‘Casa Susanna’ Documentary Revisits Haven for Cross-Dressing

Documentary by Sebastian LifschitzCasa Susanna‘ recalls a community of cross-dressing men and transgender women who took refuge in the Catskill Mountains in the 1950s and ’60s. Their meeting place, a Victorian boarding house, was named Casa Susanna after translator and broadcast writer Susanna Valenti, who was married to one of its founders, New York wigmaker Marie Tonell. rice field. The couple ran Casa Her Susannah until the late 1960s, when a book was published in 2005 that collected snapshots of Casa Her Susannah found at New York’s Flea Market and its existence. has become widely known.

Frenchman Lifshitz has been making films about gender and identity since the early 2000s. “The story of Casa Susanna was never visible or ‘out there,’ so it’s still a miracle that we get to know it in its entirety today,” he said. He interviewed two alumni, Katherine Cummings and Diana Mary Shapiro, shared their journeys and struggles, and revisited their stomping grounds in the Catskill Mountains. (A version of this house story is depicted by Harvey Fierstein in his 2014 play Casa Her Valentina.)

I spoke with Lifshitz about making this documentary. The documentary airs Tuesday on PBS as part of The American Experience. A time of increased visibility and confusion around identity issues. Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation.

How did you meet Casa Susanna?

I first learned about the existence of this book when it was published in 2005, and since I am also a photography collector, I bought it at that time. Over the years I have bought snapshots at French flea markets and garage sales. I have been interested in strange pictures and invisible people since childhood. In 2015, I held a large exhibition of my collection of cross-dressing photographs and spoke with the photographer. Isabelle Bonnet, who wrote a memoir about Casa Susanna.I said we should make a movie about it [the documentary credits her as a collaborator]Because this is a very important story about prequeer culture—this cross-dressing underground network.

What made you feel special about Casa Susanna?

The creation of this refuge was extraordinary. If you had a desire to cross-dress, there was nothing around to help you figure it out at the time. These very intimate questions could not be addressed to anyone else. Most of the men in Casa Susanna’s community were middle class white, had good jobs and little money, were married, and some had children. It is also attractive that this community is created under certain rules. For example, homosexuals and transsexuals were banned. They only accepted those who claimed to be men in transvestites. So, in a way, it’s strange to think that they recreated conservative rules in this regime, perhaps out of fear.

What was it like for Catherine and Diana to share their memories?

It was very important to them because, as they say, it is part of them. For Princess Diana, it was her first time out alone. She’s 82, but this is the first time she’s able to say to people, “This is my life.” that’s me “Perhaps because she is of such a mature age, she felt the need to be honest with herself and with all the people still around her.” I wanted to pay tribute to all the pioneers, and she was so brave she should be proud.What’s even more fascinating about Diana is what she had. [gender confirmation surgery] From that moment on, when she was young, she became an invisible woman in American society. She was so lucky to find her and Kate. Kate died just months after filming. That’s why the invisible story is so precious.

for Betsy [Wollheim], it was the first time she was able to tell the story of her father, Donald Wollheim. He was both his science fiction writer and publisher, but people didn’t know his secret story. Through Betsy, I found it interesting to understand what a traditional American family is like with a crossdresser and possibly transgender father.and through Gregory [Bagarozy]we see how he understood his grandmother, Marie and Susannah.

Where did you get the colorful Kodachrome pictures in the movie?

Of course, I also had the photographs that were in the book, which are now in the Art Gallery of Ontario.But the second part is The Cindy Sherman Collection. He knew Cindy had photos of Casa Susanna because he found the album at a New York flea market. So she contacted her and she liked it and said yes of course. Her work of Cindy is about Americana and the stereotypes of representation in America, she plays herself so fascinated by the way people play themselves in her pictures. it was done. The men at Casa Susanna represented women and respected the norm when it came to dress, and they didn’t want to look like pin-ups or Hollywood queens. Perhaps most of them wanted to resemble their mothers, sisters and wives. Like the woman next door, in a bourgeois sense.

A third source was a photo Betsy’s father had. Because he was completely obsessed with identity issues. He had all the documents he could find at the time, and Betsy kept everything from the archives.

What do you think of this slice of American history in light of the country’s new anti-trans laws?

It still shocks me to hear these words against the transgender community today. This was the attitude and language of another era, and I thought it couldn’t be. We thought the civil rights we won would last forever, but they don’t. We need to become champions of these rights. Movies, books, exhibitions, etc. are ways of educating and making people understand that identities are diverse and that this diversity is very french we say riches. It is a treasure that must be protected. I love seeing what makes you who you are.

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