ART 2021

Impermanent Vacation

A New-York Historical Society exhibition dives into Fire Island gay life during a closeted decade – the 1950s

by

Snapshots of people on vacation are seldom interesting. Whether scrolled through on Instagram or uncovered in a dusty album, photographs from a long weekend or extended holiday often feel like smug lifestyle advertisements. But in the case of queers living in 1950s America, at least those wealthy and unburdened enough to have time off, summer trips were more than an ordinary ritual. Going to work meant putting on the mask of heterosexuality. Destinations such as Provincetown, Saugatuck-Douglas, or Fire Island meant fucking, flamboyance, gender-bending, and the ability to show affection toward the same sex in public, provided you didn’t run afoul of laws that criminalized both homosexuality and so-called cross-dressing. Safe/Haven, a free outdoor photography and ephemera show, chronicles this history by focusing on Cherry Grove, a Fire Island hamlet often eclipsed in the cultural imagination by its twin-in-queerness, the Pines. 

Many books, films, and exhibitions have logged the importance of Cherry Grove and the Pines to the development of a gay identity, so Safe/Haven, located in the courtyard of the New-York Historical Society, may initially seem underwhelming. Certainly it isn’t the first show about pre-Stonewall gay life to appear in New York of late: The Young and Evil (2019) at David Zwirner included a number of photographs from Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French’s 1930s and ’40s collaboration PaJaMa, which set codedly homoerotic scenes on the island’s famous beaches. But what Safe/Haven does so well is forego artists and other celebrities in order to display ordinary lives — read: Caucasian, upper-middle-class, and cisgendered — that found solace and titillation on the long, skinny sandbar. Seeing a record of these existences makes you aware of a community in which gay men and lesbians lived side by side, asserting the domains of their imperiled cultures while socializing together at the Grove’s many parties, costume balls, fundraisers, and performances.

The exhibition also shows us that some of the curatorial innovations necessitated by the global pandemic might expand our ideas of what art shows can be. The outdoors isn’t a safe environment for brittle, 70-year-old documents, but it is for their content. Polaroids are blown up to approximately ten times their size and printed on weather-ready tarps. Ephemera, similarly presented in reproduction, appear on placards around the West 76th Street yard. Standing in the well-tended grass and looking up the manicured block, I felt like I was at a private-school graduation party, not a museum exhibition, but the outdoor set-up is less silly than expansive. Sure, we lose the musky and magical aura of old objects, but we also aren’t subjected to the craned necks and squinting at vitrines that can make memorabilia shows a bit of a chore. And the larger format of the photographs reveals details we might otherwise miss. We notice the freckles on the arms of an aging twink in drag at a 1951 party — for God’s sake, wear sunscreen, people of the past! — and the cigarettes that cross-hatch so many mouths and hands. We see a number of photos from a Cherry Grove diaper party, the sort of soiree that would be relegated to the outskirts of age-play kink today, yet on that particular evening in 1951 might have been one of the only queer gatherings in the entire country. Realizing this, the notion of a “gay mainstream” begins to seem slippery, and highly ephemeral.

We see these hushed, smutty snapshots in broad daylight, smack dab in the center of a street full of brownstones and strollers. You might tell yourself, How far we have come! The ejaculation is a common and hackneyed one for the LGBTQ+ community each June. You remember, though, that we live in an era — yet another — when practices such as kink are being persecuted at Pride for reasons of family-centric prudishness. 

Like many desirable locales, Cherry Grove and the Pines are unusually difficult to get to, increasing their appeal. The villages are car-less, and can’t be reached by bridge or road. To some, for this very reason, they may seem like refuges for a purer ecological life, and to others, arriving may be a spiritual homecoming: Finally, I’m among my people. To still others — many, of course, may respond to their pilgrimage with two or all three of these reactions — the laborious trip will dramatize the act of escaping from the workweek, a bodily cue that the time has come to “unplug” and relax. In one color photograph from 1950, a seaplane has landed in the Great South Bay, and a bowtied member of the Grove community treads barefoot across the shallow water toward shore, trousers hiked to his shins, as though symbolically leaving buttoned-up city life behind for a paradisiacal permissiveness. In another, from the same year, a ferry approaches port, and if it weren’t for the ducktail haircuts and high-waisted pants of the men waiting on the dock, one could mistake them for contemporary Fire Islanders greeting their weekend guests on a Friday afternoon. 

Forward-thinking fashions, such as the shock of platinum blond hair we see on one visitor to the Grove, make Safe/Haven look frequently like a collection of anachronisms. The images place us in a world so hedonistic, pioneering, and distant from our blinkered image of New Yorkers in the 1950s that even viewers familiar with Truman-era queer history will be surprised to see such precocious swishiness. (The reason many of these shots are from so early in the decade might be that President Eisenhower and his contemporaries wreaked a more homophobic era in the United States, and so the queers, recognizing mounting threats, stopped photographing their social lives.) Parasols abound. One black-and-white shot from the 1951 diaper party shows a man sporting suggestive metal underwear that seems both hardcore and like a Tin Man prop from The Wizard of Oz. A woman wears a sailor’s cap in 1949. Another, in 1950, wears loafers. One sits in the lap of her “friend,” arms entwined (1950). A male in winged eyeliner brandishes a hairy thigh (ditto). A reveler covers his face with his hand, and we remember the danger of being seen at queer parties back then. Men and women caught engaging in homosexual “petting,” wearing fewer than three pieces of clothing from their assigned gender, or even just holding hands might be jailed, have their names printed in publications, and their careers destroyed. Through newspaper clippings and judiciously employed wall text, the show reminds us that this threat lingered constantly, often in the form of police officers who stood outside of social engagements, waiting for one of the attendees to break a law.

 Now, of course, you can dress in drag on the subway, and if you’re privileged enough to work remotely and happen to live in the country, bucolic surroundings are yours to explore year-round. No escape necessary, and no need to “unplug” — being plugged in, these days, is a foregone conclusion. Still, our acceptance and even fetishization of isolation during the new normal, our delight in creature comforts like pajama pants and corporate luxuries like streaming services, is dangerous: Separating people and making them fear collective experiences inherently weakens their political power. Fire Island was queer, after all, not because it was remote but because gays and lesbians flocked there to be together. Akin to the street kids who danced at the Stonewall Inn back in June of 1969, they came to party, not protest. Yet by congregating, these people created the possibility of transforming from victims into a group with a political history and voice. In Cherry Grove, the privileged and their friends took a vacation from homophobia, though out in the summer sun another concept began to slow-cook: We may be safest on our own, but our best weapon against oppression is each other.    ❖

Safe/Haven: Gay Life in 1950s Cherry Grove
New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West (Entrance on 76th Street)
Nyhistory.org
Through October 11, 2021

Highlights