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‘Casa Susanna’ Review: A Deeply Affecting Exploration of a Secret Chapter in LGBTQ History

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A memory piece in four extraordinary voices, Sébastien Lifshitz’s sharp and tender documentary reveals the secret history of an underground network created by cross-dressing men and transgender women in the 1950s and ’60s. Casa Susanna takes its title from the secluded Catskills resort that became a refuge for pathfinders from around the world at a time when many countries’ laws and social norms were aligned against them. Two of these pioneering trans women, octogenarians at the time of filming, are interviewed for the doc, recalling the rustic retreat’s crucial role in their journey to self-realization. The other two subjects, now entering their 70s, were children during the Casa’s heyday, with family ties to the uncommon New York bungalow colony.

The French filmmaker, who has explored the transgender experience in a number of films, among them the narrative drama Wild Side and the nonfiction features Bambi and Little Girl, brings his subjects back to the scene of the life-changing, life-saving gatherings. Against the hushed rural setting, where some original buildings still stand and many of the cabins are in ruins, Lifshitz conducts lengthy sit-down interviews, all of the four so thoughtful and disarming that you’ll likely soon share the director’s affection for them.

Casa Susanna

The Bottom Line

Complex and riveting.

The intimate camerawork by Paul Guilhaume (Paris, 13th District) and Tina Baz’s sensitive editing (both she and Guilhaume worked on Lifshitz’s Adolescents) are invitations to settle in for the firsthand accounts, which are as warm as they are incisive. In their specificity and emotion, the quartet’s recollections are alive with a complexity that defies categorization.

The precise chronology isn’t clear, but the concept of Casa Susanna (the subject of a Harvey Fierstein play) began with a larger property, Chevalier d’Eon, and female impersonator shows at a club called the Wigwam. The driving forces behind all these projects were Marie Tonell, the spirited and enterprising Italian American owner of a Manhattan wig shop, and her husband, Chilean transplant Tito Arriagada, whose alter ego was Susanna Valenti, eventual hostess-with-the-mostest of her namesake Casa. Tonell’s grandson Gregory Bagarozy speaks fondly of sneaking out to watch the performances, and movingly of the love between Marie and Tito/Susanna.

It was through the magazine Transvestia that self-described cross-dressers found one another and learned of Tonell’s upstate haven, a place where, as habitué Katherine Cummings puts it, they had “total freedom … to be themselves for a change.” (None of the interviewees are identified with onscreen titles, though first names occasionally make it into their conversations.) Cummings, who died in early 2022, and to whom the film is dedicated, has the quiet, hard-won authority of a doyenne. Her commentary radiates elegance and wit, as does that of Diana Merry-Shapiro, whose face lights up when she describes the “exultation” of her first visit to Casa Susanna. Cummings’ pilgrimage to the Catskills began with a voyage from Australia by ship; Merry-Shapiro hitchhiked from Indiana.

But more crucial than the miles they traveled were the psychic journeys they and other Casa guests embarked on. In the privacy of the resort, they could discover how it felt to live as a woman for a stretch of time, rather than in stolen hours during their otherwise conventional lives. Many were accomplished professionals, and all of them identified as heterosexual at the time (that would eventually change for some of them). Their wives and girlfriends were part of the community that sprung up in the countryside and carried on in a couple of groups in Manhattan.

Betsy Wollheim, the film’s fourth interviewee, learned years after the fact that her mother drove her father to the Catskills every weekend of the summer for much of her childhood so that he could spend time with fellow cross-dressers. He was science fiction author and publisher Donald Wollheim (he published Ursula Le Guin’s first two novels), and under the pseudonym Darrell G. Raynor he wrote a book about his experiences at the Casa. Betsy reads from that book, A Year Among the Girls, in voiceover, and her onscreen interview lays forth a striking story — of her mother’s undying devotion to her father, and of his unspeakable cruelty to his only child. She was the punching bag for the verbal assaults of a troubled man, and one who apparently never overcame conflicted feelings about who he was.

There’s plenty of photographic evidence to the contrary — the documentary makes stirring use of an exceptional trove of archival material, in addition to its evocative selection of vintage music — but Cummings recalls Donald as more of a curious hanger-on than a committed explorer. Looking through snapshots, she tells Wollheim she can recall seeing her father in women’s clothing only once.

Cummings and Merry-Shapiro would eventually take the leap and move past the sense of a split self in ways that Wollheim perhaps never could. But nothing was easy, and for years — a quarter-century, in Cummings’ case — they dutifully played the part of husbands. Merry-Shapiro recalls her prayers as a child, “isolated in Iowa,” to wake up as a girl, and how she took heart from the news of Christine Jorgensen. (To strong effect, Lifshitz excerpts a newsreel documenting Jorgensen’s return to the States after her headline-making gender affirmation surgery in Denmark). Many years later, through the underground network she’d become a part of, a benefactor known as Gloria would pay for Merry-Shapiro’s surgery in Tijuana. Get out your handkerchiefs for her recollection of her first post-transition visit with her father.

At Casa Susanna, there might have been occasional costume shows, but va-va-voom performance wasn’t the goal. Hanging out together, sharing meals, gardening, the guests helped each other make their way through the world, and tried to sort out the pressing existential question of who they were and where they belonged. There are no neat, easy labels for the four people who share their remarkable stories in Lifshitz’s film. Each, in their own way, is unforgettable, and the beauty of Casa Susanna is an embrace far more powerful than reductive identity politics. As Cummings tells Merry-Shapiro on their walk through the wooded remains of their former haunt, “I never adopted people because they were trans; I adopted people because I liked them.”



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