A fascinating new exhibition proves that LGBT life in the pre-Stonewall era wasn’t always conducted in the shadows. These incredible photos show what gay life was like in a 1950s LGBT resort.
While it’s true that much of the LGBT experience in the age before decriminalisation consisted of furtive glances and clandestine meetings, a fascinating new exhibition in New York reminds us that, in some areas at least, gay life was able to flourish out in the open.
The New York Historical Society museum is hosting a rare collection of photographs and images documenting life in 1950s and ’60s Cherry Grove on New York’s Fire Island – an area which has remained a popular LGBT retreat ever since.
Cherry Grove’s isolated location off Long Island – accessible in the mid-20th century only by ferry or seaplane – led to it becoming an LGBT safe haven from the 1930s onwards as writers, artists, dancers, theatre people and Hollywood celebrities were attracted to its sandy shores.
By the 1950s and ’60s, the small hamlet was home to one of the world’s most vibrant gay scenes, with gay men and women able to socialise openly on its beaches or at local hotspots such as Duffy’s Hotel Bar, where they could enjoy same-sex dancing late at night.
Flamboyant costume parties which would have otherwise violated strict New York laws prohibiting ‘risqué’ attire and cross-dressing became a regular part of Cherry Grove’s social calendar.
Images on display at New York Historical Society’s exhibition “Safe / Haven: Gay Life in 1950s Cherry Grove” give a fascinating and heart warming insight into the lives of gay men and women who were able to experience love, friendship and unselfconscious self-expression at a time where they found their very identity criminalised.
Sadly, and perhaps inevitably for the time, Cherry Grove’s growing renown as an LGBT haven during the 1950s led to a growing pushback from the area’s longstanding heterosexual residents, and police raids began to become common throughout the 1960s, with men in particular being vulnerable to arrest and subsequent exposure in local newspapers.
As the 1969 Stonewall uprising in nearby New York City sparked a growing wave of LGBT politicisation and emancipation, Cherry Grove was able to preserve its status as one of the USA’s most popular gay resorts.
In 2013, the Cherry Grove Community House and Theatre was listed on the USA’s National Register of Historic Places – one of only a few sites included to date for their role in LGBT history.
Photographs from the exhibition will be on display at the New York Historical Society giving a new generation of LGBT people the chance to step back in time to an era that is now on the cusp of leaving living memory. The exhibition includes 70 photographs and additional ephemera including recorded accounts from notable residents.
“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 Society.
“At a time when they faced homophobia and persecution, the residents of Cherry Grove found a sanctuary where they could socialise and express themselves freely. We are proud to partner with the Cherry Grove Archives Collection to display these joyful images.”
Susan Kravitz from the Cherry Grove Archives Collection adds: “The Cherry Grove Archives Collection is honoured to exhibit our 1950s Cherry Grove photographs and ephemera at the New York Historical Society.
As you walk around this exhibition, we hope you will become aware of the joyous freedom of expression that LGBT 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.”
In the summer of 1953, Audrey Hartmann was 23 years old and on vacation with friends. She was staying in Ocean Bay Park, a small beach town on Fire Island, sixty miles from New York City.
She’d heard whispers about a place down the beach called Cherry Grove. A few miles away, it was said to be a welcoming community of gay people. She’d heard there were lesbians there.
Hartmann walked down, and what she saw is on display at the exhibition, as well as chronicled in the 1993 book “Cherry Grove, Fire Island: Sixty Years in America’s First Gay and Lesbian Town” by Esther Newton. Hartmann encountered “charming little houses” lit by gas lamps, and wherever she walked were canopies of trees. She caught a glimpse into some of the homes and said, “I remember seeing women by candlelight sitting there,” and wished she were one of them.
Her wish came true. She would go on to live in Cherry Grove and became a beloved member of the community. She and her long time partner were some of the first women to buy a home on the island. Hartmann, now 90, was interviewed for the exhibition: “It was an escape for everyone to be able to come out here on the weekend and be yourself. It was a safe haven. I could say to someone, ‘I’m Audrey Hartmann … and I’m gay.’” That, at the time, was unheard of.
Cherry Grove was one of the first gay beach towns in the United States, joining a handful of LGBT vacation spots and resorts that became popular in the pre-Stonewall era, along with places like Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Saugatuck-Douglas, Michigan.
The striking images in the collection are special because of their rarity, as well as the joy and intimacy displayed in them. There is a relaxed nature to the photos, of couples with their arms around each other, friends out at parties or spending time together on the beach.
“Most people didn’t share themselves in that way because they couldn’t be documented. It could be held against them legally,” said Parker Sargent, 46, one of the curators of the exhibit and a representative of the Cherry Grove Archives Collection. In Cherry Grove, gay residents were able to form a community, have a voice in how things were run and be out. “And that’s revolutionary in a really quiet way,” Sergeant said.
“Because it’s isolated, people are not judging you, like you’d be afraid of in the real world,” said Susan Kravitz, 77, who curated the exhibit with Sargent. “The women in the ‘50s had to wear skirts and dresses … but when they came to Cherry Grove, they could wear trousers – and that was a big deal. Not just pants, but trousers … It’s always about freeing oneself to be who you want to be, and where else can you do that?”
Cherry Grove did have its share of raids and arrests, but the last boat left the island at midnight, meaning there was no police presence once the boat left the dock. That contributed to a vibrant nightlife, so integral to the community, that a section of the exhibit is devoted to theatre, performance and the social scene. Theatre is a lasting legacy of Cherry Grove, as it was theatre people who began to vacation there as early as the 1930s, laying a foundation of creativity and openness that has had a lasting draw for the LGBT community.
Cherry Grove was different from the city, where the gay bars were run by the mob, according to Sargent, who described these urban watering holes as “dark and seedy clubs” where “you always had to be careful that the lights would come on,” signalling a police raid.
“In Cherry Grove, you were suddenly out in nature and sitting on people’s front porches and going to house parties,” Sargent said. “There was a levity and a freedom of not being caught.”
Cherry Grove continued to evolve after the 1950s, moving from a sanctuary for mostly white and affluent gay men and women to a more inclusive place with the advent of the 1960s, as the civil rights movement gained traction and more commercial real estate in the area led to affordable housing options for greater swaths of the community. As the decades move forward, photographs begin to show black and working class LGBT people.
“You will see such joy in these photographs, you will see happiness, you will see laughter, and you would never think that would be the case given the times in which these people lived,” Kravitz said.
Part of the mission behind “Safe / Haven: Gay Life in 1950s Cherry Grove” is to create an archive where there has been none.
“It’s more than just the photos or the old videos,” Sargent said. “It’s getting that material out there for people to see and to rewrite our history in a way that has been very blank because we tend to think that gay life started at Stonewall. People have a look at gay history before Stonewall. We’ve always been here.”
Today, Cherry Grove remains a beloved summer destination for LGBT beachgoers, particularly lesbians, as has the adjoining community of the Fire Island Pines, which has traditionally catered to gay men. Though the world has become more accepting over the decades, these two Fire Island enclaves remain important to the community, and just as vibrant as ever, welcoming hundreds of thousands of visitors to its boardwalks every season.
The New York Historical Society presents “Safe / Haven: Gay Life in 1950s Cherry Grove” from 14 May – 11 October 2021, but you can watch the exhibition here
Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope
Waterside Arts Centre,1 Waterside Plaza, Sale, Trafford, M33 7ZF
Friday 25 June 2021, 8.00pm (Ticket Price about £16.00)
From a conventional upbringing to global notoriety via The Naked Civil Servant, Quentin Crisp was one of the most memorable figures of the twentieth century. Openly gay as early as the 1930s, Quentin spent decades being beaten up on London’s streets for his refusal to be anything less than himself. His courage, and the philosophy that evolved from those experiences, inspire to the present day.
Naked Hope depicts Quentin at two phases of his extraordinary life: alone in his Chelsea flat in the 1960s, certain that life has passed him by, and thirty years later, giving a performance of his one man show An Evening with Quentin Crisp in New York.
Packed with witty gems on everything from cleaning (“Don’t bother – after the first four years the dirt won’t get any worse”) to marriage (“Is there life after marriage? The answer is no”), Naked Hope is a glorious, uplifting celebration of the urgent necessity to be your true self.
The venue capacities have been reduced to allow for social distancing and to ensure your visit is safe. There are staggered audience arrival times.
Please note that all staff and visitors over the age of 11 will be required to wear a face covering at all times whilst in the venue, including for the duration of the performance, except when consuming food or drink. If you’re exempt from wearing a face covering, please let one of the team know when you arrive so they can make sure not to disturb you during the show.
Additional Covid-19 safety measures may be put in place, such as temperature checks and changes to arrival times and are subject to change at short notice. Please look out for your pre-show email which you will receive with the latest information about the event.
If Government guidance changes and they are unable to proceed with the performance you have booked for, please be assured that you will be offered an exchange or refund on your tickets.
Level access seating, wheelchair spaces + essential companion tickets are available from the box office directly on 0161 912 5616 or firstname.lastname@example.org
75 minutes, no interval