Books

New book celebrates Fire Island as ‘an American Paradise’

Paradise can be found close to home.

Fire Island, a narrow, 32-mile barrier island off the coast of Long Island, features two communities that have long served as a queer utopia and a safe haven for members of the LGBTQ community.

A sweeping new book, “Fire Island: A Century in the Life of an American Paradise,” by British writer Jack Parlett pays tribute to the queer side of Fire Island by telling the history of the vacation resort through the eyes of famous writers who have written about it through history.

“I was just completely captivated by it,” Parlett, 30, told the Daily News, about his first visit to the island’s LGBTQ-centric hamlets of Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines in the summer of 2017.

With its stunning beaches, legendary parties and rich cultural history, Fire Island is deeply celebrated in Parlett’s researched book as a magical island known for the campy silliness of a boat full of drag queens “invading” the harbor every July 4, or the hedonistic sexual culture in the Fire Island Pines that’s still “alive and well,” Parlett writes, or the weekly underwear parties in Cherry Grove.

But it is also as a place queer people can call home, strengthen links to their chosen family and come together as a community to fight the devastation caused by the AIDS epidemic.

It’s also summer paradise that has also been criticized for historically being more accessible to a privileged few, as Parlett points out.

James Baldwin, a frequent visitor to Cherry Grove throughout the 1950s and ’60s, noted with caution that he was coming into a “mostly white, middle-class queer world,” Parlett writes. Six decades later, after his first visit to the Pines, Parlett could feel himself “becoming more neurotic about my eating and exercise habits” and even bleached his hair “to replicate the kind of sun-kissed svelteness I’d seen gracing the early- morning dance floor.”

Parlett, a literary scholar who focuses on queer studies and teaches American literature at the University of Oxford, lived in New York then while doing research for his Ph.D. about poets and gay cruising.

As part of his research, he set out to visit the area where American poet Frank O’Hara died at the age of 40, just days after he was hit by a buggy on the dunes of Fire Island Pines in July 1966. Having a reputation As being a gay village since the mid-20th century, Fire Island has deep ties with some of the most important names in queer art and literature in the world, including Walt Whitman, Patricia Highsmith, Oscar Wilde, James Baldwin and Janet Flanner.

“I’ve been reading these poets, and suddenly seeing for myself the place that so many of them have been and spent time — after that I just kind of couldn’t stop thinking about this place,” he added.

Shortly after that summer, Parlett decided to work on a “literary story of the place,” a project that expanded beyond the literary world and turned into a critical love letter to the community’s history, cultural significance, HIV/AIDS activism and the role it played in the queer liberation movement, while also looking at ways in which Fire Island can be exclusionary.

As he worked on the book, Parlett wanted to “trace the footsteps of particular writers on the island” by piecing together the Fire Island of WH Auden, Edmund White, and a lot of the gay writers who burst onto the scene in the 1970s. “What it was like to be there, but also what it was like to be queer in New York, what it was like to experience community or exclusion in these different historical eras,” he said.

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Despite Cherry Grove’s long-held claims of being “America’s First Gay and Lesbian Town,” Parlett said that he was less interested in “making authoritative claims about ‘this is the first’ [queer community]” and more focused on finding the answers to questions such as, “what has been the mythology of this place, and how has it informed our sense of community over time?”

Writing as an outsider, Parlett wanted to lean into his research to do the place justice while also offering a critical portrait. “I see the book not just a celebration, but something that is trying to engage with the more complicated aspects of Fire Island as a space as well.”

For decades, the mystique of a sun-soaked gay Xanadu just two hours east of New York City has been exacerbated by its prominence in the popular culture.

There was the Kelly Ripa-produced reality show called “Fire Island” that aired on Logo in 2017; the Tony Award-winning play “The Inheritance” that ran on Broadway in 2019; and the rom-com starring Kim Booster and “Saturday Night Live” star Bowen Yang, also named “Fire Island,” that premiered on Hulu this month.

“I didn’t set out to write an authoritative history, because I think loads of people who have different experiences of Fire Island will have different claims upon it as a space and different claims upon its history,” Parlett said.

“For me, [the book] feels like a response to Fire Island as a place, [and] what we can learn from it.”

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