Photography by Meryl Meisler courtesy of Steven Kasher Gallery. Words by Greg Garry.
Massapequa, on New York's Long Island, is your typical suburban hamlet, just 30 minutes or so from midtown Manhattan. The burg is nicknamed Matzoh-Pizza due to its large population of Jewish and Italian families who fled the mean streets of Brooklyn for the peace and space the bucolic village offered. For such a small town on the south shore of Lawng Eyeland, quite a few boldface names have emerged from there. Jerry Seinfeld and the Baldwin brothers as well as '80s rockers Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats and Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider are locally grown. And trans pioneers Christine Jorgensen and Warhol superstar Candy Darling are both native Massapequans. You can add to that list of local heroes photographer Meryl Meisler, who currently has a show at Steven Kasher gallery in New York.
Meisler’s photos are a joyous window into several 1970s New York demimondes; family dinners, wild bar mitzvah dancing, the local beauty salon, the exciting disco scene, and the nearly naked boys of Fire Island. “The city I moved to in 1975 was magnificently diverse; ethnically, racially, economically, and sexually,” she recalls. “My gayness is part of my identity and naturally influences my work.” Meisler crossed paths with Jorgensen at Mardi Gras in 1977; “I let her know we were both Massapequa girls,” she adds. Meisler was also a pioneer, teaching and photographing in Bushwick, Brooklyn, in 1981, eons before it became the pricy hipster mecca it is today, documented in her book Disco Era Bushwick.
Meisler’s strong point of view and affinity for the underdog bring to mind Diane Arbus, one of her personal heroines. “The first time I went to a photography exhibit was the 1972 Diane Arbus retrospective at MoMA,” Meryl says. “I was struck, deeply moved.” The influence is there, but Meryl adds a bit more heart, humanity and a hell of a lot of fun. Not bad for a nice Jewish girl from Matzoh-Pizza.
Meryl Meisler, on view through April 9 at the Steven Kasher Gallery, 515 W. 26th S., New York.
Meeting Another Girl from Massapequa, Christine Jorgensen, at the Gertrude Stein Opening Reception, Mardi Gras, New Orleans, LA, February 1977
Meryl Meiser: "As a kid, the first time I heard of someone 'famous' from Massapequa my ears really perked up. Christine Jorgenson, a Massapequa lady, made the 1959 national news after she became engaged to a Massapequa man. They were denied a marriage license. Why? Christine, a former GI and photographer, was born male and had undergone a 'sex change' in 1951. I met and photographed Christine at Mardi Gras 1977, and let her know we were both Massapequa girls."
"This is Leslie's mother. Leslie dated my older brother Ken for a short while when I was in college. She still had a crush on him when it ended, befriended me, and our friendship grew strong. Her parents had an amazing bedroom and were quite happy to let me photograph them for my series. Didn't everyone have a princess phone? I still have a wrought iron winding stairway to nowhere from my parents that holds flowers on my deck in Woodstock."
"Rhonda was my friend since JHS. Rhonda's mom Elaine was a widow. She met a man named Dave and they married. This man was dancing at their wedding. Circle dances are traditional at Jewish weddings. It might have been a Jewish or a Greek song. I say Greek because that's my mom, Sunny, at the far left of the photo holding a handkerchief. I have photos of her twirling the hanky as she danced. (Think of dance scenes in Fiddler on The Roof and Zorba The Greek). Note: This is not the same 'Ronda' who is winking in the photo further on.)"
"Mom was an avid reader of newspapers and books. Here she is on the night of Thanksgiving after the guests have gone home, reading Newsday and a book about her Zodiac sign. Sunny was a dynamo, a real 'Leo' personality. We were (are eternally) close mother and daughter and best friends."
"Dad (Jack) is seated at the head of the table, beaming. He was an avid photographer and was pleased I was smitten by photography as well. Mom (Sunny) is to his right, with her arm on my younger brother Mitch's shoulder. My mom's (older and only) sister is Evelyn Forkash. They were very, very close. Evelyn was married to Uncle Lou. Their only child Gary (on left with toddler on shoulder) is like a 3rd brother to me. My brothers and I are siblings to him. He and Myra changed their surname to Cash. Our families got together every Sunday 'religiously', we'd either go to visit them (and grandparents Mama and Papa in the Bronx) or they'd come out to Massapequa. We spent every Jewish Holiday, Thanksgiving and all important life occasions together. Uncle Lou always brought and cut the meat. It was the first and last Rosh Hoshanah I photographed with mom and dad together, they separated the following August. I have that chandelier, mirror, and china closet in my home and apartment. Mom, Dad, Evelyn, and Uncle Lou are in my hearts forever."
"This self-portrait was taken in our 'rumpus room'. Those are my older brother's bar bells. I loved being a Brownie (Troop 672), Girl Scout and Cadet (Troop 364) and going on Girl Scout overnight trips and Camp Edey for 2 weeks in the summer. Our fabulous troop leader, Mrs. Holmes, moved away, otherwise I probably would've become a Senior Scout too. This is my real Girl Scout outfit, badges, and Brownie Scout handbook. My hair was long, and worn in braids or pony tail until going to Girl Scout Camp for 2 weeks after 4th grade. It was my first haircut (other than trimming bangs). Mom saved my braids in a plastic bag. I adorned the cut braids for this self-portrait as well. I still have the Girl Scout outfit, the handbook, and the braids tucked away somewhere. It might be time to consider a re-enactment."
"CBGB's gave a lot of bands opportunities to perform — some made it big, others names and music were never recorded. They'd hang out in the hall near the bathroom waiting their turn, and scrawled their names, tags and messages on the walls. The Stray Cats was a band from Massapequa who performed at CBGB and made a name and sound for themselves. In my negative pages, I did not write these young musicians or their band's names. You can see Patti Smith & Patti Smith Band, Jimmy Page, Joey (Ramone) & Miriam's names, as well as the Ramones telephone numbers written on the wall. Most likely these young musician's names are there as well."
"My mom, like all the women in her generation I knew, went to the beauty parlour every week to have their hair and nails done. She went for many years to Besame Beauty Salon on Broadway Avenue in N. Massapequa. Jerry Seinfeld's dad's store 'Kal Seinfeld Signs' was on Broadway as well. Besame Beauty Salon is still there. My mother-in-law (who lives in N. Massapequa) had her hair done there recently. I understand it looks very similar today. Yes, I know I need to revisit Besame."
"This is a man I was friendly with on Cherry Grove; I think he was South American. He always added a bit of costuming to his attire, whether en route to the beach, dancing at the Ice Palace, parade on the boardwalk, within his own house or visiting another."
"I met Manuel Arce & Leon Ichaso, Cuban born filmmakers, at a disco we both frequented. They were doing some articles for a magazine published in Spain about NYC and wanted me to photograph. We ran around Chinatown and the Bowery. We also spent an afternoon The Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. I don't recall the articles ever getting published. To me, being allowed behind the scenes to photograph the circus was a dream come true. Growing up, my familly went year after year with to The City, meet up with Aunt, Uncle and cousin Gary Forkash and go to the Ringiling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. The only part of the circus I didn't like was the 'Freak Show'; it upset me, I would cry and have to leave. My cousin and big brother would tease me about it."
"I befriended Mr. Morris Katz, 'The Mayor of Grand Street'. He would walk all around and loved to show me off to his friends and take me places he hung out. He frequented the Good Companions Senior Center on Henry Street to play poker, nosh and kibbutz. At Good Companions they began presentations with the singing of 'God Bless America'."
"Ronda is the middle child, elder daughter of Helen and Sid of the Mystery Club. Our families shared a cabana at The Brightwaters Beach Club and then another beach club in Lido Beach. Our moms would play Mah Jong, and we had our own little Mah Jong game going. During the week, Helen would pick us up in her big winged '59 Cadillac, and we would all laugh all the way to the beach club and laugh all the way back at the end of the day. Our families were very close friends. Working on my book SASSY '70s has reunited us; what a delightful outcome."