By now, most of you know some of the main things that make Valerie South tick. Unless you are new to So Very Deep, everyone knows that 1) I am a cross-dresser 2) I love 1950’s fashions and vintage items, and 3) I constantly search for (and collect) vintage/1950’s photographs and images of women and clothes… many that I feature in my posts.
When you combine all of these things and add in the power of the internet, it’s no surprise that I regularly happen upon references to ‘Casa Susanna’. I decided that it was time that I further immortalize the Casa in my blog, and introduce everyone to the support group I was meant to be a part of, but somehow missed by about 60 years.
In the 1950s through the early 1960’s, Casa Susanna became one of the first retreats for transvestites. It was located in Hunter, New York, which can be found in the Catskill mountains of New York state. Located on a 150 acre property, Casa Susanna consisted of a main house, surrounded by several bungalows/cabins. These bungalows were originally let out to summer vacationers (think Dirty Dancing maybe?) and occasionally to some hunters and other groups in the off-season. As the location began to lose favor with those summer patrons, that is when the “ladies” began to visit most weekends.
In an era when gender roles were extremely narrowly defined, Casa Susanna provided many cross-dressers and trans* persons a safe place to escape to. A place rarely found in the time period, that allowed them to express themselves without the negative pressures of 1950’s/60’s mentality. I love the time period, but as we know there was little to no tolerance for any flexibility in the gender binary.
Casa Susanna was run by one Susanna Valenti, who’s wife coincidentally ran a wig store on 5th Avenue in Manhattan. It was through the store that the ladies began to find each other and eventually found their way to Casa Susanna. Others found Casa Susanna through a home-made magazine called “Transvestia”, which was founded and mainly written by one of the initial visitors to Casa Susanna, known as Virginia. Susanna reportedly also contributed articles to “Transvestia”.
Besides Susanna Valenti ( a court translator) and her wife Maria (wig store owner) , we now know the main group of regular visitors to Casa Susanna included a professional pilot (Felicity), a businessman (Cynthia), an accountant (Gail), a librarian and editor (Sandy), a pharmacologist (Virginia – founder of “Transvestia”), and a newspaper publisher (Fiona).
Casa Susanna largely stayed a secret for years, and after shutting down in the early 60’s remained hush-hush, with the former members keeping knowledge of Casa Susanna to themselves. Then, sometime in the early 2000’s, an antiques dealer named Robert Swope came upon a box at a flea market in Manhattan. The box was full of pictures taken of the ladies at Casa Susanna and he ended up publishing them in a book around 2005.
Much of the inside story of Casa Susanna remains secretive, but after the publishing of the book of photos, several former members came forward to tell some stories. Most remained anonymous, but told similar of similar experiences… just being able to dress up and do normal things such a cooking, playing games, and sitting around talking with others of similar mindsets.
I may not have all the facts perfectly straight, as the photos are much easier to come by than the history and story of Casa Susanna. I keep looking deeper for more details because I am fascinated by the entire existence of Casa Susanna and the ladies who visited during its heyday. I will leave you with some of the images to peruse. I can’t help but feel that I missed out on this experience. Sometime in the future I may find myself traveling through the Catskills, dressed as Valerie, just to pay homage to these ladies.