Casa Susanna

A Photographic Archive from the Collection of Robert Swope and Michel Hurst

The Casa Susanna photographic archive provides a glimpse into a time and place, revealing a world once forgotten. Casa Susanna, located in Hunter, New York, was a getaway for heterosexual transvestites in the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s. Founded by Susanna, aka Tito Valenti, the resort embraced men who dressed like women, providing a safe haven for the exploration of gender roles in a time when it was not common to do so. The snapshots, clearly taken by the participants themselves, are visually striking and intimate. From doing ordinary household tasks to vamping for the camera, the images are a candid presentation of men playing the roles of many different female stereotypes including the femme fatale, the matron and the proper lady.

The images were unearthed at a New York flea market by the pioneering collectors of Full House, Robert Swope and Michel Hurst. Recognizing the value of the collection and its vernacular expression, Swope and Hurst published 120 of the found photographs in a book titled Casa Susanna (2005); after two sold-out printings in hardcover, the book was released in September of 2014 in paperback. As a result of their stewardship, the compelling photographs and the story behind Casa Susanna has captured significant cultural and media attention. For two years the book Casa Susanna was under option for a feature film with HBO and though never realized the relationship subsequently evolved with the book becoming the inspiration for the Tony-nominated Broadway play, Casa Valentina by Harvey Fierstein (2014). Additionally, twenty-five photographs from this captivating archive were included in the recent exhibition, What it Means to be Seen: Photography and Queer Visibility at the Ryerson Image Centre of Ryerson University, Toronto. 

Michel and I have been caretakers for this collection for more than a decade. After shepherding the collection from a box in a flea market to a play on Broadway, we are ready to let go and allow Casa Susanna to find her next act.

—Robert Swope