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"Built upon the Sand"
Fire Island is a barrier island, one of the narrow strips of shifting sand dunes and brush that buffer the southern edge of Long Island from the Atlantic Ocean. 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 [Fire Island] was considered dangerous even to visit, allegedly because of murdering Indians, pirates and ghosts." 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 $1,250 and began serving shore dinners to the public. 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."
During the industrialization of the last half of the nineteenth century, Fire Island saw fish factories, hotels, and several other enterprises come and go. The Great South Bay was a rich marine resource; since the Revolution the South Shore's baymen had made their livings from its fish, oysters, and clams. The only drama on Fire Island was provided by Coast Guard teams' attempts to rescue distressed ships.
Only in 1894 did work start on the first real community, Point O'Woods. During the early 1900s, little collections of dwellings grew up at intervals along the western third of the island (closest to New York City), built by increasingly prosperous Americans looking for summer relaxation. Each of these settlements was begun by a different urban group, and each has had a distinct history.
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. The bay shoreline was low and in places swampy. The central strip, or "swale," was barren and sandy; today's lush greenery has grown up since human occupation. The dunes in front of the hotel had been flattened to provide views and easier access to the beach, but elsewhere they rose to heights of between twelve and twenty feet. Covered with pale green dune grass, they dropped down to a broad sweep of white sand beach and pounding Atlantic surf.
Across the bay from Cherry Grove, on Long Island itself, were the Suffolk County towns of Sayville and Patchogue, whose economies were dependant on farming and fishing. Overwhelmingly white, Protestant, and Republican, these towns were resolutely conservative and provincial in outlook. Suffolk County had the most active Ku Klux Klan in New York State; three successive chairmen of the Suffolk County Republican party had been members.
Cherry Grove was accessible by private boat or Captain Murdoch's irregular ferry service, and drew only a few visitors from the Long Island towns from spring to fall. "People didn't come over here," Jeanne Skinner recalled. "They didn't know too much about the beach." Some of the cottages were owned by baymen who enjoyed the surf fishing. Others belonged to the more prosperous sort of local families, like the Hoags and the Gerrodettes.
Jeanne Gerrodette Skinner, now a grandmother, has spent her whole life in Patchogue, Sayville, and the Grove. Her mother, Irene Gerrodette, saw the potential value of Grove real estate, which the family came to depend upon. Jeanne married a handsome young local man named George Skinner, whom she had admired dancing in Perkinson's Hotel.
Catherine Hoag Richter came from the local professional class. Her father was the publisher of the Suffolk County News, a position she and her sister (jointly) ultimately inherited. Catherine first visited the Grove in 1919, as a girl of ten. At first she and her sister and mother came over for a week at a time as "a special treat," but they loved it and finally her mother built a cottage.
Most cottages were floated over on barges from the mainland, where they had served such diverse purposes as corn cribs and fish markets. The typical cottage was set onto thick wooden posts to keep it up out of the sand and away from potential flooding. It was a small one-story structure, with a screened-in front porch, a living room-kitchen area, and two bedrooms, each about big enough for a bed and chest of drawers. Whatever was cast off from the winter house served as furniture. There was no running water, no indoor plumbing, and no electricity except that generated by Perkinson's Hotel, which sold kerosene and other supplies. Weather permitting, provisions—vegetables, milk and ice, meat if you ordered in advance—were brought in twice a week by Captain Nelson Warner's vegetable boat.
The vacationing families visited with each other. The children played games; women read, sewed, knitted. Kids swam in the ocean with their mothers watching from the "sky parlor"—a two story "ratty-looking" wood structure at the foot of the boardwalk that led from the beach to Perkinson's Hotel. The sky parlor had fifteen to twenty bathhouses around the bottom and steps leading up to a veranda. The safety represented by the mothers' vigilance was somewhat illusory; despite the dangers of the surf and a wicked undertow, there was never a lifeguard. The women visited up and down the island on Captain Warner's vegetable boat, which stopped at each community. A special treat was a day trip to the Fire Island Lighthouse. The freezing of the Great South Bay definitively ended the season.
Even then, the hotel was the heartbeat of the Grove's embryonic collective life. Mr. Stewart Perkinson had inherited the hotel bearing his name from his parents. In 1880, the senior Perkinsons had built a rambling two-story hotel and restaurant—about 10,000 square feet—behind the dunes. By the 1920s, the hotel had acquired a patina of age and experience. "The hotel was old," Jeanne Skinner recalled affectionately, with "old wood inside, and carved up with initials from top to bottom."
The whole Perkinson family worked the hotel in summer. Since there was no liquor served during Prohibition (1919–1933), dining and dancing on the first floor and the rental of a few upstairs rooms and of the bathhouses beneath the sky parlor provided the income. Catherine Richter recalled her senior high school picnic in the late twenties in the "old pavilion" of the hotel. The hotel bar had "a great, long, handsomely carved bar with a picture of Fatima looking down, and there was always a tinny old player piano, and there was dancing in the main room."
In a memoir dictated in the 1930s, Sayville businessman Robert Cable, who owned a cottage in Cherry Grove until about 1933, apologized for the "ugly" fact that the pavilion was called a bar. Aside from the fact that the old salts do drink there, the bar serves many purposes, Cable reassures us:
It is a bureau for information, for articles lost and found, for checking valuables and for first aid. It is a place for friends and cronies to congregate, it holds the community ice-box, it is the captain's office.... On any fine morning during the summer season a ferry lands at Cherry Grove and many mothers with countless children will flock to the bar. There are many bottles of milk to be put on the ice for the day, while the mothers watch the children play on the sandy beach or wade in the swash of the surf. Returning they all go to the huge ice-box and find their own; a queer bar.
Even as the local families tentatively domesticated the Grove, its "Wild West" reputation endured in the persons of certain local characters. The carpenter John "Pa" Case was an eccentric if admirable individualist. Case sometimes stayed in the Grove in the winter, and as an elderly man is supposed to have walked across the frozen bay to Sayville with a pole on his shoulders in case he should fall through the ice.
More disreputable, though, were the hotel owner, Stewart Perkinson, and his buddy, Tracy Noye. According to Catherine Richter, Mr. Perkinson was "a drunk and ne'er-do-well" and Noye "a younger drunk" whose sister was married to Pa Case. Noye was suspected by respectable Sayville of being a "second-story man." The two friends, misfits in mainland society, decided to spend one winter drinking in the hotel. When they had used up all the firewood available right around the hotel, they brought "an old nag" over to the Grove on a skow to help them haul wood, but it promptly died. Catherine Richter recalled that the men then "dug a hole, and they dug and dug and dug—it takes a long time for two old men to dig a horse-size hole—and they shoved him in and covered him up and all four legs were sticking out. So they sawed them off and buried them separately." She laughed. "I think that's sort of practical, really."
Though no longer haunted by ghosts or pirates, perhaps, the Grove was still on the near frontier of civilization, a social escape hatch for "undesirables" and for the somewhat odd mainlanders who could tolerate them.
While local family vacations were made possible by the gentle affluence that the South Shore enjoyed in the 1920s, the prosperity and population growth of New York City—the New York City region's population grew by one million over the decade—created intense pressure for access to leisure space. Already an affluent group of New Yorkers spent summers in the three big Sayville hotels, and Perkinson's Hotel lured them for day trips including clambakes and shore dinners. In the mid-1920s, an advancing edge of New York-area cosmopolitans began settling in the Grove.
George Gibson's father was an electrical engineer in New Jersey and ran a small ad agency handling only technical accounts. In the summer of 1927, Gibson senior bought a cottage that had once been an icehouse on a Long Island estate—very desirable because it was insulated with sawdust—and the whole family came out.
Travel to Sayville from New York City was a relatively easy two hours by train, but when the whole Gibson family came by car with all their gear, the voyage through all the little South Shore towns was arduous. George Gibson remembered, "We had to drive out by the Merrick Road. I remember the first time . In our Model T Ford, we'd start out in the morning and we'd get there in time to catch the afternoon ferry—there were two ferries a day—at four o'clock in the afternoon." The trip across the bay took at least forty-five minutes.
The families from the city had a more sophisticated outlook than the locals, especially the baymen and carpenters, and "there wasn't a tremendous amount of socializing," as George Gibson recalled, "because the fisherpeople had different interests than the professionals, but everyone got along very well." These two groups of people did not think of their shared outlook as heterosexuality since homosexuality did not enter into the equation. Their reference point was the family, and when the theater people began appearing, the first cosmopolitans and the locals together began calling themselves the "family people" to distinguish themselves from the others.
The city families also shared the locals' liking for the Grove's wildness and lack of such amenities as electricity and indoor plumbing. The Jersey Shore was "too built up," George Gibson explained; his family had preferred the more "rugged" Grove. Nevertheless, the cottages congregated around the hotel like so many village huts around the chateau, in part because land outside the settlements seems to have been held in large parcels by wealthy Long Island families. And in the familiar irony of exurbanism, the city folk themselves triggered the end of the rugged life that had drawn them. Sometime in the 1920s, two more walks were built parallel to Ocean Walk, and then several more. By the end of the twenties, Mrs. Perkinson had Pa Case build her a small store east of the main boardwalk. The ferries began making three trips a day and the hotel prospered modestly. Jeanne Skinner was one of the teenagers who got into the dance hall for free on those evenings toward the end of Prohibition, when "a group would get together and hire a ferry and come over, and sometimes even bring a three-piece band. And boy, then you really went up and enjoyed!"
Such innocence was not to last much longer, not only because Prohibition's end in 1933 brought liquor into the hotel, but also because of the schemes of a young Yale graduate named Robert Moses. Ten years before, on a hiking trip, Moses had conceived the idea a network of Long Island state parks. In 1924, Governor Al Smith got the necessary legislation passed and Moses was appointed president of the Long Island State Park Commission. Through political pressure and adroit maneuvering, Moses began wresting control of beaches and highway rights-of-way from the wealthy and from local interests. Work on the Northern and Southern state parkways, which would ultimately bypass the old Merrick Road, began. As quickly as the parks and roads were constructed, city people surged to take advantage of them by the hundreds of thousands. The massive pressure of New York City vacationers was felt all along the western half of Fire Island, where varied beach communities sprang up during the 1920s and 1930s. What made Cherry Grove distinctive was the particular kind of New Yorker who was attracted to it.
While the local families had been establishing their cottages in Cherry Grove, New York City was becoming the post-World War I financial, intellectual, and artistic capital of America. The old-line New York elite was challenged by a new and more eclectic group of upstarts who were soon referred to as "cafe society," the forerunners of today's "jet set." The publication that most represented their outlook was The New Yorker magazine, founded by Algonquin Roundtable regular Harold Ross (1892–1951). As Ross himself put it in a 1925 ad for the new magazine, The New Yorker would appeal to "those thousands who are so surely forming the new aristocracy of New York, an aristocracy that recognizes distinguished mentality rather than genealogy."
In the Jazz Age speakeasies, writers and socialites mingled with theater people from directors to showgirls. The new social freedom carried over to private entertaining, too. Privileged and talented gay men and women were very prominent in these circles. They were among cafe society's publicists, they wrote some of its favorite songs and designed its houses, and most of all they were involved in the theater, which was, before the ascendancy of movies, America's most important art form.
Even though homosexuality as a topic had been legally banned on Broadway in the wake of the police closing of The Captive (a play with lesbian themes) in 1928, gay men and women worked and associated relatively freely in all phases of theatrical production from playwriting to theater criticism. By the 1930s these people were searching out vacation spots and, like other Americans, they wanted to be with compatible people. Gay theater people's migration to Cherry Grove is one of the clearest proofs we have that sexual preference was becoming the basis for a complete social identity.
Theater people were familiar with the Sayville area because of its hotels, and some bought summer mansions. On Fire Island, they were first attracted to Ocean Beach, five miles west of the Grove. Ocean Beach was planned as a development and houses were sold during the teens and twenties mainly to middle-class families from Brooklyn. In 1921, while Cherry Grove was still a few summer cottages around the hotel, Ocean Beach had become an incorporated town, complete with police and fire departments, a church, and an elementary school.
This was just what the more hardy locals did not want. The Gerrodettes did not like the fact that Ocean Beach was more accessible to the mainland and so more developed. As Jeanne Skinner put it, "Some of the people [in Ocean Beach] had real grass in their yards, and sidewalks, and a movie. My folks wanted to get away from that." The lack of civilization was even more important to some of the city people for reasons that they could not discuss with outsiders. While both resorts had hotels, Cherry Grove did not have police, church, or school, welcome deficits for those whose eccentricities or sexuality were on the other side of the law.
Looking back, George Gibson thought that "unconventional [city] people" were drawn to the Grove because in the 1930s "nobody knew who anyone was here." But, I objected, he had previously said that the Grove was so small then that "everyone knew everybody." He clarified:
This was originally a much more proletarian place than Ocean Beach, for example, which always had been built up for summer cottages.... Yes, everyone did know everyone, but the point is, the Sayville people didn't know the New Yorkers, that's what I meant by "you could come here and no one knew who you were."
Excerpted from Cherry Grove, Fire Island by Esther Newton. Copyright © 1993 Esther Newton. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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