As queer men were ostracized from society in the early 20th century, some came together to form a community on a secluded strip of beach just off the coast of Long Island. One such community was Cherry Grove, which is the subject of an exhibition at the New York Historical Society titled Safe/Haven: Gay Life in 1950s Cherry Grove. As the area evolved over the years, one man made it his mission to save artefacts from this community, eventually forming the Cherry Grove Archives Collection. What began in the 1940s as a simple collection of photos has become a treasure chest of queer history that includes house signs, playbills, and films that show the daily life and fabulous events of the Grove.
“During weekends and summers in the pre-Stonewall era, gay men and women, including many New Yorkers, travelled to the secluded beach town of Cherry Grove on Fire Island where they found opportunities for sexual exploration and self-expression—behaviour that was both stigmatized and criminalized in the straight world. Together with creative figures like Truman Capote, W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, and Patricia Highsmith, these visitors to the Grove took pleasure in the costumed parties, theatrical events, and liberated atmosphere that this gay sanctuary provided.”
“Harold Seeley lovingly collected all this material from our community that he thought would one day be valuable,” said Parker Sargent, a documentarian who has made several films about Cherry Grove and helped curate the exhibition. “He didn’t really do much with them in the way of preservation; he was more of a collector. But when he died, he chose a group of people to continue his work. And since then we’ve been trying to catalogue and digitize everything he collected.”
Curated by Brian Clark, Susan Kravitz, and Parker Sargent for the Cherry Grove Archives Collection and coordinated at New York Historical by Rebecca Klassen, associate curator of material culture.
May 14 – October 11, 2021