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SAFE/HAVEN: Gay Life in 1950s Cherry Grove

by Keith langston
two men in drag

The new exhibit, SAFE/HAVEN: Gay Life in 1950s Cherry Grove explores the trials and triumphs of Fire Island's queer community.

Image Courtesy of Cherry Grove Archives Collection

NEW EXHIBIT TO OPEN AT NEW YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY DEDICATED TO THE ICONIC GAY RESORT ON FIRE ISLAND,

Today, many know Fire Island as one of the most prominent and famous gay escapes on the planet, but how many of us know how it became so popular? Where did the island’s reputation come from? Who paved the way for the rest of the LGBTQ community to enjoy the island’s welcoming and festive atmosphere?

On May 14th, the New-York Historical Society is launching a new outdoor exhibit in partnership with the Cherry Grove Archives Collection called SAFE/HAVEN: Gay Life in 1950s Cherry Grove. The exhibit focuses on gay life in Fire Island’s secluded hamlet of Cherry Grove during the 1950s. It was a period of celebration and persecution. It was both pre-AIDS, but also pre-Stonewall. The exhibit explores what life was like for the LGBTQ vacationers and residents of Cherry Grove, and how they turned this little community into a gay haven.

Patricia Fitzgerald and Kay Guinness on Cherry Grove Beach, 1952 (Photo: Cherry Grove Archives Collection)

Large reprints of historical photographs and ephemera will greet visitors in the rear courtyard of the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library to help shed light on the bygone era. In the 50s, many famous faces were seen on Fire Island, including Carson McCullers and Tennessee Williams. Truman Capote even wrote a portion of his hit novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s in Cherry Grove.

The exhibit will also displays the discrimination and harassment of the era as well. The LGBTQ community faced police raids, constant complaints of indecency, and, if caught by the police, would be exposed by name in local newspapers. On display are old newspaper clippings with headlines reading “Five Arrested in Cherry Grove Raid” and “Fifteen Seized in Cherry Grove Raid”.

Ultimately, SAFE/HAVEN is a showcase of the community’s perseverance. Despite the bigotry all around them, the queer community was able to band together and turn Cherry Grove into a thriving, welcoming, and inclusive community.

young man on Fire Island

Hot House weekend guest (Photo: Cherry Grove Archives Collection)

“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.”


Admission to the exhibit is free, but tickets are required to ensure social distancing. To get your free entry tickets, click here. The outdoor exhibit runs from May 14-October 11, 2021.

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