In the mid 50s Tito Valentini, and his wife Maria, bought a guesthouse in the in upstate New York. Tito worked at a Spanish radio station and Maria ran a Fifth Avenue wig store. But after dark, Tito took advantage of those wig discounts and transformed into Susanna Valenti, professional female impersonator.
Their apartment was a hangout for local transvestites, all paying $25 a weekend for the privilege of Susanna’s wisdom. Realizing this could be a money-making business (if they had more space and some privacy), Maria took her earnings from the wig store and thus Casa Susanna, a holiday resort for crossdressers was born.
The seven-bedroom house, with a few unheated bungalows, was in the Catskill Mountains, and would become a second home to a multitude of gender non-conformists, visiting briefly to unwind for a few days in a pencil skirt and heels, or checking in for the entire summer to be schooled by Susanna.
Casa Susanna’s visitors kept to the resort’s 150 acre perimeter, so, when the girls posed for photographs, the thought of having them sent to a a photo lab to be developed was a scary prospect. Polaroids were their best option.
But Susanna finally employ a professional photographer, Andrea Susan (Jack Mallick) who could shoot, process and print on site. Gail (David Wilde), bought a $1000 Roliflex camera for Andrea to use on the condition that she learned how to process color film and Gail wanted in return for her investment a copy of every photograph taken.
Fast forward to the late 90s and David Wilde (aka, Gail) was moving to Scarsdale with his wife, Joan, who was aware of her husband’s past as “Gail”. But Joan refused to let him to bring along all his carefully-preserved photo albums from Casa Susanna.
So, David got rid of his albums and they found their way onto the flea market circuit until 2004, when an antiques dealer, Robert Swope and his partner found them.
“I felt electrified. 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.”
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.”
Swope and his partner adapted them into a book which wasn’t a success, but it caught the attention of actor and playwright, Harvey Fierstein. He eventually used the images as inspiration for his off-Broadway production, Casa Valentina.
Photographer Andrea Susan was a regular fashion show host at Fantasia Fair in Provincetown, a conference for gender-questioning people. Andrea’s daughter, Jacqueline, got her father was invited to attend the premier of Fierstein’s play, (he went dressed as Andrea, in 2014) Sadly Andrea Susan/Jack Mallickpassed away in 2015.
Harvey Fierstein when writing Casa Valentina mused on the inspiration,
“Their dressing isn’t so they can be with other girls and play bridge. Their dressing is to lose the male role.
‘I don’t have to take the car in. I’m freed from having all the answers. I’m freed from being the breadwinner.’
It’s to become this idealized female – they call it ‘the girl within. It’s all the pleasures and none of the pain [of being a woman], because it’s a fantasy. It has nothing to do with being a real woman – except that some of these men went on to become women.”
According to Alona Pardo, a curator at the Barbican Art Gallery where over 300 of Andrea Susan’s photographs were exhibited in 2018, the photographs the resident ladies of Casa Susanna took part in became
“a pivotal medium through which they can construct their identities and affirm them. They referred to themselves at the time as ‘transvestites’, but you wouldn’t necessarily use that term now. 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 sticks is they are cross dressing, but within that they’re constantly playing with female stereotypes, they were very aware.
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.”
Casa Susanna by Michel Hurst & Robert Swope can still be purchased secondhand on Amazon.
The house itself is currently for sale.
(Photos, Andrea Susan; via MessyNessyChic)