Photo credit: Hot House, 1958
Cherry Grove Archives Collection, Gift of Harold Seeley
In the summer of 2021, the New-York Historical Society presented "Safe/Haven: Gay Life in 1950s Cherry Grove," an intimate look at one of the first gay beach towns in the United States. The outdoor exhibition explored mid-20th-century gay life in Fire Island’s remote hamlet of Cherry Grove, located on the barrier island south of Long Island, through some 70 enlarged photographs and additional ephemera from the holdings of the Cherry Grove Archives Collection—which works to collect and archive the community’s rich and colorful history.
“Cherry Grove on Fire Island became a weekend and summer destination for gay men and women in the pre-Stonewall era of the 1950s and 1960s,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of New-York Historical. “At a time when they faced homophobia and persecution, the residents of Cherry Grove found a sanctuary where they could socialize and express themselves freely. We are proud to partner with the Cherry Grove Archives Collection to display these joyful images.”
“The Cherry Grove Archives Collection is honored to exhibit our 1950s Cherry Grove photographs and ephemera at the New-York Historical Society,” said Susan Kravitz, on behalf of the Cherry Grove Archives Collection. “As you walk around this exhibition, we hope you will become aware of the joyous freedom of expression that LGBTQ people demonstrate in so many of these photographs, remembering that pre-Stonewall 1950s was a time when persecution and prosecution ruled the lives of homosexuals in mainland America. Yet the 1950s was a richly creative historical period in Cherry Grove when gay and straight people worked and played together, whether in theatrical productions, costumed cocktail parties, annual balls, or a range of community-sponsored events.”
Credit: Cherry Grove Archives Collection, Gift of Gay Nathan and Julie Paradise
"Safe/Haven: Gay Life in 1950s Cherry Grove" was presented in conjunction with the Cherry Grove Archives Collection. Curated by Brian Clark, Susan Kravitz, and Parker Sargent for the Cherry Grove Archives Collection, it was coordinated at New-York Historical by Rebecca Klassen, associate curator of material culture. Throughout the exhibition, visitors could hear personal, recorded accounts from members of the Cherry Grove community about their experiences and memories.
At Cherry Grove, gay men and women could socialize out in the open, whether on the beach or on the decks of Grove houses. In the evenings, many gathered at local restaurants or at Duffy’s Hotel bar, where they could enjoy same-sex dancing late at night. Photographs in the exhibition depict scenes of summer events, including theater performances, an annual regatta, art shows, beach baseball, and an end-of-season costume ball.
Credit: Cherry Grove Archives Collection, Gift of Paul Jablonski
Writers, artists, dancers, theater people, and Hollywood celebrities had been drawn to the Grove since the 1930s. Gay people became the majority of the population during the 1950s and joined with local straight families to work in community organizations. Visitors to the Grove took pleasure in the costumed parties, theatrical events, and liberated atmosphere that this gay sanctuary provided. A sense of togetherness could be felt at campy Cherry Grove costume parties where attendees, straight and gay, showed off flamboyant outfits that would have otherwise been considered a violation of New York laws prohibiting risqué attire and cross-dressing. Under the guise of dressing up, many men and women were able to play with gender norms at these fabulous cocktail parties, thereby challenging society’s expectations of “proper” behavior. The images on view showcase the abundant creativity in the ebullient social scene. Many Grove house parties were fundraisers for organizations such as the Cherry Grove Fire Department; the Arts Project of Cherry Grove, which organized theatrical productions; the Dune Fund, which preserved the beach dunes; and the Doctor’s House, which provided community medical services.
Credit: Cherry Grove Archives Collection, Gift of Don Steeple
With more and more gay people arriving in the 1950s, long-standing local residents attempted to reinstate “decent” behavior, and police raids became common through the 1960s. Men in particular risked being arrested, jailed, and exposed by name in local newspapers. Headlines from the Suffolk County News—“Five Arrested in Cherry Grove Raid” (August 23, 1957) and “Fifteen Seized in Cherry Grove Raid” (August 9, 1962) — on display in the exhibition documented these risks.
"Safe/Haven" also highlighted the creative atmosphere appreciated by cultural figures, gay and straight, in Cherry Grove. Writers who rented or visited there included Christopher Isherwood, Patricia Highsmith, and Tennessee Williams. Truman Capote, the novelist, playwright, and journalist whose flamboyant lifestyle contributed to his social celebrity, stayed at Carrington House just outside of the Grove in 1957, where he wrote parts of the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In one of the photographs displayed in the exhibition, Marty Mann — a pioneering member of Alcoholics Anonymous who founded the National Council on Alcoholism — is pictured with novelist, poet, and playwright Carson McCullers, who wrote the bestselling novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Both women frequented Cherry Grove in the summer.
Credit: Cherry Grove Archives Collection, Gift of Harold Seeley
The final section of the exhibition explored the changing community of Cherry Grove in more recent decades. In the 1960s, following developments in the civil rights movement, Cherry Grove became more welcoming to Black and Latino gay people, reflected in photographs from that time. Working-class gay women began spending more time in the Grove in the 1960s, a change from the groups of mostly affluent and financially successful women who were there in the 1940s and 1950s. During the 1980s, the AIDS crisis devastated Cherry Grove. Both lesbians and gay men in the Grove took care of many of their male friends who were dying from the disease. Later on, middle-class lesbians had the financial ability to buy houses that had once belonged to these men, preserving the Grove as a gay community.
Credit: Cherry Grove Archives Collection, Gift of Valerie Perez and Evelyn Danko
About Cherry Grove Archives Collection
The Cherry Grove Archives Collection (CGAC) promotes global appreciation of the rich and creative history of one of the earliest known havens for LGBTQ people and their allies in the United States. The CGAC, a committee of the Arts Project of Cherry Grove, is dedicated to the preservation of the social, political, and cultural history of Cherry Grove, Fire Island, New York. The CGAC collects and preserves this history through the archival protection and storage of Cherry Grove’s historic artifacts which include documents, ephemera, costumes, photographs, and film.