The 1990s belonged to the drag queen. RuPaul became a media star and two drag films, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, grabbed heartland America by the short hairs. Their plots are similar: A trio of transvestites ventures into a rural area and shakes up country folk who never saw a man tottering on high heels. By the final scene, the interlopers have provided not only makeup tips, but also a lesson in compassion. Roll credits.
Pure Hollywood fiction? Guess again. Four decades before Patrick Swayze donned a wig and eyeliner in To Wong Foo, rural Greene County was home to a sorority of male cross-dressers.
Silver Springs was a vacation colony located in tiny Jewett, five miles south of Hunter. It attracted urbanites seeking respite from punishing city summers in the era before air conditioning. Sited on a picturesque but isolated 150-acre patch of land, it offered snug, unheated bungalows that stood adjacent to a barn and main house. When the property changed hands in the mid-1950s, it was renamed Casa Susanna and repurposed drastically: as a refuge for men eager to make contact with their inner woman.
For $25 per weekend, visitors—mostly Manhattan businessmen—were fed three squares and taught the finer points of “passing”; that is, developing a feminine masquerade that escaped detection. This included navigating a sidewalk in pumps, grasping a cigarette between polished nails, and applying foundation to obscure a five o’clock shadow.
The headmaster of this finishing school was Tito Valenti. A New York court translator, he preferred the name Susanna when wearing wigs and evening frocks, which did little to soften his gangster-like mug. While director Ed Wood was wrapping himself in angora, Valenti was at the vanguard of an underground American cross-dressing movement. He penned a regular column for a tranny magazine and offered charm lessons for the novice in his city apartment, which he shared with his wife Marie, the proprietor of a Fifth Avenue wig shop. As his clientele grew, Valenti needed more room. Marie purchased the acreage with her wig-store profits and the place thrived as both a safe harbor and a playground for more than a decade.
The selection of this remote Catskills location was not merely a matter of discretion; it was an act of preservation. Numerous cities considered cross-dressing a perversion, and transvestitism earned you a jail cell. (In New York state, the laws were more abstruse—men were allowed to wear female street clothes if deception was not the goal. When questioned by a police officer, you were obliged to admit your true gender.) Still, homosexuality was illegal nationwide, and hypervigilant cops in the McCarthy era made no distinction between cross-dressing heterosexuals and cross-dressing homosexuals.
The colony in the woods of Greene County was a hidden world. And an open secret. A number of local citizens knew about it. Cross-dressers spoke of it with respect. And it proved a fascinating locus for study by social scientists. (A protégé of sexologist Dr. Alfred Kinsey once spent a weekend.) But the teardrop veil of secrecy surrounding the place was finally and fully teased away two years ago with the publication of a coffee table book titled Casa Susanna by Michel Hurst and Robert Swope (PowerHouse Books, 2005).
“It is not a simple case of a gay story,” said Hurst, in a recent interview.
“Or about drag queens,” added Swope, speaking on the extension from their weekend home in rural Pennsylvania.
Swope, a habitué of Manhattan’s 26th Street flea market, made the discovery on a routine Saturday excursion. Rooting around in a box, he unearthed snapshots from the Jewett hideaway. There were 400 photographs in all. Glued to the inside cover of one photo album was Susanna’s business card, listing her occupation as a female impersonator.
Save for a foreword by Swope, Casa Susanna is a textless compilation of 120 color and black-and-white snapshot images. The eye is initially drawn to the vintage detail: tiled floors, midcentury furniture covered in plastic, kitchen bric-a-brac. Then you consider the mostly unremarkable women with ill-fitting wigs, overreaching for prim, white-gloved, Eisenhower-era glamour. But a closer look reveals more: the vulnerability in each face as they stare down a camera they pray will capture their intended femininity. Hurst and Swope emphasize that most visitors to Casa Susanna were married and considered themselves heterosexual. It was a time before transgender manifestos and gender reassignment. These men simply lived with their contradictions.
“They are trying to escape the gender role they have been made prisoner of,” Hurst said. “There is a part of all of us that wants to escape the narrow reality we are living in.” (Hurst and Swope are in touch with several surviving members of the colony, and collected some of their correspondence, but refused to provide contact information for this article, citing concerns for privacy.)
The ladies’ incessant photographing of themselves bordered on the obsessive. One snapshot in the book offers a field day for Sontagian deconstructionists. Five cross-dressers crowd a bungalow room. Three of them, crouching, have trained their old Kodaks on one standing, who also holds a camera. The remaining queen is playfully snapping the unseen photographer of this scene.
“Photography was essential to them,” said Michel Hurst. “Photography was proof that they existed.”
Casa Susanna inevitably prompted chatter among local folk. In private, people regarded the camp with varying degrees of curiosity, puzzlement, and sneers. If asked publicly, they’d likely display the feigned indifference of the rural denizen. A phone call to the Hunter town historian, Justine Hommell, leads to people who remember the bungalow colony tucked back in the woods.
At the age of 90, Hunter resident Orville Slutzsky is cheerfully cantankerous. Slutzsky, general manager at Hunter Mountain since 1959, certainly remembers the cross-dressers. There is little he hasn’t seen or heard, even if he “never got more than one-and-a-half miles from where I was born,” he brags. Neighbors also knew about the camp, but without rancor. “They laughed it off or passed it on,” he shrugs.
Wilma Harty, 81, allows herself a girlish giggle in recalling the ladies. During the 1960s, Harty stocked shelves and waited on customers at the Victory Store, a market in Hunter’s lower village. She worked there for 10 years and effortlessly describes the small store, leading the listener through the entrance door on the right, past the produce stand and the large meat case straight ahead, ending at the sole cash register by the exit.
The first Saturday summer morning the women glided in for shopping, Harty was a bit shaken by the sight. “They were to the hilt, you know—all out. The hair was all done neatly. Wigs, jewelry. They were overdressed for the market. They were dressed as city people—if you can use this expression—more than country people.” For a few weekends, Harty would smother her laughs until the ladies exited, and then trade notes with coworkers on what they wore and what they bought. But eventually, the drag queens were looked upon as regular shoppers. “They were pleasant and they didn’t bother anybody,” she said. “They brought in business.”
When lifetime Hunter resident Rafael “Rafey” Klein, 79, explains Casa Susanna, you’d think he was a gender studies professor. “In the Forties, we never knew what the word ‘gay’ meant. But they weren’t gay. They were cross-dressers, as we understand it.”
“Good lord; you wanna dig, you’d be surprised at what you’d find,” murmurs John Ham, 72, citing Casa Susanna, but also Catskills lore in general. Local history had its colorful side. Gangster Legs Diamond lived in nearby Haines Falls. A nudist camp flourished briefly nearby in the 1930s, but inhabitants tended to avoid mingling. “They didn’t come naked into town,” Ham said. “That’s a fact.” The summer resort Villa Maria featured female impersonators as evening entertainment, “but that place was straight as a die.”
Ham remembers the exact location of Casa Susanna, but never visited. “I would bet you fun money or marbles, that is when I was in the Army back in the Fifties.” Still, he recalls the stray comments from townspeople, some patently unkind. “There were names applied to it, and I won’t get into that now,” he says diplomatically, but admits that after some drink, people spoke more freely. “You would hear the local barroom stuff. That it was wrong. That somebody would not be disappointed if the place burned up.”
Was there no local sheriff who objected to Casa Susanna, citing some arcane law about public decency to justify running them out of town on their high heels? Ham chuckles at the notion. “There was no ordinance. There was no ordinances at all until city people came up here.”
The saga of Tito Valenti and his drag colony may eventually join Priscilla and To Wong Foo in the canon of drag cinema. When the New York Times ran an article about the Casa Susanna book last September, a Hollywood studio immediately rang the authors. Hurst and Swope were asked to write a treatment—in film lingo, a brief summary of the proposed screenplay—and signed a contract to serve as consultants for a proposed film.
In the meantime, they wait. “These things move very slowly,” Hurst said. He and Swope continue to gather photographs and personal accounts from veterans of Casa Susanna. Hurst added that the pair have playfully assembled their dream cast, including Tom Hanks, Paul Giammatti, and Jack Nicholson.
The Catskills still draw colorful, eccentric souls that seek the seclusion of rural life. A modern successor to Casa Susanna is Gallae Central House on Route 23A in Palenville. Its website features photos of men wearing dresses and makeup who belong to a religious cult called the Maetreum of Cybele, Magna Mater. Devoted to the worship of a Greek goddess, the group celebrates “a belief in the divine feminine principle of the universe.”
A call to a contact number yields a more complicated story. In a teary, rambling half-hour conversation, a person who requested anonymity explains her tale of woe: An intersexed person—that is, born with male and female genitalia—she was the founder of Gallae, a cooperative intended as “a refuge for women in need,” she said. “Trans women were welcome but they were not the focus.” Last summer, her housemates mutinied, declaring their desire to strip away the religious elements and transform Gallae into a commune for transvestites and transsexuals. The founder was, she claims, physically abused and driven from her own property. She plans legal action. “It was a horrible situation and it stinks.”
One can only imagine the ladies of Casa Susanna reacting to this modern tale of identity politics—a far cry from the joys of simple cross-dressing. No doubt they would momentarily look up from their tea and cigarettes, nod sympathetically if blankly, and then return happily to their Scrabble game.