Talisman Resort and Fire Island’s 1960s Jet Setters

Fire Island Pines Historical Preservation Society

By Christopher Verga

Fire Island’s narrow stretch of a sandy 32-mile beach with a constant southwest breeze carrying the aroma of salt, pine, and honeysuckle maintains cooler temperatures in the dog days of summer. Escaping to Fire Island from the oppressive summer heatwaves, crowding, pollution, and the hustle and bustle of daily urban life has become a priority for New York City’s middle to upper class for over a century. Fire Island day trips or daily visits to the various ocean beaches in the summer months are equivalent to a birthright for local South Shore residents. Before the arguments of democratizing the barrier beaches, the summer communities of Fire Island were dotted with exclusive resorts that were visited by some of America’s most prominent figures. One specific resort on Fire Island became a destination for global jet setters due to its elite guest list and early ’60s chic crowd. In post World War II, the once popular resort communities neighboring New York City suffered an uncertain future with the growth of the tourism industry in far off Caribbean islands, accessible through a plane ride of three hours.

In 1960 most of Fire Island maintained a growing celebrity A-list despite the growth of commercial airlines, but the island was evolving into a second home summer community. Guests such as Truman Capote and Marilyn Monroe were frequently spotted in Cherry Grove and Ocean Beach, but the chic jet setter age was on the horizon. Harnessing this new post-modernism hip culture was millionaire Michael Butler. Butler, often referred to as the Hippie Millionaire, produced the iconic play “Hair” and was heir to an aviation fortune.

Butler’s development of a Fire Island resort was an attempt to diversify his real estate holdings. Those holdings included exclusive A-list ski resort Sugarbush and Oak Brook Polo Club. Butler and his business partner, Atlantic Record Executive Ahmet Ertegun, purchased a 12-acre tract of land east of Fire Island Pines and constructed the Talisman resort. Ertegun was the executive credited for signing Ray Charles and the Rolling Stones, which brought celebrity credibility to their resort.

Butler and Ertegun constructed four houses (proposed future construction of 24 two-bedroom homes), a clubhouse, guesthouse, pool, 16 cabanas, and a marina to dock 30 boats. The architectural style of the resort would be post-modern Japanese. Modernist architect Julian Neski designed the clubhouse with an open floor plan and exposed wood rafters with maximized natural light. The greatest number of guests would be 40. In a 1960 New York Times interview Butler stated, “When I first conceived of Talisman and the design of its houses, I wanted to create a club resort which was international in feeling, relaxed yet restrained.” The resort would cater exclusively to the wealthy, who’s who of celebrities with privacy and seclusion. Guests were brought in through the private dock by boat or seaplane. Known guests spotted included Johnny Carson, Jane Fonda, and Hugh Hefner. Building on Butler’s “relaxed feeling” vision was the casual dress code of beach attire, unlike other global resorts. Guests would indulge in speed boat racing and water skiing and have a members-only nightclub experience fueled by expensive drinks and the latest dance trends.

In the summer of 1961, Talisman would secure its spot in pop culture history. On the guest house floor and around the pool, patrons from Paris were dancing in a style never seen before in the United States. This dance became popular among the guests and eventually branched out into the mainstream pop culture of the United States. The dance introduced that summer night became known as The Twist.

Talisman’s parties would subsequently be silenced by the summer of 1964 when the federal government purchased the land for the national seashore.

While hiking or biking Talisman, which is renamed Barrett Beach, many structures are at the mercy of nature and time. Exploring the abandoned resort still echoes the partying of chic trendsetting celebrity A-listers from a bygone era.