In postwar 1950s America, the now iconic image of the ideal suburban family emerged, with a pair of heterosexual parents, children and a picket fence to frame their perfect middle class home. Indeed, many of the subjects of Sébastien Lifshitz’s enlightening documentary Casa Susanna lived up to these expectations in their public life. But under the genteel surface lived a more subversive secret, as these men and trans women explored their feminine side through the crossdressing practices of the titular community.
Casa Susanna emerged in the 1950s, as a clandestine meeting place for otherwise-male presenting individuals who desired to express and entertain themselves as women in like-minded company. Located in the Catskills region of New York, the bungalows attracted middle to upper class men who sought a safe haven to reject the gender-conforming expectations of their everyday lives. At a time when such a practice was often deemed illegal in many parts of the United States, this underground network grew in numbers as it entered the 1960s. Though it no longer exists, the memories of Casa Susanna live on today in the minds of its former patrons.
Casa Susanna introduces us to a few of these former members, in addition to a man and woman whose fathers were also avid members. Framed as a pilgrimage of sorts, Lifshitz captures them making a journey to Casa Susanna and reuniting with each other. And through interviews, photos and archival footage, we get a keen sense of their nuanced experiences and sociocultural context.
Indeed, Lifshitz makes smart choices in exploring the community, selecting subjects who reflect the complex identity of its membership. For example, one is the daughter of a science fiction author who unwaveringly affirmed his heterosexual identity and raised an archetypal middle class family. Another is a man who later transitioned through gender-affirmation surgery and eventually found love in a lesbian relationship. In addition, select clips from the media reflect the general curiosity towards, and othering of these men and trans women, through such examples as the attention surrounding Christine Jorgensen. And furthermore, the setting of the interviews in the serene Catskills aside the unassuming former property – with a melodious score evoking a 1950s Hollywood romance – allows us to immediately understand its appeal as a secluded mecca.
Lifshitz truly crafts an illuminating film filled with many insightful details. But Casa Susanna is perhaps equally revealing for what it doesn’t include. Although the glamorous cross-dressing and performances are reminiscent of the later ballroom culture of New York City, the racial and economic makeup is glaringly different. Lifshitz implicitly acknowledges that this is a natural result of the word-of-mouth nature of recruitment among successful White men. But one can’t help but the lament the comparative lack of access to such uplifting and safe spaces for queer people of color, particularly amid the racial tensions of mid-20th century America.
While Casa Susanna is emblematic of a specific kind of White privilege, it shows the underlying vulnerability and shared humanity of queer people from all walks of life. Despite their financially secure lives, they still suffered from social stigma, self-loathing and at worse, suicidal inclinations. As such, Casa Susanna ultimately reinforces the universal need for love and acceptance, from others and from within.