In one of those triumphant stories that reaffirms every junk hound's eternal quest for treasures, antiques dealer Robert Swope and his partner Michel Hurst stumbled across a collection of photos at a flea market that revealed an underground community in the Catskills that may have otherwise remained a secret forever. The early '60s photographs featured vacationers who were assigned male at birth, dressed in feminine frocks at a summer resort in the country. What struck Swope was the naturalism of the images. This wasn't camp or drag, but people who were gender non-conforming – queer, trans, heterosexual, or otherwise – who found a safe haven to express their femininity.
Casa Susanna was founded and managed by Susanna Valenti, sometimes known as Tito, and her wife Maria, who also owned a successful wig store in NYC. Their resort was designed to be a sanctuary for cross-dressing, considered a perversion and largely illegal at the time. People from the city who lived conventional lives, escaped to Casa Susanna for a chance to live freely as women for either a weekend or an entire summer. The extended stay guests often took finishing school classes from Susanna, learning how to hide a 5 o'clock shadow or master walking in pumps.
Much of the information about Susanna and the resort came from a magazine called Tranvestia (1960 – 1980), published by resort visitor Virginia Price, who gave Valenti her own column. Tranvestia also first published many of the photographs taken by Andrea Susan, also known as Jack Mallick, the official resort photographer. It was these very photos that were later unearthed by Swope and Hurst.
Though existing outside a binary may have only entered mainstream conversation in recent years, it's important to discover and preserve history like Casa Susanna, to underscore that gender has always existed on a spectrum, across timelines and cultures.