The Story of Casa Susanna, a 1960s Escape for Gender Non-Conformists

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Lily on the diving board, September 1966Casa Susanna Collection, Unknown photographer, © Art Gallery of Ontario

Photographs from inside the upstate New York retreat were discovered at a flea market in 2004, and are now on display at the Barbican

In the late 1950s and early 60s, Tito Valenti, a court translator, and his wife Marie, who had a wig shop in Manhattan, transformed a property they had purchased with land deep in the Catskills near Hunter, New York, into a welcoming, non-judgemental resort for gender-nonconforming individuals. The couple named the hideaway Casa Susanna, using the name Tito went by when he dressed as a woman. Attendees of Casa Susanna would take photographs, documenting their experiences with unprecedented candour, which speaks to the freedom they felt within its confines. “We’re showing 110 in [Another Kind of Life] but there were about 340 [photographs] in the collection in total,” says Barbican curator Alona Pardo of the vast number of images taken at Casa Susanna which were discovered by chance at a New York flea market in 2004, and now feature in London exhibition Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins. Those who stayed at Casa Susanna on weekends were afforded a freedom there that they could not enjoy openly in their contemporary society; with homosexuality still illegal, repercussions for the transgender and transvestite community were also keenly felt.

Pardo points out that since relatively little is known about this community, it’s difficult today to attribute any label to its members. “They referred to themselves at the time as transvestites but you wouldn’t necessarily use that term now,” she explains. “We would call it gender non-conforming, because we don’t know whether they were men who dressed as women sometimes or whether they became transgender or did undergo gender reassignment surgery.” What is clear from the photographic records of Casa Susanna is the way in which the people who visited were able to explore what it means to be women. “What sticks is they’re cross dressing, but within that they’re constantly playing with female stereotypes, they were very aware,” says Pardo. “There’s pictures of them holding Vogue magazine and things like that, so we know that they’re looking for notions of what femininity was, and they were playing with those guises.”

There was a performativity to Casa Susanna, then, in some ways: “One day they could very housewifey, the next day they could be a group of women together having a gossip over tea.” Photography played an important role in this performativity, as they relaxed in front of the camera and took a certain pride in documenting their lives in the Catskills; this documentation proved significant in how they developed their gender identities. “This idea of selfies, self-portraiture, the memorialisation of this moment living as women – they were photographing themselves as women,” says Pardo. “The photography becomes a pivotal medium through which they can construct their identities and affirm them, and I think that is really critical.” The ability to record this side of their lives offered a gratification; indeed, some of the photographs were used as Christmas cards, and activities offered at the retreat included make-up lessons with Marie Valenti.

Pardo continues: “This is the time where portable cameras are becoming more commonplace and a lot more people can begin to record these private moments. [At Casa Susanna] they’re obviously playing with that and performing to camera – it was about solidifying their existence as women and presenting themselves to the world.” There were limits, however, to the group’s visibility in front of the camera: most of the photographs were taken inside, “in sitting rooms and bedrooms, with the curtains are always closed, making sure there were no prying eyes. This sense of privacy, was absolutely critical.”

To members like Virginia Prince, though, Casa Susanna became a catalyst for vocalising gender issues. Prince founded a bi-monthly journal entitled Transvestia in 1960, which eventually ran for 20 years. “She became a serious advocate for not only raising awareness for gender non-conforming people and communities, but also public and personal awareness within and beyond the community trying to gain legal rights.” Transvestia was a platform for this sidelined portion of society, and its subject matter ranged from “professionals recounting how they came out to their wife, their children, their families” to “tips on how to do their hair, where to buy their clothes”. Photography played a fundamental role in the publication’s development too, as readers would send in images of themselves to Transvestia, some of which were taken at Casa Susanna.

Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins runs until May 27, 2018, at the Barbican Art Gallery, London.