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Greetings from Fire Island, New York

Fire Island is a barrier island adjacent to the south shore of Long Island, New York. It is approximately 50 kilometers (31 mi) long and varies between 160 and 400 meters (520 and 1,300 ft) broad. Fire Island is part of Suffolk County. It comprises a number of hamlets, census-designated places (CDPs), and villages, all of which lie within the towns of Islip, Brookhaven and Babylon. (Picture: Fire Island Lighthouse)

The land area of Fire Island is 22.5 square kilometers (8.7 sq mi). According to the 2000 census there is a permanent population of 491, expanding to hundreds of thousands of residents and tourists during the summer months.

Fire Island is approximately 8.9 kilometers (5.5 mi) south of Long Island, but varies widely. It is separated from Long Island by a series of interconnected bays: Great South Bay, Patchogue Bay, Bellport Bay, Narrow Bay, and Moriches Bay. The island is accessible by automobile via Robert Moses Causeway on its western end and by William Floyd Parkway (Suffolk County Road 46) near its eastern end. Motor vehicles are not permitted on the rest of the Island, except for utility, construction and emergency access and with limited beach driving permits in winter. The island and its resort towns are accessible by boat, seaplane and a number of ferries, which depart from both Bay Shore and Sayville.

Around 1683, Fire Island Inlet broke through, separating it from Jones Beach Island.

The Fire Island Inlet was to grow to nine miles (14 km) in width before receding. The Fire Island Lighthouse was built in 1858, right on the inlet, but Fire Island's western terminus at Democrat Point has steadily moved west so that the lighthouse today is six miles (10 km) from the inlet.

The origin of Fire Island's name is not certain. It is believed its Native American name was Sictem Hackey, which translated to "Land of the Secatogues". The Secatogues were a tribe in the Bay Shore, New York, area. It was part of what was also called the "Seal Islands." Other versions say the island derived its name from fires built on the sea's edge by Native Americans or by pirates to lure unsuspecting ships into the sandbars. Some say it is how portions of the island look to be on fire from sea in autumn. The name of Fire Island first appeared on a deed in 1789. 

Frank House, Fire Island Pines, NY, 1958, by Andrew Michael Geller 

Hunt House, Ocean Bay Park, Fire Island, NY, 1958, by Andrew Michael Geller

Jossel House, Davis Park, Fire Island, NY, 1959, by Andrew Michael Geller

William "Tangier" Smith held title to the entire island in the 17th century, under a royal patent from Thomas Dongan. The remnants of Smith's Manor of St. George are open to the public in Shirley, New York.

Long Island residents had been skeptical about building on Fire Island, and it was long left almost wild, the reputed home of smugglers and pirates who preyed on hapless wrecks off the notoriously dangerous New York shipping lanes. Before 1850 “the beach was considered dangerous even to visit, allegedly because of murdering Indians, pirates and ghosts”. 

Fire Island Lighthouse ar Robert Moses State Park

The first large house was built in 1795 in Cherry Grove by Jeremiah Smith. Smith was said to have lured ships to their doom and killed the crews. The first Fire Island Lighthouse was built in 1825 and was replaced by the current lighthouse in 1858. In 1855, David S.S. Sammis bought 120 acres (0.49 km2) near the Fire Island Lighthouse and built the Surf Hotel at what today is Kismet. Sammis operated the hotel until 1892, when the state took it over. 


New Surf Hotel, Ocean Beach, Fire Island

The nucleus of Cherry Grove – the oldest continuously inhabited resort on Fire Island – was created in 1869, when Archie Perkinson bought pirate Jeremiah Smith’s house and land for $1250 and began serving shore dinners to the public. Archie and Elizabeth Perkinson built a hotel in 1880. The gay lineage of Cherry Grove is impeccable, according to local historian Charles Dickerson: “In 1882 Oscar Wilde was making his famous tour of America and spent several days in the Perkinson Hotel at Cherry Grove. He made note in his diary that Cherry Grove was one of the most beautiful resorts he had ever visited”. The first real community start in 1894 in Point O’Woods.

In 1908, Perkison Hotel became the first state park on Long Island. In 1908, Ocean Beach was established, followed by Saltaire in 1910. In 1921, the Perkinsons sold the land around Cherry Grove in small lots. Bungalows from the newly closed Camp Upton in Yaphank, New York were ferried over the Great South Bay to build the new community.

In the early 1920s, Cherry Grove clustered around Perkinson’s Hotel and consisted of a few tiny “cottages” along a wooden boardwalk lined by the wild black cherry trees that had given their name to the settlement.

Jared French (1905–1988) was a painter who specialized in the ancient medium of egg tempera. He was one of the masters of magic realism, part of a circle of friends and colleagues who all painted surreal imagery in egg tempera. Others included George Tooker and Paul Cadmus. He met and befriended Cadmus in New York City, became his lover, and persuaded Cadmus to give up commercial art for "serious painting". In 1937 French married Margaret Hoening, another artist. For the next eight years Cadmus and the Frenches summered on Fire Island and formed a photographic collective called PAJAMA ("Paul, Jared, and Margaret"). (Picture: Paul Cadmus and Jared French, Fire Island, by PaJaMa)

The Fire Island Trittico by Paul Cadmus: 

Point of View, Fire Island, by Paul Cadmus, 1945 

Fences, Fire Island, by Paul Cadmus, 1946 

Shower, Fire Island, by Paul Cadmus. 1943

At the same time of the trio PaJaMa, also George Platt-Lynes, photographer and himself in another threesome with Monroe Wheeler and Glenway Wescott, spent the summers in Fire Island, with friends and lovers. 

Alexander Jensen Yow, Fire Island, 1940, by PaJaMa 

Chuck Howard and Ted Starkowski by PaJaMa 

Jonathan Tichenor, Fire Island, 1948, by George Platt-Lynes

Duffy's Hotel was built in 1930. In 1939 Edward Duffy and his wife, Viola, became the new owners, and so began the era of the famous and infamous Duffy’s Hotel. Prohibition was six years in the past; there were no longer children in Duffy’s, and the more conservative locals disliked the atmosphere of heavy drinking. The theather people took up the slack, and the hotel quickly became their headquarters.

The Great Hurricane of 1938 devastated much of the island and made it appear undesirable to many. However, Duffy's Hotel remained relatively undamaged. According to legend, the gay population began to concentrate in Cherry Grove at Duffy's Hotel with Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden dressed as Dionysus and Ganymede and carried aloft on a gilded litter by a group of singing followers. Duffy’s burned on September 27, 1956, and was replaced by the Ice Palace Hotel which has remained a popular destination.

The gay influence was continued in the 1960s when male model John B. Whyte developed Fire Island Pines. The Pines currently has some of the most expensive property on the island and accounts for two-thirds of the island's swimming pools. (Picture: John B. Whyte)

The incorporated villages of Ocean Beach and Saltaire within Fire Island National Seashore are car-free during the summer tourist season (Memorial Day through Labor Day) and permit only pedestrian and bicycle traffic (during certain hours only in Ocean Beach). For off-season use, there are a limited number of driving permits for year-round residents and contractors. The hamlet of Davis Park allows no vehicles or bicycles year-round. Fire Island also contains a number of unincorporated villages (hamlets). Two of these hamlets, known as the Fire Island Pines and Cherry Grove, are popular destinations for LGBT vacationers.

Fire Island Pines derives its name from the scrub pine trees in the area, which, according to legend, started growing after a ship with Christmas trees and holly foundered off its coast in the late 19th century.

The Pines was originally the site of a Coast Guard station built in 1876 and known as Lone Hill Saving Station. The area was purchased by the Home Guardian Company in 1924. As no development occurred the area became a popular nude beach. Squatters erected temporary buildings. 

Ocean Beach, Fire Island 

Saltaire, Fire Island 

Fire Island Dunes

Plans for development first began in 1952 when Warren and Arthur Smadbeck, doing business as the Home Guardian Company, announced plans to sell 122 lots in the new subdivision while building a private harbor for yachts, a large landing dock, and a private park facing the harbor. The Smadbecks, who sold more than 700,000 lots around the country, had purchased the property from the Sammis family, which had owned it since buying most of Fire Island in 1855 when they built the Surf Hotel near the Fire Island Light, in what is now the community of Kismet.

The basic Smadbeck layout of the Pines remains to this day, including the Botel which was designed to be a simple, no-frills, dormitory style accommodation for those who docked their yachts docked in the harbor. The Botel and associated yacht club buildings burned on May 31, 1959. 

Fire Island House, 1977, by Arthur Erickson

Former male model John B. Whyte encouraged its reputation as a gay destination after buying the rebuilt Botel Pines and Dunes Yacht Club in the 1960s (Cherry Grove was already a gay destination when Whyte developed the Pines). The Botel is now the Hotel Ciel and still the central landmark and only hotel in the Pines. Whyte bought the property the fire destroyed the entire complex.

The conversion to a gay destination proved divisive among the initial owners. A large sign near the dock headlined, "Welcome to Fire Island Pines A Family Community." It also proclaimed "We believe in a community that is clean both morally and physically." Whyte bent rules to accommodate the gay crowd. "We had a hully-gully line right here in the restaurant. I would put a girl at each end -- men weren't allowed to dance with men back then -- and everyone would have a good time." 

Fire Island House by Studio 27

Whyte, who owned 80 percent of the commercial property in the Pines, instituted the community’s central social activity schedule of “Low Tea” (drinks—particularly the "Blue Whale" cocktail of Curaçao liqueur and vodka that turned patrons' tongues blue—at the Blue Whale from 5 PM to 8 PM) followed by “High Tea (drinks at the Pavilion from 8 to 10 PM) followed by an evening of dancing at the Pavilion (all of which were Whyte establishments). The central dance club was the Sandpiper which in 1979 became the Pavilion before being razed at the end of the 2006 season and replaced with the “New Pavilion” in 2007.

While all of Fire Island may have an official year-round population of 310, the summer population swells to much higher levels especially on weekends. In the Pines, the large houses are filled with summer shares and a 4 bedroom house can easily contain 8 people at a time. The population is primarily gay men 20–50 years old. It is affectionately referred to as "Chelsea with sand." (Chelsea is one of Manhattan's gay neighborhoods.) 

The Inn at Point O’Woods, Fire Island

Two of the Pines's most famous events are the Pines Party, an all-night dance party held each July on the beach, and the Invasion of the Pines, a drag-queen parade held each year on July 4, commemorating the time when Whyte refused service to a drag queen. After promenading through the Pines, the drag queens from Cherry Grove proclaim victory and return to Cherry Grove.

In 2010 about three quarters of the businesses in the resort were sold to a group of investors. Eric von Kuersteiner and Anthony Roncalli, the former owners, sold the businesses for about $20 million. The new owners, Andrew Kirtzman, a journalist turned hotelier; Matt Blesso, a real estate investor; and Seth Weissman, an investment banker, plan to renovate the properties for the 2010 season. 


Beach Houses, Fire Island

Cherry Grove (often referred to locally as The Grove) is an unincorporated hamlet in the Town of Brookhaven, Suffolk County, New York, United States. It is located on Fire Island, a barrier island separated from the southern side of Long Island by the Great South Bay. The hamlet has approximately 300 houses on 41 acres (170,000 m2), a summer seasonal population of 2,000 and a year-round population of 15. 

Fire Island Pines

Cherry Grove, along with nearby Fire Island Pines, is considered one of the most popular lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT)-accepting resort communities in the United States. The Grove is reputedly the nation's first and oldest LGBT community.

Cherry Grove dates its modern history to the 1868 purchase by Archer and Elizabeth Perkinson. They bought the land between Lone Hill (now Fire Island Pines) and the Cherry Grove Hotel from the ocean to the bay for 25 cents per acre and named the area for the black-cherry trees in the area.

Belvedere Guest House 

Hotel Ciel, Fire Island

The Grove has become home to three massive homes: Cielo E Mar (an aria from the 1876 opera La Gioconda which translates to "Sky and Sea"), the Belvedere, and Bottom of the Garden.

What not to miss about Fire Island?

I would say that once you get there you realize what an enchanting island it is - no cars, and no inhibitions. It's full on gay, and by the time you have to take the ferry back to "reality" you're sad that the default world has to be so threatening.

The new owners of the Pines harbor area are a great threesome who have brought the community spirit back to the island. You have to hit all three teas (low, middle and high) as well as Pavilion, and the neighbor "Sip & Twirl". The Blue Whale restaurant is good food and fun entertainment from drag queens and entertainers. The same can be said of Cherry Grove and the Ice Palace. It's a walk away, with a more diverse population, and is a bit more relaxed and also sports fun competitions like "Miss Fire Island". In between the Pines and the Grove is the Meat Rack - a swampy forested area more excitable than Birnam wood coming to Dunsinane!

If you go, I recommend planning far in advance so that you can find accomodation - or just heading there with a backpack and a smile. The Fire Island mantra is: "Jump and the mattress will appear!" Try July 4th - when the "drag queen invasion" happens in the harbor. It's better than Disneyland! --Jesse Archer
Half-Share is an independently produced 30-minute comedy pilot that Jesse Archer wrote, directed and produced with Sean Hanley and features an all-star cast of gay comedians. It provides a provocative peek into the lives of six gay men sharing a beach house on Fire Island. It may sound like high drama, but it's pure hi-larity!

Half-Share? Quarter-Share? Men who impersonate Cher? The gays on Fire Island speak a different lingo and for a newcomer like Mac, it's way more than a mouthful! Practically hetero and fresh out of a fourteen-year relationship, Mac packs his Birkenstocks and his emotional baggage for a summer share. What he envisions as relaxing beach-time turns into high camp hysteria after his eccentric housemates take a fish out of water and fling him headfirst into the glittery gay shark pond!

Further Readings:

Cherry Grove Fire Island: Sixty Years in America's First Gay and Lesbian Town by Esther Newton
Paperback: 416 pages
Publisher: Beacon Press (May 31, 1995)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0807079278
ISBN-13: 978-0807079270
Amazon: Cherry Grove Fire Island: Sixty Years in America's First Gay and Lesbian Town

Recounts the history of Cherry Grove, from the 1930s to the present, including interviews with residents who describe the struggles, the partying, and the perseverance.

Late in the Season by Felice Picano
Paperback: 226 pages
Publisher: Bold Strokes Books (June 16, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1602820821
ISBN-13: 978-1602820821
Amazon: Late in the Season

A telling novel about gay life after Stonewall, Late in the Season is one of the finest novels in the long career of one of the founding members of the Violet Quill Club. Set on Fire Island in late September, this is the story of an unlikely pair of friends--a gay composer in his late thirties and an eighteen-year-old schoolgirl--both of whom are trying to make sense of their complicated lives. But much more than this, it is a compelling portrait of a magical time and place, after the Stonewall riots opened up so many possibilities and before AIDS forever changed the face of the gay world.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 7th, 2011 10:19 am (UTC)
Fire Island
Ah, Fire Island...I was just a kid in the 1960s but I'd heard exotic things about that place. On Friday afternoons I'd hang out in Manhattan by 23rd Street and the East River and watch the small river planes carry the men off to their weekend sexual adventures. A few times I thought I'd be invited aboard but the looks I was getting from the men were just that, looks, as they boarded the planes, leaving me behind to prowl the streets and bedrooms of New York. I never went to Fire Island but the memory of the dream still burns in me.
Aug. 7th, 2011 10:25 am (UTC)
Re: Fire Island
Is it too late to realize your dream? cannot you take that plane (or a ferry) now?
Aug. 7th, 2011 02:54 pm (UTC)
Growing up on Long Island, I lived very close to Jones Beach. Lots of people I knew were Fire Island regulars. It was a great place... still is in many ways.
Aug. 7th, 2011 02:59 pm (UTC)
it's fascinanting to see how during the years Fire Island seemed to maintain its own identity
Ryan Field
Aug. 7th, 2011 06:42 pm (UTC)
You're talking about my old stomping grounds Good post.
Aug. 7th, 2011 08:24 pm (UTC)
I'm enjoying a lot this post, especially for the pictures ;-) It's a joy to browse the internet for them
Ryan Field
Aug. 8th, 2011 03:51 pm (UTC)
My brother has a house out there. It's always been a great escape. I even had an older friend who used to do shows out there in the l960's and was actually Miss Fire Island.
Aug. 8th, 2011 03:54 pm (UTC)
do you have any pictures you would like to share? or any advice like Jesse? I would love to do an updating of the post with your recommendations ;-)
Aug. 8th, 2011 06:49 am (UTC)
great history
Thanks for the post - and the plug, Elisa! What a history you've uncovered. And so many stories still to tell, no doubt - between the fabulous Belvedere Hotel and the horrors of the early AIDS era. I look forward to checking out the books you recommend!
Aug. 8th, 2011 06:57 am (UTC)
Re: great history
Yes, I focused more on the magical era, but there is still a lot to say of the recent past of the island ;-) Maybe I will come back later on the same location, I don't know, it depends from the inspiration. This time I was captured by the era when Paul Cadmus and George Platt Lynes were "cruising" the area!
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )


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