Revisiting Casa Susanna, the legendary Trans refuge in pre-Stonewall America

Revisiting Casa Susanna, the legendary Trans refuge in pre-Stonewall America
A new book explores the story of the private oasis for self-identified heterosexual men and their wives seeking space to explore gender variance at a time when homosexuality and crossdressing were treated as crimes and mental illnesses.

While perusing a New York flea market in 2004, antique dealers Michel Hurst and Robert Swope happened upon a cache of photographs. Made before Stonewall, the pictures captured transgender women, men who dressed as women, and gender nonconforming people who regularly gathered at a modest upstate New York retreat known only to insiders as “Casa Susanna.”

The following year, Swope and Hurst published the beguiling portraits in a small art book of the same name, which would go on to inspire a Tony-nominated Broadway play by Harvey Fierstein and a documentary film, as well as the discovery of a companion collection to the photographs owned by artist Cindy Sherman.

Over the past decade, curators Isabelle Bonnet and Sophie Hackett have unearthed an extraordinary wealth of information about this enigmatic chapter of LGBTQ history for the new book, Casa Susanna: The Story of the First Trans Network in the United States, 1959-1968 (Thames & Hudson), which brings together both photography collections for the first time.

Susanna by the Chevalier d’Eon sign, Hunter, NY, November 1960;
Lili on the diving board, Casa Susanna, Hunter, NY, September 1966

The book chronicles the life of Susanna Valenti, born Tito (Humberto) Arriagada, a Chilean immigrant who married Marie Tornell, a vibrant Italian-American woman who owned a Fifth Avenue wig shop in New York. Together they fashioned Casa Susanna as a private oasis for self-identified heterosexual men and their wives seeking space to explore gender variance at a time when homosexuality and crossdressing were treated as crimes and mental illnesses.

Susanna became a regular contributor to Transvestia, a subscription-only magazine founded in 1960 by Virginia Prince, providing guidance and inspiration in an advice column titled “Susanna Says”, which are also featured in the book.

“Photography played a key role in the Transvestia network,” says Hackett. “These photographs were used as calling cards – both as a way to reassure the person they were meeting that it wasn’t a sting operation, but also, to highlight how good one might look, to affirm a crossdresser’s femme self, or their ‘girl within,’ in Susanna’s words.”

Andrea Susan (attributed to), Photo shoot with Lili, Wilma, and friends, Casa Susanna (detail), Hunter, NY

Both Susanna and Prince strongly ascribed to the patriarchal gender roles of 1950s America, embracing codes of hyper femininity to create a sense of normalcy in an otherwise hostile world. “The image they specifically wanted to put forward, was aligned with a very middle-class sensibility,” says Hackett. “It was all matching accessories, makeup, and this notion that you never went out without being fully put together.”

Hackett points to the invention of the Polaroid camera as a turning point in LGBTQ portraiture. “Prior to this, fearing blackmail and denunciation, few risked entrusting the development and printing of these snapshots to an external lab, so many did the work themselves,” she explains.

Casa Susanna stands as a testament of the importance of creating community as a space for camaraderie, sanctuary, and self-expression. “These images remind us that we need to continue to fight for rights for queer individuals and queer communities. It worked before and we need to continue to hold the line,” she continues,” says Hackett.

“Many people who were part of those initial demonstrations, actions, and legal fights, are still alive. Talking to them about their experience – at once an amazing and difficult that time – offer some hope.”

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