In Purgatory and Paradise photographer Meryl Meisler juxtaposes her family life on Long Island with disco-era New York in the 1970s.

Coming of Age in Long Island and Disco-Era New York City

I slept in Martha Washington’s bed and my brother Ken in George Washington’s bed. Mom told us this, my earliest memory, South Bronx, ca. 1951. It’s the beginning of my American story—sweet and sassy, with a pinch of mystery.

My grandparents came from Eastern Europe to escape pogroms and persecution. It was the Great Depression and both families were poor. My dad, Jack Meisler, married Sylvia Schulman while on furlough from the Coast Guard during World War II.

Mom helped dad start the Excel Printing Company. Thanks to the G.I. Bill, they bought a home on the site of a former Chinese vegetable farm in Massapequa, Long Island. Nearby farmland rapidly gave way to housing developments, schools, shopping centers, and highways as the greatest generation and their baby boomers arrived.

Meryl Meisler, Susan thinking “There has to be more to life than this,” North Massapequa, New York, April 1976.

Dad commuted to the city six days a week. Sylvia became Sunny, a stay-at-home mom who went back to work as we got older. Sundays we drove to see family in the Bronx or they came out to Long Island. We’d also meet in the city to see the Rockettes or the circus. The Meislers helped found Congregation Beth El, were Presidents of The Knights of Pythias, Pythian Sisters, and Temple Sisterhood. Best of all, they co-founded The Mystery Club: eleven couples that went on adventurous outings to places like a haunted house, séance, nudist colony, and gay bathhouse. Brother Mitch arrived during first grade, and soon after, I got my first camera, the Adventurer. Dad was a wonderful photographer whose subject was our family. Mine were family, friends, and adventure. Still are.

A new girl moved to the block. One day, playing outside her house she looked at me and said, “You can never go to heaven.” “Why not?” I asked. “I’m a good girl.” “Because you’re Jewish,” she replied. “Jews can’t go to heaven. My aunt’s a nun and my uncle’s a priest. They told me. The best you can do is purgatory.” “What’s purgatory?” I asked. Her explanation made no sense, no way, no how. I knew in my heart it was important to be open minded and that discrimination was wrong. With my first paycheck as an illustrator, I bought an antique edition of Dante’s Paradise and Purgatory, illustrated by Gustave Doré. Never read it, just needed to own it, still do. Working on this book, I realized I had never been invited into that girl’s home.

Self Photograph of girl giving the Girl Scout Oath
Meryl Meisler, Self-portrait, the Girl Scout oath, North Massapequa, New York, January 1975.

Mom and dad gave us opportunities they didn’t have. I went to tap, ballet, ballroom dancing, piano, baton, horseback riding, beach clubs, Hebrew School, Temple Youth Group, 4H, Girl Scouts, and camp. Trips to Broadway musicals were the greatest treat of all.

In 1959, Massapequa made the national news. A woman named Christine Jorgensen was engaged to a Massapequa man, but they couldn’t marry because Christine was born a man and had undergone a “sex change.” Later, I met and photographed Christine at Mardi Gras and let her know we were both Massapequa girls.

I was stunned when John F. Kennedy was killed; sad and confused during the civil-rights-movement murders and the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. The Stonewall riots and Woodstock came just after high school. Though dad did printing for Woodstock, I was a minor and wasn’t allowed to go.

Man dancing at wedding at the Rockville Center
Meryl Meisler, Man in a three-piece suit dancing within the circle at a wedding, Rockville Centre, New York, March 1976.

A college education was my parents’ greatest hope for their children. In 1969, I went to Buffalo State and studied art education. In 1972, I was deeply moved by a Diane Arbus exhibition at MoMA. Accepted at Columbia University graduate school, I feared living in the city with daily reports of murder and rape. When the University of Wisconsin offered a scholarship, it was “On Wisconsin!” I studied illustration, and took a photo class to learn how to use a “real” camera.

Home on break, I began photographing family, friends, and Mystery Club members. Professor Cavalliere Ketchum couldn’t get over the ornate stage-like interiors, asking, “Who are these people? I’ve never seen anything like this!” “This is where I come from,” I replied. “These are my family and friends.”

Self Outside Unemployment at NYC, NY, June 1979
Meryl Meisler, Self-Portrait Outside Unemployment Office, New York, New York, June 1979.

After graduation, I moved to New York to sublet a room from my cousin Elaine Rosner. I set up a darkroom in the laundry room while studying with Lisette Model, who loved and encouraged my black-and-white medium format series of family and friends. The city was in fiscal and social turmoil, and I was in transition and chaos myself. My parents were divorcing, and I’d recently ‘come out.’ My Rosner cousins introduced me to artists, writers, musicians, feminists, activists, and intellectuals. We hung out in East Harlem and the Lower East Side with Latinos, African Americans, Asians, and a wide variety of New Yorkers.

In February 1977, I went to The COYOTE Hookers Masquerade Ball in New York City, then to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, where I met Judi Jupiter. Back in New York, we went to CBGB, discos, Fire Island, and the Hamptons. The gay and feminist movements were in full swing. People could be straight, gay, bi—anything they wanted to be. It was my version of Brassai’s 1930s Parisian nightlife. I photographed the streets by day and the hottest clubs at night, then developed the film and filed the negatives away in plastic sleeves.

Using my suburbia images, I applied for a Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) Artists Grant, and began working for the American Jewish Congress, photographing Jewish New York and my own family roots. Nights were my own, and I continued to explore the disco scene that was growing more raunchy and outrageous.

Visiting Judi Jupiter bartending at Playmate, I became interested in the scene—first taking a hostess job at Playmate, then Winks and The Magic Carpet. The required uniform back then was bathing suit, stockings, high heels, and makeup. I drew customers and dancers in a sketchbook, and occasionally brought my camera. I still have the sketches. This is the first time I’ve shown the go-go photos; there are lots more.

Westhampton Bartender at Hotdog beach
Meryl Meisler, Hot Dog Beach bartender, Hampton Bays, New York, August 1977.

CETA ended in 1979. I’d been doing freelance illustration, and started teaching art in public schools. I’d also begun a relationship with a Massapequa girl living in San Francisco, which was getting serious. In 1980 she moved to New York, on the anniversary of the date that Gertrude Stein met Alice Toklas, to begin our life together.

The photographs in Purgatory and Paradise: Sassy ’70s Suburbia and the City encapsulate my coming of age—from the Bronx, suburbia, The Mystery Club, dance lessons, Girl Scouts, the Rockettes, and the circus, to school, mitzvahs, proms, feminism, disco, go-go, Jewish and LGBT Pride, the New York streets, friendship, family, and love. I had to photograph it to make sense of it all. To hold onto the time, to release and share it, put it in perspective, and move on. It was sassy, but also sweet, and so was I.

Butterfly bedroom meadow
Meryl Meisler, Butterfly Bedroom, East Meadow, New York, May 1975.
Brighton beach parking lot
Meryl Meisler, Sun bathers, Brighton Beach parking lot, Brooklyn, New York, May 1979.
Pines boat magazine
Meryl Meisler, Hustler on a boat, Fire Island Pines, New York, July 1978.
Jiveguy subway at Williamsburg
Meryl Meisler, Jive guy on Williamsburg subway, Brooklyn, New York, March 1978.
Coyote hookers ball wingspan
Meryl Meisler, Spreading wings at the COYOTE Hookers Masquerade Ball, New York City, February 1977.
Peckerar wedding Huntington TownHouse
Meryl Meisler, On the ‘big day’ Susan could still find something to make her sad, Huntington Town House, New York, June 1975.
Easter parade sons suits
Meryl Meisler, Father and sons in three-piece suits at the Easter parade, New York City, 1977.
A flower outside CBGB in New York City
Meryl Meisler, A flower outside CBGB, New York City, April 1977.
Chelsea plaid suit car cadillac hood
Meryl Meisler, Plaid suit and Cadillac in Chelsea, New York City, December 1978.
Self-portrait of Leslie and Mitch going to prom in Huntington, NY, June 1976
Meryl Meisler, Self-portrait, Whopping it up with Leslie after chauffeuring Mitch to the prom, Huntington, New York, June 1976.
Self-Portrait – Playmate Hostess, NY, NY December 1978
Meryl Meisler, Self-portrait, Playmate hostess, New York City, December 1978.

This essay is excerpted from Purgatory and Paradise: Sassy ’70s Suburbia and the City (Bizarre, 2015) by Meryl MeislerAn exhibition of Meisler’s photographs is on view at Black Box Gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn until October 12.

Photo Essay is an ongoing series featuring documentary images that examine the social, cultural, and political landscape in Pittsburgh and beyond.