Fire Island: Weekend plans call for a weekend read

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Image courtesy of Hanover Square Press
Image courtesy of Hanover Square Press

FIRE ISLAND: A CENTURY IN THE LIFE OF AN AMERICAN PARADISE
JACK PARLETT
2022 Hanover Square Press
$27.99
272 pages


Geographically speaking, Manhattan and Fire Island are a mere sixty miles apart. Sixty miles — and half a world.

Stretched out and very narrow but walkable, the island is home to several vacation communities. Two of them, Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines, both located in about the middle of the island, feature prominently in LGBTQ history.

Author Jack Parlett says that Native Americans sold Fire Island to the Europeans for a pittance, after which activities there became shifty and possibly illegal. By the 1820s, however, it was a hot vacation spot for the elite; certain parts were the place for finding romance, too, which Parlett says was a sign of the future.

Famous men like poet Walt Whitman were big fans of Fire Island, and over the next century, a then-quiet Queer subculture began to grow there. Sometimes, it grew with families and children in the picture, the latter raised by nonconformists and theater people.

Even so, despite these many changes, Parlett says that Fire Island wouldn't be what it is today were it not for a devastating hurricane that hit it on the afternoon of September 21, 1938, resulting in a real-estate bust. Cottage prices fell significantly, and vacationing there suddenly became affordable for Gay New Yorkers.

Throughout the twentieth century, Fire Island became a playground for performers, thinkers, and writers such as James Baldwin and W. H. Auden. It was a nexus of controversy for locals, who objected to nude bathing. It was a source of embarrassment for Noel Coward. And it allowed everyday Gay men and women to dance, drink, and party freely. Later on, it was a place to mourn...

Considering that this is a book about a getaway destination, Fire Island isn't much of a vacation-y read. It's actually pretty dry, in fact, filled with people that were once very famous but aren't exactly household names anymore. Their drama and the love triangles they struggled with are mildly interesting, in the way that you might perceive great-grandma's old Confidential magazines in the attic.

And yet — the history. Parlett offers a lot of solid information beyond those tired scandals to further illustrate how Fire Island came to be a Gay hot spot and why that was important. These tales envelop the rest of the island, as well as current events in America as a whole, and the impact those outside influences had on LGBTQ life, even today.

More scholarly than not, this book also includes a fair bit of memoir for readers who are looking for something less frivolous. If you want a book for fun, though, Fire Island is probably not a beach read.