Fire Island During the Sixties (Fire Island News 8/20/87)

Tom Potocki and Gary Winters, artists about Fire Island, blow their artistic minds and invite other islanders to do the same when they stage their Fire Island happening, ‘Plastic Grass,’ at the Seaview recreation area on the bay tonight, starting at 6 p.m. Potocki and Winters have gone through their entire life savings to stage tonight’s thing and urge everyone to show their sympathy by arriving at least ten minutes late. Lighting, courtesy The Moon. Howls, courtesy Sunken Forest.”
Fire Island News, July 23, 1966

Ocean Beach — The number of narcotics arrests here rose this weekend, to 17, as the local police, in their campaign to rid the island of pushers and users, arrested two persons–”
Fire Island News, Sept. 3, 1966

By the summer of 1966, the new “youth culture” was firmly established on Fire Island. On the beach, the banjo had given way to the acoustic guitar and the beachball was fast being replaced by the Frisbee. Within the various island communities, too, a different drummer was clearly holding sway. You could see it — and hear it — on Bay-walk, in Ocean Beach, where the groovy place to hang now, was the disco, the rocking Sea Turtle Inn; Fire Island’s answer to the Electric Circus; at the Pines, where the fashion-conscious were sporting Nehrus timberbells and tank tops; in Davis Park and Kismet, where group houses were sporting signs like “Group Therapy” and “Psyche” and “The Love Light,” in Sailor’s Haven, where the Viking-adorned cast of an underground movie, “The Movie,” was cavorting through its places, under the watchful eye of filmmaker Harvey Krieger.

And of course, everywhere one turned, there was the smell of good old Mary Jane.

“Man, this place was polluted with drugs,” says Mike Roth, a longtime Ocean Beach resident. “Grass, acid, you name it, it was here.”

The local constabulary did its best to deal with the inundation of drugs. “You knew,” Ocean Beach police chief Joseph Loeffler says, “that because of the money and the personages that it [drugs] would be a problem. And it was.” Loeffler’s solution was a series of large drug raids that men carried out in the summers of 1966 and 1967 in cooperation with federal and state, and county authorities. “We wanted to catch it before organized crime came in,” Loeffler, chief of the Ocean beach police force since 1955, says today. Apparently, the swift almost paramilitary operations, which included joint task forces consisting of as many as two dozen uniformed Ocean Beach police, and federal marshals at a time, succeeded in doing just that.

However, although drug selling activities apparently tailed off after 1966 (as indicated, by skimming through the Ocean Beach police logs of the period), drug use remained rampant, and public intoxication, including public “freakouts” from bad or too much acid, continued to be one of Chief Loeffler’s biggest headaches through the early 1970s. “That acid was the worse,” Chief Loeffler says today, shaking his head. “You could put it on anything. People would put it in each other’s drinks and walk away. It was a law enforcement nightmare. I remember once we had a guy in here [station house] who was on that stuff and he was so crazed that he managed to open the bars of our lock-up with his handcuffs on!”

Even the editors of this paper seem, at least in retrospect, to have been under the influence. At any rate, it is difficult to believe that Len Allison was straight when he decided to spend a rainy afternoon watching a local resident having her navel painted — or at least when he decided to write about it. To wit:

“All weekend a raw and impenetrable dampness gathered over Ocean beach and on Sunday the rains came. From inside her prison window, the flowerlady watched the rain. Her breasts were laced with daisies, her eyes blooming with a red and white rose, her navel quivering with an exotic orange blossom–

“And the madmen rode through the streets of the village on a dolly–Their damp hoarlocks lay pressed against their faces, their clothes soaked with the rain, their bodies sore to know the deadly earth and their souls on trampolines–

“Inside the flowerlady had withdrawn into the delicacy of her features. The room was filled with the smoke of cooking. Some of the group were sprawled on chairs, others had gathered to watch the artist work– Subtly the artist drew his lines, chose his colors and arranged his composition to arouse their passions. The flowerlady’s navel trembled again and her eyes shut. Slowly the room became a couch, the faces dissolved into a mask and each became a criminal hot for his own soul–”

Speaking of hot times, the mid-60s saw the arrival of that peculiar Fire Island social institution, the sixish, wherein groups of concupiscent groupers went milling about their respective communities around 6 o’clock-ish in search of liquor, love, loud, danceable music, and other verities. New editor George English attended one such soiree in grouper heaven — Ocean bay Park. “There are two kinds of sixish people,” English, recorded, “the kind who give them and the kind who attend them. Lenny, the host, was a food example of the former–

“A pleasant young man from the interior of Long Island, Lenny is new on the Fire Island scene, having rented a house in Ocean Bay Park with several other groupers. This was his first attempt at giving a sixish, and as each new batch of arrivals came through the door, his bug eyes asked, ‘Have you brought IT with you?’

“The arrivals had a question, too. It was, ‘Do you have IT there?…’

“These people are the other type of sixish-ers, the attenders, and the IT all of them are either seeking or waiting for is truth, beauty, love, infinite joy, a husband, someone to make his or her life complete–

“– A lot of them were women who usually had one frantic eyed banshee in the lead, and were perhaps towing a few sheepish males in their wakes as they pressed gallantly from party to party. For the most part, they would come into the room, say hello to Lenny, chat a bit with whatever acquaintances they were able to find among the group in residence, dance a token watusi or hully gully to show that they were with it, and disappear back into the night. Others, more business-like, got inside the front door, assumed provocative stances while their leader systematically cased the available studs, and then having found nothing to suit her taste, were gone.”

Alas, by 11:30 it was clear to all and sundry that Lenny’s sixish didn’t have the IT. But, fortunately, his scouts were quickly able to report, there was a fest in the vicinity that did.

“The second party was louder than the first. It was louder and the people were more hostile, and at first they acted as if they resented us crashing their party. One of the hosts said to a girl I’d never seen before, ‘Are these your people?’ She looked around with a puzzled expression and ventured a conditional ‘Yes?’

“This seemed to placate everyone concerned and they all went back to competing with a small transistor radio to see who could make the most noise. There were about 30 people in the knotty-pine room, one of them, a very drunk young man who wobbled about, trying to discuss the great issues of the day–

“A blond came in with a bongo drum, and one of the men screamed, and fell on his knees with his arms around her knees, while another man took the drums. Three other people came in with drums, and they gathered in the center of the room and began to beat out the native dances like ‘I Am a Gay Caballero’ and ‘We Shall Overcome.”

One of the native males was particularly restless:

“One of the modern sophisticated studs [sic] was now up on the bar, dancing with an ironing board. He had clipped a long pigtail to his hair and was making various gestures to enhance his social acceptability. Then he jumped down off the bar and dragged a cute blond girl into a bedroom and slammed the door.”

That was the summer they murdered Martin Luther King. And, Bobby Kennedy. And cops and blacks shot it out. The summer of the political conventions, of Nixon and Humphrey, of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

That summer parties were given to raise funds for Paul O’Dwyer and Eugene McCarthy. And people argued over William Styron’s Nat Turner and the reaction of the black critics. That was also the summer many people said they would not come back to the island, that they would leave America–
From the novel Fire Island
by Burt Hirschfeld (1970)

FIRE ISLAND GOES POLITICAL read the banner headline of the July 21, 1968 issue of the Fire Island News. After years of lolling in the sun and deliberately not allowing politics to interfere with their vacations, News readers learned, “Fire Islanders were getting involved.” The proof was that Mike Wallace of CBS NEWS had come to the island to film Ocean Beach’s burgeoning. McCarthy-for-President movement: the media say we are, so therefore we are.

However, as News editors might have learned by reading back issues of their own newspaper, substantive numbers of Fire Islanders had been variously involved in the issues of the day long before Mike Wallace’s epochal visit. As early as 1962, the News records liberal Fire Islanders playing host for a week to a group of black “veterans of the integration battles of the Deep South.” The next year, the Fire Islanders Civil Rights Committee headed by blacklisted writer John Henry Faulk managed to raise $5,000 at a benefit for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee a not inconsiderable amount for the time. And in 1964, in a typical Fire Island mix of show biz and consciousness-raising, a similar amount was raised by auctioning off six “imported” chorus girl chorines from the New York cast of the Folies Bergere to a group of concerned island bachelors. Betty Friedan — who incidentally, was penning The Feminine Mystique at her nearby Fair Harbor summer house — doubtless would have disapproved, but the girls themselves appeared to have been pleased with the chauvinistic arrangement. “We couldn’t have found a nicer bunch of men if we had picked them ourselves,” one auctionee enthused. “If they’re typical of Fire Island we’re moving out here for good!”

After the Watts riots of 1965, such affairs took on a decidedly less frivolous air. “Baby you better change your system,” black power activist Dick Gregory hectored imbiber-donors at one Ocean Beach fundraising gala, “or there will be a whole lot dead by next year.” Unfortunately, when rioting followed the April 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King (who himself had been the guest of honor at a Seaview fundraiser the previous September), Gregory was proven right.

In the meantime, Fire Islanders had also become increasingly involved in the antiwar movement. In 1965 several dozen antiwar activists participated in a beachside teach-in — yes, a “beach-in” — at which Rev. Farley Wheelwright gave an eyewitness report of a recent self-styled “Peace mission” to Laos and Vietnam. In 1966, hundreds thronged to hear Senator Alfred Gruening of Alaska denounce the escalating conflict in Southeast Asia, under the watchful eyes of Suffolk County police. And in 1967, at the first town meeting on a national issue in the history of Ocean Beach, three hundred local residents voted 10-1 in favor of de-escalation. Thus, it should have been no surprise that by the following summer, there would also be a sizable pool of sentiment in favor of antiwar Presidential candidate Sen. Eugene McCarthy.

Wallace’s CBS News Camera Crew, zoomed in on earnest McCarthyites stationed in front of Goodman’s Drugstore, and followed one Clean-for-Gene as he wended his way along the beach, successfully rousing the supine to write a letter of support to the Courageous Senator from Wisconsin. At one point the young volunteer came upon comedian Jackie Vernon, without realizing who he was. “Sure I love Gene,” Vernon said, straight-faced, as the camera crew exploded in mirth, “he’s a real swinging guy.” Also deleted from the final cut were a giggling beachcomber with “at least a 44 inch bust” (according to our intrepid reporter) who kept wriggling into view.

At any rate, Wallace was impressed with the level of McCarthy’s support. “Boy,” he said to our man on the spot, “if he can get that much support in a small place like this maybe he does have a chance.”

Then, two weeks later, came the bloody debacle of the Chicago Democratic Convention — and The Big Chill was on.

The summer of’68 ended on a characteristically insane note, when on August 21, a large snatch-and-grab force of a Suffolk County police invaded Cherry Grove, arresting 27 gay men on charges ranging from sodomy to indecent exposure. Liberal islanders were shocked as they read of the brutal military-like operation, particularly the Bull Connor-like postmortem of the police commander in charge. “We only stopped at 27 because we lacked the manpower,” he told the News. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t have stopped intil we reached 50.”

In fact, police gaybashing had been a dirty fact of island life since the early 1960s. “Manhattan is well-known for its boy’s bars,” an outraged observer said to our reporter. “The city police have come to look the other way rather than prosecute. They’ve recognized, as has most of the rest of the world, that what is, is. Homosexuality is a way of life. Then the Suffolk County Police come pouring into the Grove and Pines, flashing their Good Housekeeping shields and shouting “Up With Motherhood’.”

Fortunately, it was the last such raid. After 1969 and Stonewall the Suffolk County Police, too, recognized that what was, was.

Even the fence at Point O’Woods couldn’t keep out the tides of protest and change of the 1960s.

An article in “The New York Times” in 1968 described the more exclusive of the island’s 18 communities as “inhabited for the most part by people who look alike (blue eyes, blond hair) and think alike (politics: Republican, religion Protestant).”

However, Point O’Woods residents denied that they were either anti-Semitic or racist, “It is generally believed that two of the present owners and one of the owners is Jewish,” John Stearns, president of the Point O’Woods Assembly told the “Times.” “Certainly we have Negroes,” said another Point O’Woods resident, “I have a girl who works for me and she sits right next to me in church on Sunday.” “We discourage bachelors, widows, and gay divorcees,” another PO’Wer noted, helpfully.

Such comments did little to smooth relations with Point O’Woods liberal neighbors. Up until that point those offended by The Fence, and what it stood for, had largely confined their protests to scrawling graffiti (e.g. “Yea, Jews”).

However, in August of 1969 about 150 islanders, led by writer Nat Hentoff and lawyers Alan Dershowitz, Gerald Lefourt, and Florence Kennedy, went one step further, “invading” Point O’Woods from the beach and handing out pamphlets to passers-by which denounced PO’Wers for maintaining a “restricted racial enclave” and an “oceanfront concentration camp.”

“When the law is in disorder,” lawyer Lefourt declared “revolution is in order.”

“We want herring and gefilte fish in the Point O’Woods dining room,” boomed Flo Kennedy. “We want hamhocks and greens in the Point O’Woods dining room. We want no more black people washing the Point O’Woods dishes!”

Most residents of Point O’Woods, for their part, braved the storm of indignation by staying indoors. “We wanted above all to avoid a confrontation,” said one official. “And it is difficult to have a confrontation if there are no people to confront.”

And, after a few hours, the invaders returned to their side of the fence.

And the waves and the gulls laughed at it all.

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