AnOther discovers the extraordinary story behind the cross-dressing heroines and the secret bungalow of Casa Susanna
If recent history is anything to go by, American flea markets are the gift that keeps on giving. July saw the release of John Maloof's compelling documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, detailing how the purchase of an old box of negatives at a Chicago flea market in 2007 led to his discovery of "some of the finest street photography of the 20th century". And then there's the unearthing of the Casa Susanna archive, an amazing collection of over 400 images taken at a 1950s hideout for heterosexual transvestites, found by antiques dealer Robert Swope at a Manhattan flea market in 2004.
"I knew instantly that I was looking at something that no one outside the group was ever meant to see" — Robert Swope
"I felt electrified," Swope recalls of the moment he knew he'd struck gold. "I had never seen anything like this that had not been clearly orchestrated as a parody or a joke... I knew instantly that I was looking at something that no one outside the group was ever meant to see. Something private."
A bit of investigation into the matter yielded intriguing results. The bungalow, in upstate New York, was owned by Susanna, the group's matriarch and – according to her business card which was stuck to the front of a carefully preserved photo album – a professional female impersonator. From the late 50s to the mid-60s, Susanna and her friends would head to their country retreat at weekends to live the life of "typical, middle-class, suburban women, complete with tacky furniture and a scrabble board."
The photographs of the Casa Susanna Queendom are remarkably vernacular – their candidness and intimacy converting what was at the time a thoroughly unorthodox pastime into something surprisingly routine. As Swope noted, "What struck me on that first day was the normalcy of the images, even if it was a studied illusion. Here were photos documenting everyday women, going about their everyday lives – except that these women were men who probably lived as truck drivers, accountants, or bank presidents during the week." But it is also the strong sense of community, warmth and fun that the protagonists exude, underscored by a delightful sense of self-assertion, that makes their story so engaging – whether striking a pose in a glitzy swimsuit, watering the garden or having a girls night in, dressing up and taking pictures.
It is unsurprising then to learn that Susanna and her girls have garnered a lot of attention since their reemergence a decade ago. First a selection of the images was published in the acclaimed book, Casa Susanna, which is being reissued this autumn. Then, their tale was optioned for an HBO series that, although it never materialised, sparked the idea for Casa Valentina, a Broadway play that debuted this year and has received a Tony nomination. Now, the photographs have gone on show at auctioneer Wright's New York gallery, a rare chance to see the prints in the flesh ahead of their sale on October 30. On letting go of his collection, Swope says, “Michel [his partner] and I have been caretakers for this collection for more than a decade. After shepherding the collection from a box in a flea market to a play on Broadway, we are ready to let go and allow Casa Susanna to find her next act.”