Casa Susanna is a book edited by Michael Hurst and Robert Swope that presents an extraordinary collection of photographs depicting a secret society of cross dressers from a bygone era. I stumbled upon this book, and its associated story, during some of my recent internet meanderings. History buffs here at CDH may already be familiar with this story, but for those who are not, I hope you find it as fascinating as I have.
I’d like to preface this review by noting how easy it is for many of us girls to take CDH for granted. With a few mouse-clicks we are able to join a welcoming community where we are free to express ourselves and take comfort that we are not alone. But imagine what life must have been like for a cross dresser in the 1950s, a time of strict social conformity and narrowly defined gender roles. It’s likely that the vast majority of cross dressers at the time remained closeted for life and perhaps tormented by feelings of shame and isolation.
This is why it was so fascinating to learn about a group of cross dressers from that pre-internet era, who not only managed to locate each other, but also created a special home for themselves called Casa Susanna. It was a place of refuge and support – a secret weekend retreat that is remarkable not only because it thrived at a time of conformity and widespread intolerance, but also in its remarkable similarities to our online community here at CDH.
At this point I am going to quote from various articles I have found online. Not only to save myself some time, but also because they tell the story more succinctly and eloquently than I might otherwise. Links to the articles are provided for those who are interested in learning more.
The story begins in 2004, as described in an article from the New York Times:
“Robert Swope, a gentle punk rocker turned furniture dealer, came across a set of pictures — a hundred or so snapshots and three photo albums in a box at the 26th Street flea market in Manhattan. He knew nothing about their provenance, beyond the obvious: here was a group of men dressed as women, beautiful and homely, posing with gravity, happiness and in some cases outright joy. They were playing cards, eating dinner, having a laugh. They didn’t look campy, like drag queens vamping it up as Diana Ross or Cher; they looked like small-town parishioners, like the lady next door, or your aunt in Connecticut.”
The online magazine called AnOther continues the story:
“I felt electrified,” Swope recalls of the moment he knew he’d struck gold. “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.”
Stunned by the pictures and moved by the mysterious world they revealed, Swope and his partner, Michel Hurst, gathered them into a book, “Casa Susanna,” which was published by Powerhouse Books in 2005. But it was only after the book’s publication that Swope and Hurst began to learn the story of Casa Susanna, first called the Chevalier d’Eon resort, for an infamous 18th-century cross-dresser and spy.
AnOther magazine describes it this way:
“The group’s secret gathering place was a bungalow in upstate New York, owned by Susanna, the group’s matriarch and – according to her business card which was stuck to the front of a carefully preserved photo album – a professional female impersonator. From the late 50s to the mid-60s, Susanna and her friends would head to their country retreat at weekends to live the life of “typical, middle-class, suburban women, complete with tacky furniture and a scrabble board.”
The article continues:
“The photographs of the Casa Susanna Queendom are remarkably vernacular – their candidness and intimacy converting what was at the time a thoroughly unorthodox pastime into something surprisingly routine. As Swope noted, “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.” But it is also the strong sense of community, warmth and fun that the protagonists exude, underscored by a delightful sense of self-assertion, that makes their story so engaging – whether striking a pose in a glitzy swimsuit, watering the garden or having a girls night in, dressing up and taking pictures.”
Perhaps my favorite photograph from the Casa Susanna collection is the one above, showing a group of girls happily taking photos of each other. Absent the instant gratification of digital photography, they would have needed to be send the film out for processing by nameless laboratory technicians, who no doubt took some degree of interest in the subject matter. I wonder what steps they might have taken to remain anonymous, because discovery during this era could easily have resulted in jobs lost, families destroyed and lives forever ruined (sadly, this can and does still happen).
Regarding the parallels with CDH, it is interesting to see how these girls not only desired to dress in the fashion of the times, but also clearly enjoyed their time together as women. And of course, the remarkable Casa Susanna collection reveals how much these girls loved the camera, with the photographs covering the gamut from striking a girly pose to engaging in mundane household chores. It seems the desire to capture and share images of our femme selves is an aspect of cross dressing that is truly timeless.
Links for those interested in further reading:
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