at Tiffany’s during his stay there, one of the island’s “trophy stories”.

The scholarly research and cultural history are punctuated by flashes of Parlett’s own experience. These sections explore how he came to know himself as a gay man, his hesitancy and sense of being out of place on the queer scene, and the delightful distractions of hook-ups and alcohol. The book opens with his first trip to Fire Island – part-research, part-pilgrimage – and chapters often begin in the confessional mode, using this as an entry point for developing a particular topic. Autobiographical detail is used sparingly and to great effect, providing the reader with an emotional anchor: the motivation behind his passion for this hidden spit of land.

Passion aside, Parlett doesn’t shy away from the problematic. “Fire Island feels like a case study of utopian imperfections”, he writes. The island’s “hard-drinking culture”, present ever since the 1930s, “led to many of its community becoming serious alcoholics”, forcing some of its denizens to quieter resorts further along the coast to dry out. Parlett interrogates the “common trope when speaking about art and artists, where appreciation risks yielding to a potentially damaging romanticism about the darker aspects of queer and creative life, not least the addictions.”

The safe haven that the island provides has not always been equally welcoming to everyone. The first wave of gay men to frequent the Pines were often put out when the younger, more raucous, more openly-out crowd, appeared in Cherry Grove. Even as attitudes towards discretion and secrecy slackened, Black and Latinx visitors were scarce; to get to the island one needed “time, money and inclination.” In the late 1950s, the “increasing appearance of nonwhite day-trippers revealed the racist prejudices of some of the older gay and lesbian residents”. James Baldwin visited the island as a writing retreat, but kept himself to himself and found its hedonism and endless pleasure-seeking vacuous. Baldwin describes the racist attitudes at play in the gay scene, where sexual objectification led to “the laying on of hands.” The island’s milieu has always been somewhat exclusive, “historically white, middle-class and cis-gendered, and structured around cachet and aspiration.”

Despite these drawbacks, the island’s very existence opens up opportunities for community, culture and political organization. The book details rituals such as the annual Homecoming Invasion, where drag queens arrive by boat and parade onto a red carpet laid out on the dock, hoping to be declared this year’s Homecoming Queen. Spawning from a feud that led to a protest in 1976, the tradition has now become a mainstay of the island’s social calendar. By the same token, we see grassroots activism at the dawn of the AIDS crisis when writers Larry Kramer and Edmund White, alongside medical journalist Larry Mass, went to Fire Island to canvas and to disseminate knowledge. Though the initial reaction was frosty, a year later the men formed the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, dedicated to combating the spread of AIDS.

The residents and repeat visitors to Fire Island made up “a community historically in pursuit of freedom and safety”, who celebrate and protect their tiny enclave. While the more radically-minded in the gay liberation movement saw in this neighbourly sentiment the potential for “building a new cooperative from the ground up”, for others their “feelings of separatism were less a product of political ideology than protectiveness over the sanctity of this hideaway.”

Life on the island carried on through the AIDS crisis, and bounced back partying into the new millennium. Now, artists residencies ensure they are “more reflective of New York’s LGBTQ+ landscape than the island’s usual demographic”, but their time is limited. Rising sea levels threaten this low-lying sandbar. Paradise may not have long left. Parlett’s compendious, “sentimental history” takes you “to the heart of queer life”. It makes you wish you’d been there, in “a halcyon summer whose pleasures defy its brevity.”

Fire Island by Jack Parlett is published by Granta Books