Following its world premiere at Venice, where it was nominated for the Queer Lion, and showings at other international festivals including TIFF, and London, Sébastien Lifshitz’s feature documentary Casa Susanna receives its US premiere at DOC NYC. Lifshitz continues his focus on trans lives (following Wild Side, Bambi, A French Woman and Little Girl/Petite Fille) by gathering memories about a house in New York’s Catskills that provided a refuge for trans women and cross-dressing men in the 1950s and 60s. This real-life history inspired a Tony-nominated play, Casa Valentina, penned by Harvey Fierstein who will moderate a Q&A with the filmmaker following the DOC NYC screening on Friday, November 11th. The film will then be available to screen online in the US on the festival’s virtual platform until November 27th.
Both Fierstein and Lifshitz first saw images of the resort in a book of photographs, also entitled Casa Susanna, edited by collectors Michael Hurst and Robert Swope who had discovered the treasure trove at a New York flea market. How these archives were uncovered isn’t the focus here though, instead Lifshitz is more concerned with the memories of those who were there. First we meet Katherine Cummings—who sadly passed away earlier this year aged 87—a career librarian and author of the memoir, Katherine’s Diary: The Story of a Transexual published in 1992. Shot in 2021, with some gorgeous work by cinematographer Paul Guilhaume that revels in the early fall tones of upstate New York, we follow Katherine as she returns to the now vacant buildings, once known as the Chevalier d’Eon resort or Casa Susanna, for the first time in over half a century. Katherine, who has a great sense of humour, and a gentle but compelling screen presence, recalls first hearing about the place while living in Australia through Transvestia, a magazine founded by Virginia Prince for the cross-dressing community, which later broadened to include the trans community. The magazine had a social section that enabled readers to make connections with each other, which initially led Katherine to Canada.
Throughout, the interviews are sensitively shot by Guilhaume, with editing by Tina Baz that gives them space to breathe. Katherine’s recollections are particularly vivid and fascinating. As she looks over at the barn which housed “the theatricals”, she immediately reminisces about Halloween 1962 when she used her ballet skills to perform a segment from Swan Lake, while Susanna did some “exotic dancing”. It was a significant weekend, Katherine recalls, with Virginia Prince founding a “national sorority of cross-dressers” called the Foundation for Full Personality Expression (FPE), while a psychiatrist from the Kinsey Institute was present to oversee events. Katherine’s visits to Casa Susanna had a major impact on her, describing being there as “a necessity” for her and recalling the “sheer joy” of being able to be herself with others “without hesitation”. As a child she had fantasied about telling her father that he had “two daughters”, but at Casa Susanna she says that who she was could go unspoken, but understood: “No matter what I looked like, inside I was a real woman and I wanted them to know it, and they did”.
Next we meet Diana Merry-Shapiro, a trans woman in her early 80s, who was also present at Casa Susanna that Halloween weekend in 1962. Diana shares her memories of a childhood “praying hard” that she would wake up a girl, growing up in the “real darkness” of isolation in Iowa in a “seriously Lutheran” household. Her only glimmer of hope as a youngster came as she read about Christine Jorgensen in the newspaper that she was delivering on her paper round, despite not being able discuss the news with anyone around her. She remembers a feeling of “exhalation” of being at Casa Susanna, but went on to largely keep herself away from the community. Married for over thirty years to her wife Carol, Diana had a successful career as a research scientist, helping to create the Smalltalk computer programming language. In one of the most moving moments of the film, Diana emotionally recalls her father’s accepting embrace when she saw him for the first time following her gender-affirming surgery. Surgery that was paid for by Gloria, a friend she met during one of her visits to Casa Susanna, who made a habit of generously helping other trans women financially. Diana still feels “wronged” that she had to leave her own country for Mexico to receive medical treatment because it wasn’t available in the United States at that time.
In addition to the stunning photographs of those who frequented Casa Susanna, some contextual archive footage, such as the news conference of Jorgensen’s return home to the United States in 1952, is sparing used by Lifshitz. The documentary opens with a clip from 1967’s Queens at Heart (unearthed by film historian and archivist Jenni Olson), with four trans women being intrusively interviewed about their lives by a cis male host. We also see a brief segment of a trans woman speaking at a community meeting held in San Francisco in 1966 following the Compton’s Cafeteria riot about being shut out of employment opportunities.
Among the highlights of the film are scenes of Diana and Katherine reunited after many decades, wandering around present day Casa Susanna. There are some touching and tender moments between them and it’s a delight to see them looking through photographs of their younger selves. As the pair walks by the now dilapidated bungalows, Casa Susanna as they knew it lives on only in their memories, and to some extent the film is a meditation on the power of memory.
Almost equal screen time is given to two relatives of those associated with Casa Susanna. Gregory Bagarozy is the grandson of the late Marie Tonell, who ran a Manhattan wig store where she met a customer, Susanna, whom she would go on to marry and together establish what would become known as Casa Susanna. Gregory has childhood memories of surreptitiously getting to see some of the “female impersonator shows” that they staged there. While in the vast majority of states at the time, including New York, cross-dressing in public was an arrestable offense, those staying at Casa Susanna, including Susanna herself, would sometimes go into the nearby town of Hunter without causing too much of a stir according to Gregory.
We’re also introduced to Betsy Wollheim, the daughter of sci-fi novelist Donald A. Wollheim who wrote A Year Among the Girls in 1966 about his time spent at Casa Susanna, published under the nom de plume Darrell G. Raynor. After her father died, Betsy’s mother opened up to her daughter about him being a cross-dresser, detailing how understanding and supportive she had been of her husband, going along to Casa Susanna with him while Betsy was away at summer camp. Men being accompanied by their spouses was common, with the resort defining itself as exclusively for heterosexual cross-dressing men and their wives. As the film details, pre-Stonewall at a time when gay men were stigmatized, criminalized, and classified as mentally ill, the cross-dressing community that gathered at Casa Susanna wanted to clearly distinguish themselves and hoped that they might be able to gain more social acceptance than the queer community. Betsy had a complex relationship with her father, and even in her 70s she’s still processing the way that he “projected” his own feelings of low self-esteem on to her. Nevertheless, there’s a deep affection that’s clear as she looks through old photographs of him and beautifully reads extracts from A Year Among the Girls.
Although what both Betsy and Gregory have to say is relevant and interesting, it begins to feel something of an interruption from the captivating and unguarded contributions from the two trans elders who experienced Casa Susanna firsthand as adults. Betsy and Gregory aren’t part of the cross-dressing or trans communities themselves, so there is sometimes an element of unintentional othering in the way that they talk about their relatives, however loving and respectful they are of them, in contrast to Katherine and Diana’s personal recollections and insights. This might not be the definitive film about Casa Susanna, but it is certainly an absorbing and poignant watch that’s essential for anyone interested in queer history.
By James Kleinmann
Casa Susanna screens in-person on Friday, November 11th at 6:45pm, SVA Theatre as part of the 13th annual DOC NYC. Expected to attend: Sébastien Lifshitz, Muriel Meynard, Q&A moderator Harvey Fierstein.
Casa Susanna, won DOC NYC’s U.S. Competition Grand Jury Prize, and is available to US viewers on the DOC NYC virtual platform until November 27th, 2022.