The blurby bit
Sébastien Lifshitz pieces together the story of a pioneering transgender network in this inspiring and essential slice of queer history.
In the late-1950s, when public cross-dressing was a criminal offence in most American states, a picturesque wooden house buried in the vast surrounds of the Catskill Mountains stood as a safe haven for individuals who had previously been forced to live a double life. Casa Susanna, named after its owner Susanna Valenti, was less a commune than a weekend getaway destination, where visitors could indulge in a variety of activities (such as gardening or make-up tutorials) whilst exploring and expressing their gender identities without fear of judgement or the threat of violence. Having previously documented trans lives on screen in such acclaimed films as Bambi and Little Girl, Sébastien Lifshitz has crafted a richly textured, rousing portrait of a revolutionary queer space and the extraordinary people who inhabited it.From the BFI website advertising the documentary as part of the London Film Festival
The director of the film, Sébastien Lifshitz, also made Little Girl/Petite Fille about an 8 year old boy being socially transitioned by his overbearing mum (see my review). Other works are Bambi about a Tunisian drag queen and a drama about a transsexual prostitute (Wild Side). Several other works detail the lives of Arabic gay men. So, its fair to say he has something of an obsession with these two things.
There is always a Gah! moment when I watch one of these things and it’s been made technically well. This was one of those, with eye melting photography of the Catskills, poignant use of music, nostalgic archive footage which seemed to aid the story and carefully selected clips of talking heads filmed sympathetically. Gah!
It opens dramatically with very pretty feminine men dressed as women, all homosexual, apparently to appear on a dating show. They can’t tell us their real names, the host tells us very seriously, because ‘they’re breaking the law’. I don’t know where the clip was taken from, but I think I have seen it before, and that they are possibly men from the Tenderloin area of San Francisco (certainly later in the documentary, clips of the Tenderloin are used).
However, as homosexuals these men would not have been welcome at Casa Susanna, since the resort hosted heterosexual men only, a fact not made anywhere near clear enough in the whole of the documentary. We therefore have our first sleight of hand from the director, distracting us from the fact that this was a heterosexual-only resort, especially underhand as the clip is also in the trailer.
Following this stark entry point we are then drawn in slowly by one of Casa Susanna’s former regulars, Katherine Cummings, returning to see the old house one last time. We sit in the car as it bumps along the road lined with trees, the flame of maples shaking in the wind while bittersweet jazz plays. It’s evocative but on retrospect, cloying.
Katherine did not ‘transition’ until he was 51 years old, having been a crossdresser previous to that, in a 25 year marriage with three children. Now in his late 80s he is relied upon to tell us much of the story of Casa Susanna. (He also written a trans memoir.) He is joined by Diana Merry-Shapiro, another elderly man of similar ilk, but who progressed to surgery much earlier. The two men don’t know each other at all and the camaraderie between them, when they manage it, utterly forced. Diana makes it clear from the off that he came to Casa Susanna on just one occasion. Neither remember meeting each other.
Then we have Betsy, the daughter of Donald A. Wollheim, publisher of science fiction, who shares her recollections of her father’s aberrant behaviour but is obviously unable to comment on the activities at the house. And finally, the grandson of Maria, the woman who owned the property, who shares his recollection of being a five year old at the time when there were crossdressing shows held there. He used to sneak a peak at the goings-on through the windows.
We therefore have just one person who can talk with reasonable authority about Casa Susanna, which is piss poor for a documentary when you think about it.
Use of still photography
One of the things the film does, as stories are told, is show a photo reel of the men dressed up. They aren’t even all different photos either, but a screen saver gone mad as it were, as photo after photo is repeated. You are challenged to discriminate but also to reflect upon your own discriminatory thoughts. Well, here’s my principal discriminatory thought, many of them are ugly brutish men displaying a sexual fetish, ‘Donald Ducks in a drunken orgy,’ as Katherine later comments. If you want to see a taste of some of the photos you are bombarded with, watch the trailer or see this article from 2018.
We are told by Betsy that a photo, in which Betsy’s mother looks up at Betsy’s father in his get-up as ‘Doris’, that she is looking up at him in adoration, but it looked more like disgust or fear to me.
At another point we’re told that the men never dressed up for sexual gratification, but that they tried to replicate women wearing their Sunday best, yet at the same moment a photo flashes up which is surely a man dressed to titillate himself? Gaslighting.
The child of a crossdresser
Although the film is nominally about the sub-culture of the crossdresser, the main theme which arises is the effect that Wollheim’s festishtic behaviour had on Betsy. Lifshitz tries to frame her experience as proof of how taboo caused pain for the crossdressing man and society at large.
Betsy only learned of her father’s crossdressing after he died and just before her mother had high risk surgery. Her mother felt the need to tell Betsy everything, including showing her photos and the fact that he had written the book A Year Among The Girls under the pseudonym Darrell G. Raynor. Things began to slip into place for Betsy.
She realised a lot his friends, whose children she had played with, were probably men he had gotten to know through the subculture. Every summer for eight years she was sent to summer camp for two months to facilitate his visits to Casa Susanna (her mother would have to drive him there and back). Betsy thought many of the wives went too and hung out together, but you would have thought she would be more sure about that fact, given she had a chance to speak with her mother about it.
Betsy’s only direct experience of her father’s crossdressing was when she was about 12 years old. Her father decided to dress as his sister for Halloween and spent five hours in the bathroom getting ready. When he finally emerged Betsy ran to her room frightened by his ghoulish appearance. She knew immediately that he was really into crossdressing but she had no idea of the extent until her mother’s revelations years later.
As Betsy entered puberty her father began to be very abusive, telling her she was a ‘worthless piece of crap’ and a ‘broodmare’.
He said things to me that were absolutely unforgivable. Unforgivable. When I was 12 years old, I was in sixth grade, he said I was ‘a liar, a cheat and a fraud’. How can a 12 year old be a fraud? And I never lied, I told my mother everything! My friends would tease me that I would tell mommy everything. I didn’t lie. I didn’t cheat because I was the smartest kid in the school, so who would I cheat from? And I wasn’t a fraud, because what 12 year old can be a fraud! It took me over twenty years to realise that was all projection …Betsy on her father
She was still trying to rid herself of his projections aged 70. The director got the bit he wanted though, because she goes all Stepford Child, telling us that crossdressing made her father happy and if he was happy, that meant her household would be too, therefore providing the director with a justification for having her awful testimony included in this ode to crossdressing.
Betsy imagined her father being at Casa Susanna, happy and free, rubbing along just swell with the other men. As if it were the Promised Land. Picturing him in this way clearly helped lighten some of her memories.
Of the two heterosexual crossdressing men, Diana is undoubtedly warmer than Katherine, with a more interesting story. The inciting factor for his transition came during childhood when he read about Christine Jorgensen’s ‘sex change’. He only visited Casa Susanna once and says he wasn’t particularly interested in being part of the TV/TS subculture. In fact, his memory of the place is so dim, he can’t even remember what the accommodation looked like. He does remember arriving at Casa Susanna having hitchhiked with a big suitcase and recalls when he arrived someone set his hair and described his stay as the ‘thrill of small pleasures’.
Whilst staying in New York with a rich crossdressing man known as Gloria/Rex, he learnt that his wife had miscarried and Diana had this reflection:
That was a real kick in the head because you know that was almost the worst thing you can imagine happening when you’re in the middle of this blissful pleasure and you’re beloved is having a miscarriage, there’s just something kind of very dissonant about that and very unhappy.Diana reflecting on learning that his wife had miscarried
Their marriage finally collapsed when he sought surgery. Diana tells us anyone who was thinking of surgery had to see the sexologist Dr Harry Benjamin and that his surgery was paid for by his rich crossdresser friend. Gloria/Rex sponsored a lot of the surgeries these heterosexual men thought they wanted. This took place in Tijuana, Mexico (notorious for botched unethical surgery) and Diana was taken to his parent’s house almost immediately after by Gloria/Rex, after which it sounds like he never had contact with them again. Diana’s dad embraced him and wished him the best of luck. His regret was palpable and his emotion at recounting the moment quite affecting.
Was Diana groomed by an older richer man? No one is asking any questions off camera so we never learn anything further when rather interesting moments like this pop up.
After surgery Diana started his life over again and spent a couple of years married to a man, trying to be a traditional homemaker. When that didn’t work out he went back to work and ended up with an influential career in computer programming, working on Smalltalk. He didn’t tell people his secret and eventually fell in love with a woman, who he has been married to ever since. Diana doesn’t quite ever spell out the L-Word, but maddeningly the grandson describes his grandmother’s relationship with her crossdressing husband as ‘lesbian’.
A bit about Katherine
Katherine’s story is a more straightforward tale of spousal and familial abuse, ending with him finally warning his wife that if he couldn’t be castrated he would commit suicide. When he finally told his daughters he had had surgery, he says they took it well but had to admit that two of them wanted nothing to do with him. He says he finds this upsetting but we suspect otherwise.
Reading between the lines we realise that information is being withheld.
For example, Katherine tells Betsy that her father never talked about sex and so he ‘never really made that link’. What link? What are they talking about? He also tells us that he only saw her father crossdress once in all the many times he met with him, which also feels like a petty lie, especially when Betsy’s mother had described him as a ‘pure clothing fetishist’. Katherine declines to understand any of it, so Betsy is no further forward. What happens at the ranch, stays at the ranch, I guess.
So, what did happen at Casa Susanna?
We learn that the men engaged in quasi group therapy, in which they debated the differences between the different classifications of men who crossdressed, that Kinsey Institute psychologists visited, they played cards and – of course – dressed up for hours on end. There were several who sought surgery and at least one experienced buyer’s remorse soon after.
However the most staggering revelation comes near the end, just in passing conversation between Katherine and the grandson of Maria, the woman who owned the property.
‘I know she [Maria] all put you to work immediately when you got here,’ says the grandson.
‘There were some cross dressers who immediately wanted to get into the washing up and scrubbing the floors,’ says Katherine, before clarifying that was never his thing.
This is clearly a type of fetish activity associated with crossdressing, so why wasn’t this explored further? Was Maria’s role perhaps that of a dominatrix?
Casa Susanna is not really Casa Susanna
Most confusingly though, also towards the end, we learn from the grandson that there were actually two properties. The first property that Maria owned was the Chevalier d’Eon, where the crossdressing shows had taken place. Casa Susanna was a much smaller property, simply a bed and breakfast, bought several years later. So, were they really discussing the Chevalier d’Eon all along? Doh!
Would the real Casa Susanna step forward?
That the two properties have been mixed up is not its biggest problem though. No, its biggest problem is that the real touchstone of the community was Virginia Prince‘s Transvestia magazine, which ran small ads allowing like-minded men to meet up, and for Maria to advertise her resort. We are told that Prince organised the first ‘sorority’ of crossdressing men, with the inaugural meeting having been held on Maria’s property. This should have been explored further as you can’t really understand transvestism unless you look at the masochistic motivations behind heterosexual crossdressing. No attempt was made to understand why this band of men, supposedly liberating themselves by finding their ‘other side’, were so opposed to homosexuality and homosexuals. A Donald Duck in a drunken orgy of a film.
If you want to see a copy of Transvestia magazine it is available here, it is mostly pedantically written AGP fantasy and quite unreadable.
The documentary itself is now available on BBC iPlayer as part of the Storyville series: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m001hqnh/storyville-casa-susanna
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