In the nineteenth century it provided poetic inspiration for Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde reputedly visited. In the 1930s it became the summer home for a trio of artists who some describe as “The Fire Island School Of Painting.” Literary and artistic giants saw it as an escape to write or to party- Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Noel Coward stayed here. American poet Frank O’Hara was killed on the beach here. Patricia Highsmith got drunk here. David Hockney looked pale here, Derek Jarman made a short film, James Baldwin came to write (and felt out of place). Perhaps the first example of gay pornography to filter into the mainstream was filmed here in 1971. It developed into a symbol of hedonism where the landscape and fantastic views felt slightly at odds with the loud disco music from tea dances and cruising. The Village People sang about it offering us a “funky weekend” as long as we “don’t go in the bushes.” Edmund White and Andrew Holleran used it as a setting to enrich their fiction. AIDS decimated it, for a while it became a ghostly memorial with ashes of those taken sprinkled into the sea. It became a film location in that first-wave of AIDS related films like “Parting Glances” (1986) and “Longtime Companion”(1989)- important movies which proved so difficult to watch. It became once again part of the well-heeled gay circuit with accusations of elitism and poor inclusiveness and it has recently been the location in the available on Disney+ in the UK bright and brash gay rom-com “Fire Island” (2022). I’ve always been fascinated by the contradictions of this place – Utopia for some, Hell for others.
This thin strip of land some 32 miles in length off the Long Island coast is perhaps the second most recognised gay location after The Stonewall Inn. Its cultural and literary significance has lasted for decades and alongside the thousands that adored it there are detractors with very valid objections as well as confusingly detractors who also adored it- this is the enigma of Fire Island.
And the person who has decided to record this cultural and literary history in this new publication from Granta is a 30 year old British man. This is a good idea, it gives a fresh perspective on an area bogged down in its own history and inconsistencies. Jack Parlett visited first whilst researching the poet Frank O’ Hara who wrote, partied and died here. Parlett experienced the same feelings of alienation and belonging which has affected so many of its visitors over the years and in this work subtitled “Love, loss and liberation in an American Paradise” he incorporates memoir to explain why.
From the relaxed development of Cherry Grove with its communal mix of renters including families and lesbians and gay men to the growth of the more hedonistic, wealthy white gay male dominated area of The Pines (together with its cruising area The Meat Rack) Parlett effectively tracks developments and their significance in gay history and sensibilities. There’s a potent mix of the literary and academic, the political and the positives and contradictions of this location. It’s imbued with a nostalgia for past times – I found myself thinking I would have liked to have visited at that point in time, oh and at that point in time….which makes it an intoxicating subject for a historical examination.
I loved the idea of this book, I loved the British perspective which added another layer and Jack Parlett has handled his material well. I might have liked visual representations for some of his references but a few seconds on Google will find things and no doubt saved the publishers from forking out for reproduction rights.
Fire Island was published in 2022 by Granta in the UK.