Friends sit along the beach in the Pines at Fire...

Friends sit along the beach in the Pines at Fire Island in 2018. Credit: Linda Rosier

Though geography might be a physical reality, “paradise” itself is a subjective construct. In “Fire Island: A Century in the Life of an American Paradise” (Hanover Square Press, 269 pp., $28.99), Jack Parlett, an Oxford professor who began writing his book during a trip to Fire Island in 2017, explores the social development and cultural significance of the Pines and Cherry Grove, the island’s queer enclaves with a rich and moving history.

Surviving natural disasters and sociopolitical condemnations, Fire Island’s gay legacy includes an interminable list of 19th, 20th, and 21st century LGBTQ icons and idols, including Truman Capote, Frank O’Hara, Robert Mapplethorpe, Edmund White, Larry Kramer, Andre Leon Talley, Christopher Isherwood, Tennessee Williams, Liza Minnelli, Lady Gaga and many more.

Parlett spoke to Newsday about his book and Fire Island’s profound past. 

Your book is dedicated to “Frank,” that is, Frank O’Hara, the poet. How did he and his work inspire the book?

Frank O’Hara was a big part of the reason I first went to Fire Island. I was living in New York at the time and had long built up an image in my head of this mysterious beach where, in 1966, there had been a dune buggy accident that led to his death. So, when I first went to the island I was looking to retrace some of his footsteps, but I suppose he inspired the book in a larger way, too. He is probably my favorite poet, and his writing has been very important for me. I think the way joy is so suffused with melancholy in his work speaks to the atmosphere of Fire Island’s landscape a little, too; its glamour and its ghostliness. 

You write about the “structural privileges” endemic to the Pines and Cherry Grove: historically white, middle-class, cis-gendered, elitist and classist. It is exclusive by design and many queer people do not feel like it is their scene. What do you think occasioned this situation and do you see it changing?

I think there are various aspects that have occasioned these limited parameters historically. Unlike, say, the queer parts of Riis Park Beach in the Rockaways, Cherry Grove and the Pines were conceived not as public, communal spaces but as vacation communities. To buy there requires a certain spending power, while renting in a share-house often depends upon knowing someone, so the structural inequities of society-at-large are easily replicated in a setup like that. But there are various community initiatives today that are working to undo these barriers and make Fire Island more accessible. 

What did Oscar Wilde do for Fire Island’s legacy in 1882. Further, his visit to the island is still the stuff of mythology and was never confirmed, correct?

There’s no direct historical evidence that Oscar Wilde made it to Fire Island, although local historians are still looking into this possibility in revised histories of Cherry Grove. The myth arises from an as yet unsubstantiated claim, but for me it’s been generative to think about the myth itself. It’s an appealing one, this image of Wilde as a flamboyant figure, blessing the island’s shores, so it feels like it informs the island’s mythos as this illustrious, improbable place on the fringes of the Atlantic, regardless of the story’s veracity. 

The concept of “chosen family” is central to the lives of many queer people. What promise of chosen families does Fire Island offer its visitors.

Friendship is a crucial part of queer Fire Island’s culture. That intimate, familial quality is there in much of the literature — I’m thinking of the Fire Island stories in Ethan Mordden’s “Buddies” series from the 1980s — and it’s a crucial part of the new rom-com “Fire Island” written by Joel Kim Booster. Whether you’re about going there to party, or hook up, or just relax, the island is a good place to go with your chosen family.

Why does the hard-forged queer culture of Fire Island endure? What accounts for its resilience?

The culture has endured for so long, historically speaking, because of the determination among community members to protect it from the values and restrictions of the mainland. That Cherry Grove and the Pines have survived police raids, hurricanes and the decimation of the HIV/AIDS epidemic is quite a remarkable thing. There’s also a great deal of pride in both communities about the rich queer histories they contain. Community organizations and historical societies are continually in the process of archiving and documenting the queer culture that has been incubated on Fire Island. 

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