Thursday, May 22, 2014

A book recommendation for a memorial day

It isn't usual, I think, to quote the last few words of a book at the outset of a review recommendation but they are particularly apt as the basis of a post for the Memorial Day Holiday - the dawning of summer as emblem for the birth of another summer long ago cut short, not only on this barrier island, but the world over. 

"We cannot bring back that lost generation, but we can preserve its enduring artifacts. In his last public statement, Horace Gifford said it best:

'In the end, the past is personal, and that is what makes its preservation so urgent. It is our own memories intermingled with the collective memory that we call history; it is not so much truth as interpretation; but in that interpretation we can find beauty and wisdom, inspiration for living and guidance for the future.' "

I have never been on that long strip of sand called Fire Island, that runs parallel to the south shore of Long Island – never even knew where it was, though it formed a great part of my friends' conversations all through the 70s into the 80s. I lived in Europe and visited America each summer and my friends, who were much older, were more interested in what the city had to offer – a heady combination of sleaze, culture, freedom, friendship and community. In fact, a sense of community the likes of which has not been felt since. 

There have been many achievements since the 1970s and continue to be, increasingly, so it is interesting to listen to Larry Kramer in a recent interview pointing out "Considering how many of us there are, how much disposable income we have, how much brain power we have, we have achieved very little. We have no power in Washington, or anywhere else ..."

The importance of the past does not guarantee survival. Can the lost generation's artifacts, the houses in this book, however important they may be as representatives of a moment in Gay and Lesbian history, given the inevitable and rapid rising of the seas, be preserved? We are as powerless as King Canute in this regard and, if Larry Kramer is to be believed, not only on this front. On the other hand, a book like this is preservation of a kind – the transliteration of memory into history.

From the book: the living room of the Wittstein-Miller house, as arranged by Scott Bromley in the early 1980s. An image I remember from either Architectural Digest or House and Garden.

From the book: the annual invasion by Cherry Grove drag queens

I don't find Fire Island Modernist: Horace Gifford and the Architecture of Seduction nostalgic, (excellent though it is, and about one architect, not perhaps that well-known and whose clientele was in the main was gay) for I was not there. My friend David, who was there in those days, was thrilled to see the book and has already ordered it. He brought out his albums from that time for me to look through. We spent part of the afternoon discussing those times that, had we but known it, were to be short and deadly, and there's little point in being nostalgic when all – in David's case, literally all – the people he knew are gone. Yet looking through this book and David's albums, remembering individual stories is, in its own way, the telling of tribal history.

Would that there were more books like this – books that show Gay as both a cultural phenomenon and a human one.


"I began what turned out to be an immediate connection with Fire Island in the late 1970's. The world was less accepting but The Pines were a magical place where I learned what it was like to be main stream, to be welcomed and embraced. My own sort of Alice in Wonderland experience included beautiful architecture that filled the space between the bay and ocean. Wild deer and even wilder gay life filled the dunes and near by trails. Everything seemed perfect, and no one knew the plague of the twentieth century was right around the corner. Low tea and high tea connected the perfect day with exciting evenings. The big wooden box called the pavilion was the stage for late night and many an early morning, of course with a big crystal chandelier to hang above shirtless beautiful men dancing the night away. For the lucky ones this would be the material that you could reflect on for years to come, innocent times blended with the bittersweet."

Tropical Fruit

Low tea

Low tea from High tea

The Calvin Klein house

Those were the days, my friends, we thought they'd never end ... indeed. 

Thanks (and copyright) to David for the photos.


  1. I was just watching "PBS Independent Lens - We were here. The AIDS years in San Francisco", so your post about Fire Island has context for me. I've never been, either, but my friend who moved to NYC in the early 80s was a frequent visitor, and of course succumbed to the plague, as did most of his friends.

    1. Columnist, thank you. My apologies for the late reply – I've been out of town for a few days. So many died and there was so little interest from the governments of the time.

  2. Paraphrasing Trevor-Roper on GIbbon, I should like to defend nostalgia to you. Your compliments to memory certainly afford room for pleasure, and what is pleasure but sensation collected in reflection? In many, nostalgia is condemned for being unavailable; but to those to whom it is, it is far from discreditable, because it is vulnerable, in the way it all began. A beautiful posting, warm wishes of the weekend.

    1. Laurent, thank you and apologies for a late reply. There isn't any need to defend nostalgia to me but I shall definitely find what you write about Trevor-Roper.

  3. I was fortunate to visit Fire Island Pines as a house guest in the early 1980s and mid 1990s. Coincidently, both stays were in a different house neighboring the Calvin Klein house pictured. During the first visit, my host happened to get up before dawn to find the 'overflow' from Calvin's house sleeping on his comfy chaise longues around the pool. During the second visit, there were calls heard throughout the night from the boardwalk to Calvin's house in response to a rumor that a celebrity was the weekend guest: "Madonna! Maaaddddooonnnaaa!!!!"

    1. The Devoted Classicist, thank you and my apologies for the late reply. Those were the days, indeed .... sounds like hell, to me, but I've always been an old fogey!

  4. How incredibly sad, and frightening, it must have been back in those early days when one's friends and acquaintances were falling sick, to what was then a mystery illness. I used to spend summers on the island of Cyprus back in the 80s and one of my friends lost his sister to the disease. She was the first female on the island to have died from it so it was huge news.

    1. Chronica Domus, thank you. My apologies of a late reply. It was frightening in those days – I remember one day in Amsterdam coming across an acquaintance who (only the month before had looked healthy and plump) looked skeletal – he was so ashamed he scurried away from me. Shame was much in evidence in the early days – from victims and their families.