NEW YORK — A few years ago, Pennsylvania-based antiques dealer Robert Swope made an unusual discovery. While rummaging through some old boxes at a Manhattan flea market, he came across several scrapbooks from the Fifties and early Sixties. The books contained hundreds of photographs featuring a group of middle-aged male cross-dressers gathered around at a place called “Casa Susanna,” a generic suburban house in upstate New York. Neatly taped to the cover of one of the books was a business card that read “Susanna: female impersonator and Spanish dancer.”
“Immediately, we realized that we had found something really special,” says Swope’s life and business partner, Michel Hurst. “It was kind of a missing piece of the puzzle of gay life in mid-century America.” Indeed, the pictures provide a rare glimpse into transvestite culture long before it emerged in mainstream society as a form of entertainment, with drag queens vamping it up at nightclubs or serving Chinese food at Lucky Cheng’s.
But what interested Hurst and Swope weren’t the images of nascent queendom, where Susanna and her friends pose and preen for the camera in cocktail dresses and garish makeup. “You know, by now we are used to seeing drag queens doing a Marilyn Monroe face or something,” explains Hurst. “But a lot of these were intimate photographs. It was people taking pictures for each other, not for somebody on the outside.” Photographs of the group enjoying such mundane activities as a Scrabble game or afternoon tea have a profound tenderness about them, notes Hurst; they convey a sense of community and mutual respect.
Hurst and Swope imagine that “Casa Susanna” worked like something of a weekend retreat. Men who, Monday through Friday, lived out their lives as bankers and truck drivers would come to the house to relax, as women. Looking at pictures of Susanna and her friends lounging on chintzy plastic-covered sofas, donning fake pearl chokers and sweater sets, Hurst and Swope found distinctive personalities began to emerge. “Susanna was definitely the star,” proclaims Hurst, “and it’s obvious from certain pictures that she was a big romantic. Another individual in the group was more like a little lady who wears white gloves and carries a handbag and is always smiling sweetly.”
This story first appeared in the July 11, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
After some deliberation, Hurst and Swope decided to compile a little more than a hundred of the photos into a book, which they aptly titled “Casa Susanna.” Although the couple is apprehensive about the possibility of one their subjects coming forward to litigate on the grounds of a breach of privacy, they believe the pictures deserve to be made public. “The point of the book is definitely not to make fun of these people,” insists Hurst. “On the contrary, it’s sort of a celebration of them and of their attempt at freedom. I also hope that it will give readers a better understanding of transvestites. I liked the reflection of Robert’s mother when she saw the pictures. She said, ‘These people look pretty normal to me; they look like my friends.'”