“Casa Susanna”, on Arte: a transgender haven that has become legendary

Image taken from the film by Sébastien Lifshitz, Tito-Susanna posing in the garden of Casa Susanna (circa 1965).


The story of Casa Susanna, an intimate and private resort for heterosexual transvestites, established between 1959 and 1968 in the idyllic region of the Catskills, in the State of New York (United States), begins its public revelation with the discovery made by the antique dealer Robert Swope, in 2004, of a collection of photographs of transvestite men on a New York flea market.

Swope first takes the series of images for promotional portraits of early 1960s drag queens. “My attention was beginning to fade when I suddenly came across something completely different: a small format obviously depicting a drag queen sitting on a sofa covered with a plastic cover, happily knitting in an ordinary woman’s outfit. »

These lines are taken from the short text written by Robert Swope in December 2004 for the book he published with his French companion, Michel Hurst, reproducing some 120 of these 340 photos (Casa Susanna, PowerHouse Books, 2005), which have become cult and rare. Their discovery, ten years later, by Sébastien Lifshitz interests the director all the more as he is himself a collector of photos of transvestites (men and women), shown during the exhibition “Mauvais genre”, at the Rencontres d ‘Arles, in 2015, and published in a book (Textuel, 2016).

Occasional escapes

Lifshitz then meets Isabelle Bonnet, photography historian and author of a memoir on Casa Susanna, with whom he conceives the documentary film Casa Susanna (2022), broadcast by Arte. In addition, Isabelle Bonnet publishes with Sophie Hackett, at the end of June, the book, richly documented and illustrated, Casa Susanna. The story of America’s first transgender network 1959-1968 (Textuel/Art Gallery of Ontario, 449 pages, 45 euros), on the sidelines of the exhibition of these shots at the next Rencontres Photographiques d’Arles, from July 3 to September 24.

Read also: Article reserved for our subscribers Arles: the identity photos of Sébastien Lifshitz

But before returning to this exceptional achievement by Sébastien Lifshitz, we should note two creations inspired by the book by Swope and Hurst: the piece Casa Valentinaby Harvey Fierstein (writer of the screenplay and actor in the film Torch Song Trilogy, 1988), created in 2014 on Broadway; and, the same year, episode 8 season 1 of Transparent (2014-2019), series created by Jill (now Joey) Solloway, in which the main character, a heterosexual family man who indulges in female cross-dressing, will spend a weekend incognito at “Camp Camellia”.

In this episode, a controversy arises between some of the transvestites present, sometimes accompanied by their wives (as was the case at Casa Susanna): most of them see these moments as occasional escapes from a life otherwise classically masculine and marital; some mention taking hormones and wanting to become transgender, arousing almost universal disapproval.

This theme of gender identity is central to the film. Casa Susanna, by Sébastien Lifshitz, through two former devotees of the place, Katherine Cummings (1935-2022) and Diana Merry-Shapiro (born in 1939) – formerly John and David, who became transgender women. To which are added Betsy Wollheim, the daughter of science fiction writer and editor Donald Wollheim, who, accompanied by his wife, was also one of the regulars at Casa Susanna, and Gregory Bagarozy, the little -son of Marie Tornell.

Tact and sensitivity

This one, who ran a wig shop on 5e Avenue, in New York, one day sees Tito Arriagada, looking for a hairpiece for a so-called friend. Marie makes him understand that she is not fooled – and marries him in 1958. In the property that the latter owns in the Catskills, the couple opens what will become Casa Susanna, the name of Tito in drag. Because it is Tito-Susanna that we see, in various poses and outfits, on many of the photos found by Robert Swope – which were, in fact, his personal collection.

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With his manner made of tact and sensitivity, Sébastien Lifshitz tells the story of this then clandestine world all the better that he does it through the prism of the “little” story, so touching, of Diana and Katherine (this the latter died shortly after the shooting of the film, dedicated to her memory), completing it with the tender memories of Gregory Bagarozy or those, more painful, of Betsy Wollheim.

While the unearthed archival photos and footage exude radiant bliss from the protagonists dressed as white American middle-class housewives, the film’s ending is twilight. Especially when the ashes of Susanna and Marie are scattered near the remains of the haven of yesteryear, against the backdrop of one of those elegies (signed Barber, Elgar, Ives or Rachmaninov) for which Lifshitz made the subtle soundtrack of his movie.

Casa Susanna, film by Sébastien Lifshitz (Fr.-EU., 2022, 93 min). On Arte.tv until October 12, 2023.

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