Casa Susanna, at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Susanna Valenti on the stage at the Chevalier d’Éon, 1960-1963; gelatin silver print; original photographer unknown; collection of Cindy Sherman

I first saw some of the photographs that are part of the Art Gallery of Ontario’s new Casa Susanna exhibit at The Image Centre, which is part of Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University). It was in the summer of 2014 and a photographic exhibition at The Image Centre was mounted in conjunction with Toronto’s staging of the World Pride Festival that year. The Image Centre exhibit was called What it means to be seen: Photography and Queer Visibility.

I had been assigned male at birth, but after some decades came to realize that my true gender was female. By the time of the 2014 Festival I had just socially transitioned to a full-time female role and additionally had recently begun my physical evolution. Participating in World Pride that year was a major personal celebration, and I made a point of taking in The Image Centre’s show. One section of The Image Centre exhibition was entitled Casa Susanna, with pictures from the first half of the 1960’s taken at an upstate New York resort. The collection behind this selection had come to light in 2004, when Robert Swope and Michel Hurst, two dealers of mid-twentieth century furniture, purchased some 340 photographs at a New York City flea market, both loose and in three photo albums; Swope and Hurst then published a book the next year. All of these pictures, including those in The Image Centre’s 2014 Casa Susanna selection, were understood to feature people who today we would call crossdressers (in this case people who identified as male but derived great meaning from presenting as female some of the time). I am not a crossdresser, I am a woman who was assigned male at birth, but I just knew in my bones that I was looking at a few of my sisters from another era as well. It was an emotional and meaningful experience that stayed with me.

Second gallery of the Art Gallery of Ontario Casa Susanna exhibit

Flash forward to the AGO’s new exhibit, one I was most anxious to see. In 2015 the AGO had acquired the Swope/Hurst collection (and showed their own selection from it as part of their 2016 show Outsiders: American Photography and Film 1950-1980s). For the current exhibit they are, for the first time, drawing not just on that collection but also two others: one belonging to the well-known photographic artist Cindy Sherman (also purchased at an NYC flea market); and that of Betsy Wollheim, daughter of a frequent visitor to Casa Susanna. The full title is Casa Susanna: The Story of the First Trans Network in the United States, 1959-1968, which raises some issues of terminology.1

Many of the people in these photos self-identified at the time as transvestites or TVs. However, now this term is considered pejorative, and, as mentioned, crossdresser is preferred (drag would not typically be an applicable description [certainly not now] as, for one thing, drag involves deliberate performance). The word trans in the exhibit subtitle is actually short for transgender. This word has an interesting history, and its meaning has shifted since it was coined by Virginia Prince (more on her later). It is now often defined as someone whose gender identity (note: this has nothing to do with sexual orientation) differs from that assigned at birth (the latter almost assuredly associated with their birth sex). Some transgender individuals (including me) seek medical assistance to effect some degree of a physical transition; such people had historically been described as transsexual, but that term is now often considered pejorative as well. A key question in the Casa Susanna context is whether crossdressers are considered to fall under the transgender umbrella. This is not currently clear. Personally, in all honesty, I have not; the curators, however, do (and hence the titling). I do understand the challenge with navigating these questions.

Transvestia magazine cover, no. 8, March 1961; cover girl: Kate Cummings, aka Joan

The exhibit occupies two galleries, and on the day I was there it attracted a fairly wide cross-section of visitors. It is in many ways the story of Susanna Valenti (born Humberto [Tito] Arriagada) and her wife Marie, who understood and supported her identity and who owned a wig shop in Manhattan that supported crossdressing men. All of the items in the Swope/Hurst collection (now owned by the AGO) belonged to them. In 1960 they had begun hosting crossdressers at a resort called Chevalier d’Éon, after Louis XV’s crossdressing spy. This was located in the Catskills in upstate New York. Costs forced them to sell in 1963; the next year they bought a nearby smaller lodge that they christened Casa Susanna. Both locations were quite private, and so their guests were, for a little while, gloriously free to truly be themselves, without judgement or fear (consequences of exposure could be extremely harsh), and surrounded by their peers. Many of the photographs centre on these resorts and on the community thereby formed.

Some of these snapshots are black and white, some in colour. The photographer was often either the subject herself (using a self-timer or cable release, both relatively new at the time) or a trusted member of the community (easily obtainable in group settings). Initially, many would develop the pictures themselves rather than risk involvement of an external lab. As the Polaroid instant camera became more affordable it revolutionized photography for this community, which was a critical tool for them to image/imagine themselves for their own use or for sharing with others in their society.

The crossdressing (CD), or, as they would have termed it at the time, transvestite, population has always felt marginalized even within the broader LGBT+ population. As explained by the exhibit (in a 2016 video by Michael Gilbert, proud crossdresser and York University professor) this sadly still hasn’t changed all that much. In an interesting parallel, people assigned male at birth who truly identified as female, and especially those who sought some degree of physical transition, were historically heavily stigmatized within the CD community of the 1960s. This reality is highlighted by another part of the AGO’s exhibit, that concerning the magazine Transvestia, and is told through informational displays and more than a dozen actual issues. This periodical was founded by Virginia Prince (born Arnold Lowman) in 1960 to give the CD community its own forum for both pictures and articles, and in that was quite successful. Susanna Valenti was a frequent contributor through a regular column, and a number of the Casa Susanna community submitted their pictures for inclusion, sometimes on the cover. Prince was a fierce advocate for crossdressers, while at the same time being extremely transphobic and homophobic, and her legacy is a complicated one. Her attitudes rubbed off on many in her circle, including, for a time at least, Susanna herself.

Susanna Valenti (centre) and two unknown friends in Susanna and Marie’s New York City apartment, 1960s; gelatin silver print; original photographer unknown; collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario

Returning to the photographs, many of them are reproduced in the exhibition catalogue. However, despite its generous size (480 pages) a sizable minority of the photos are not there; the gap consisting, it seems, of at least all items in the exhibit from the Wollheim collection. The items that are in the catalogue are typically seen to better advantage in the book, with respect, for instance, to actually being able to make out details. This is because the actual prints are often fairly small and of course must be viewed through display case glass, except for a select few that are blown up to very large proportions. However, there is an undeniable, collective emotional power in the physical artifacts, something that struck me as soon as I entered the first gallery.

Some pictures were taken at home, or in a hotel room, with the curtains carefully drawn, to ensure privacy and create a little world where freedom was momentarily possible. They are typically deliberately posed, with a definite sense of happiness and an aura of breaking a constricting taboo. Other photographs were shot at one of the resorts, often outdoors. The joy here is quite evident, with a strong quality of relief. The pictures taken later on seem to become less performative, and show people simply being.

In constructing their female appearance and persona, the subjects here (who were almost all white) leaned heavily on 1950s stereotypes of white, middle-class womanhood. There would seem to be an irony in that they thereby leveraged a patriarchy that oppressed them. However, from my perspective, their goal (which I instinctively understand) was to externalize an inner truth in a way that was meaningful to them, that could be seen by select others, and by themselves in a mirror or in their photographs; and in this they were successful.

Photo shoot with Lili, Wilma and friends at Casa Susanna, 1964-1867; chromogenic print; original photograph attributed to Andrea Susan; collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario

One display was a case containing a distinctive snapshot and a short biography for each of 18 different individuals who appear in the pictures. These are poignant reminders of the humanity of this community and the serious challenges that they faced. And it provided positive proof that my intuition from 2014 was correct, my personal sisterhood was indeed there. First, I hasten to stress that even without physical transition one can still be a woman, it is an internal identification; however, when someone assigned male at birth followed that path (especially during that era) it is very suggestive of a female gender. With that in mind, it was personally moving to find that one of the 18, whose name was Gloria, and who happened to be a millionaire, used her fortune to support women seeking (pioneering at that time) gender affirmation surgery in Mexico, before, during and afterwards; and that two others, Kate and Irène, successfully underwent the procedure.

It is also interesting to follow Susanna’s own path. Despite her repeated expressions of transphobia (running to crudeness where those who had undergone surgery was concerned), by 1969 she found it increasingly painful and depressing to return to male mode and longed to live as a woman full time, a feeling which, of course, resonates very strongly with me. Due to family circumstances she did not achieve this goal until the early 1980s. Pictures of her trace this evolution after a fashion, with Susanna appearing increasingly at ease as a woman as time went on.

As for Casa Susanna itself, Susanna stopped welcoming guests after Marie had a serious accident in 1967, and they sold it in 1972. For this and other reasons the community dispersed over time. One particular issue for them was the rise of second-wave feminism, which attacked the very stereotypes that the CD community had relied on, leaving them feeling unmoored.

Undeniably, though, the artifacts on display provide yet more evidence that the CD and transgender communities are nothing recent, despite bigotry and oppression old and new. Also undeniable is that this was a truly pioneering group whose fortuitously preserved record has, wonderfully, found a place in a major museum, and, for those in these communities now, provides precious history and some roots.

1 Note that the discussion in the following paragraph is my own overview of a complex subject. The interested reader is encouraged to do some more research.

Jennifer Wenn is a trans-identified writer from London, Ontario, Canada.   Her first poetry chapbook, A Song of Milestones, was published by Harmonia Press.  Her first full-size collection, Hear Through the Silence was published by Cyberwit in December 2022.  She has also published poetry and reviews in numerous journals and anthologies. 
Visit her website: https://jenniferwennpoet.wixsite.com/home

Casa Susanna runs at the Art Gallery of Ontario until April 14, 2024

Photo Credit: All photos courtesy of Jennifer Wenn

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