By Caden Mark Gardner
Dir. Sébastien Lifshitz, U.S./France, PBS Distribution
Sébastien Lifshitz’s Casa Susanna is a documentary in constant negotiation with how to reframe a past largely unseen by a mass audience. The film delves into the lives of male-to-female crossdressers, many of whom—but not all—would later transition into trans women. During the summers of the 1950s and 1960s, these individuals lived in close quarters in the Catskills region of Upstate New York in an enclave known today as Casa Susanna. This film brings to life the memories and testimonies of those who lived in Casa Susanna and the close family members of individuals who were often in turmoil trying to navigate a life amidst Eisenhower-era 1950s conformism in which they could explore their gender. While the film should not be seen as the complete, definitive story of the array of individuals who were photographed and stayed at Casa Susanna, the film serves as a necessary reminder that celebrating transness or gender nonconformity is not exclusive to being visible to the public at large.
The name Casa Susanna might ring a bell to those who have heard about a collection of photographs that became a gallery sensation, although how it got there was out of sheer luck. In 2004, antiques dealer Robert Swope was at a Manhattan flea market when he came across a series of photos featuring what he slowly realized were crossdressers dated from the 1950s and 1960s, many of which were group shots that suggested these were photographs from one particular community. Some of these intimate photos were private, shot in interiors like living rooms and kitchens. But other photos featured surprising exterior shots with farmhouses, gravel road paths, and what were clearly the Catskill Mountains in the background. These crossdressers were out in the open during a time when they could have conceivably been arrested.
Swope’s research confirmed that these photos took place in a mid-century crossdresser hangout called Casa Susanna. These findings led to a coffee table book of the photos being published, the photographs—then uncredited—appearing in various high-profile art galleries like the Barbican; playwright Harvey Fierstein did a loose reimagining of the place in a Tony-nominated Broadway play called Casa Valentina; and there were attempts by HBO to produce a series based on the photos. Wright New York auctioneers estimated that the collection of photos held by Swope and his partner Michael Hurst were worth between $100 and $150K. Cindy Sherman has her own photo collection that is traced back to Casa Susanna. Today, there is even an upscale Mexican restaurant in Leeds, New York, that took on the name Casa Susanna due to its symbolism of inclusiveness and diversity for the Upstate New York region. Casa Susanna became a cultural industry for many people who had absolutely nothing to do with the place or the people in it. While Swope should be commended for finding these photos and understanding their significance, these photos were made widely visible under the assumption that their subjects were all dead. But trans elders who got wind of the Casa Susanna book knew differently. In fact, many knew who were in the photographs and who took them. It is with Lifshitz’s film that these subjects can finally speak rather than live forever anonymous.
A crucial entry point for Lifshitz in telling the story of Casa Susanna was exploring the spaces of its two iterations in the Catskills—a set of bungalows in Jewett and a family home in Hunter—that were secluded from the more popular Borscht Belt tourist destinations of the region. Another was finding living patrons of Casa Susanna, a remarkable feat especially when compared to recent works of trans nonfiction, like the overpraised Framing Agnes, which nonsensically forewent including trans elders in its retelling of 1950s gender clinics and studies of trans people. Australian Katherine Cummings (who passed away after the film’s completion) and American Diana Merry-Shapiro each spent their time at Casa Susanna and witnessed the various notable figures who passed through, such as the controversial crossdresser (later trans) activist and Transvestia publisher Virginia Prince, and Darrell G. Raynor (the pseudonym of science-fiction author and editor Donald A. Wollheim), who in addition to writing in crossdressing publications wrote the 1966 book A Year Among the Girls, the influence of which was only rivaled at the time by Harry Benjamin’s The Transsexual Phenomenon. Cummings and Merry-Shapiro talk about how the spaces of Casa Susanna were by design a destination for “straight crossdressers,” which largely skewed white and affluent. Casa Susanna was run by Marie Valenti, a New York City wig shop owner and spouse of Tito Valenti, who dressed and went under the female persona of Susanna, and was pitched to others who dressed as women but had wives at home. Marie and Tito’s relationship was not just some “marriage of convenience”; there was love but not without complications. Marie’s grandson Gregory, also interviewed in the film, relates that as Marie became ill, Valenti began taking female hormones, information that was not widely known even among Casa Susanna circles.
Based on my own independent work in researching Casa Susanna for years, it would seem that Lifshitz only told the stories of those who allowed him to do so. Those who decided not to participate despite a family member’s large role in Casa Susanna clearly had their wishes for privacy respected by Lifshitz and his team (particularly in the cases of filmmaker Andrea Susan Malick, who took many of the photographs that widely circulated and has photos of herself featured, and David "Gail" Wilde, the last husband of the actress Joan Bennett, who is referred to by their female persona in the film, though it is not directly stated that they were a public figure). This evokes the whole reason why the Casa Susanna story and many places like it are often siloed from the broader discussion of LGBTQ rights; they were part of a discreet network and were not meant to be seen. It is a credit to Lifshitz that he is still able to bring such clarity to these complicated but significant corners of the queer experience.
Lifshitz is no stranger to trans narratives both in nonfiction (Little Girl and Bambi) and scripted drama (Wild Side). Bambi, a documentary on the internationally famous French trans performer Marie-Pierre Pruvot, is probably the strongest film corollary to Casa Susanna, as Lifshitz was obviously compelled to allow Pruvot to speak directly about her past and experiences of performing as a trans woman with other trans feminine and crossdressing performers in Paris. That film was also rich in vivid archival footage, particularly home movies of Pruvot and her friends expressing their femininity as a sisterhood in private parties and gatherings. However, Pruvot and her performing compatriots had their names on marquees and their faces in magazines and newspapers. The individuals at Casa Susanna had for many years forged networks of high discretion and secrecy across the United States through societies, letter writing, and magazines specifically for crossdressers (or as they were known then, “transvestites”). Many of these individuals in their male presentation were living the “American dream” of the nuclear family, were married to women, and had major success in their fields of work. To be outed for expressing these desires, let alone engaging in crossdressing, easily could have destroyed their careers, family ties, and marriages. There were a few Casa Susanna patrons who, due to their marriage to women or becoming a parent, either had to stop dressing altogether or use the space of Casa Susanna as their one ‘out of sight, out of mind’ outlet. While that alone showed the significance and importance of having such a space available, it also showed how Casa Susanna could only provide so much to people who were deeply closeted.
One of the most moving testimonies in the film comes from the daughter of one of the deceased, Betsy Wollheim. Growing up with such a talented but troubled father had clearly taken a toll on Betsy as she is shown recollecting his cruelty and distance. But she later discovered that he was trying to balance his desire to dress with both his high-pressure writing career and being a provider for the family. Suddenly, things began to click for her. Betsy had by this point, in her own words, gone through years of therapy and has forgiven her father. She meets with other Casa Susanna elders, goes into these spaces her father once inhabited, and asks intelligent, thoughtful, and considerate questions about their experiences. Seeing Betsy Wollheim reminded me of the fact that, though Casa Susanna no longer exists, there were other spaces that picked up in the same tradition, most specifically Fantasia Fair in Provincetown, Massachusetts—still active since its 1975 founding—which also evolved from being merely for “straight crossdressers” to including the larger umbrella of trans women and crossdressers (many Casa Susanna veterans would later become Fantasia Fair fixtures). At Fantasia Fair, the participants are allowed to bring their spouses and children for a week-long retreat (briefly seen in Rosa von Praunheim’s 1996 documentary Transexual Menace) that features mental health professionals on site who lead discussions on harm reduction and helping people navigate transition or cross-dressing expression.
Casa Susanna is a critical elegy for a time long since passed. The true stories behind these photos offer crucial insight that for years was missing or left as a question mark whenever they were displayed in galleries. While the research of trans elders like Zagria Cowan and Dallas Denny has helped identify many of the individuals in the photos in the years since the publishing of the coffee table book, Lifshitz’s film also provides evocative insight into how their private lives were not without faults and conflicts, often the product of yearning for a different life than the one they had to present to the world. Lifshitz’s film is a beautiful love letter to those who sought out Casa Susanna as a way to live as they long wanted and were always meant to be.
Casa Susanna screens on PBS’s American Experience in June 2023.