Betsy Wollheim, Casa Susanna, Diana Merry-Shapiro, DOC NYC, documentaries, film festivals, Gregory Bagarozy, Katherine Cummings, LGBTQ, Marie Tonell, movies, New York, reviews, Sebastian Lifshitz, Susanna Valenti, TIFF, Tito Arriagada, Toronto International Film Festival, Venice International Film Festival
November 26, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Sébastien Lifshitz
Culture Representation: The documentary “Casa Susanna” features an all-white group of people discussing Jewett, New York-based Casa Susanna, a popular gathering place for transgender women and cross-dressing men from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s.
Culture Clash: The transgender women and cross-dressing men who frequented Casa Susanna had to hide their true selves during a time in America when trans women, drag queens and male transvestites could get arrested for dressing as women.
Culture Audience: “Casa Susanna” will appeal primarily to viewers who want to know more about a specific transgender community gathering place that most people are not widely aware of in LGBTQ history.
From the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, a bungalow camp/rural resort named Casa Susanna in the Catskills city of Jewett, New York, was a safe haven for members of the LGTBQ community who wanted to dress and live as women, regardless of the gender identities of the people who were at Casa Susanna. The documentary “Casa Susanna” tells the history of this resort from the perspectives of two transgender women, who frequented Casa Susanna, and two cisgender people, who had family members with strong connections to Casa Susanna. It brings a noteworthy spotlight to a meaningful community-gathering place for transgender women and cross-dressing men. There’s respect given in the documentary, but viewers will sense that more of Casa Susanna’s individual stories could have been told.
French filmmaker Sébastien Lifshitz, who has directed numerous LGBTQ-focused documentaries and narrative feature films, directed “Casa Susanna” with the tone of trying to make the movie as personal as possible, rather than being a comprehensive historical film. Lifshitz’s previous movies about transgender people include the narrative feature film “Wild Side” and the documentaries “Bambi, A French Woman,” “Little Girl” and “Bambi.” His previous movies have taken place in France or Algeria. “Casa Susanna” is his first movie that’s set entirely in the United States.
“Casa Susanna” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival and has since made the rounds at other film festivals in 2022, such as the Toronto International Film Festival and DOC NYC. “Casa Susanna” won DOC NYC’s U.S. Competition Grand Jury Prize in 2022. In awarding the prize, DOC NYC’s 2022 U.S. Competition jury issued a statement that says, in part: “‘Casa Susanna’ is a beautifully crafted film featuring hauntingly exquisite archival footage. Both cinematic and intimate, it offers a unique way into the trans experience by contrasting nostalgic and past stories through contemporary characters. This approach allowed us to understand how laws and perspectives have changed over the years.”
It’s a great way to describe the movie, but “Casa Susanna” isn’t without some flaws, such as how the documentary doesn’t offer any perspectives on what transgender people of color experienced as guests at Casa Susanna. The documentary also doesn’t address why only two former Casa Susanna patrons were interviewed for the movie. Viewers can only speculate why. Many of Casa Susanna’s customers and patrons have no doubt passed away, but many were still alive at the time this documentary was filmed. It’s why having only two former Casa Susanna patrons interviewed in the documentary makes it look like the filmmakers didn’t do enough to include interviews with more former Casa Susanna patrons.
However, the good news is that the people who are interviewed in the documentary are thoroughly engaging and tell compelling stories that will give viewers an idea of what Casa Susanna was like from transgender and cisgender perspectives, even if the interviewees can’t tell the entire story of this special place. “Casa Susanna” also has some great scenes where the interviewees go back to the former site of Casa Susanna and have heart-to-heart conversations with each other that are exclusive to this documentary.
These are the four people who are interviewed in “Casa Susanna”:
Katherine Cummings, a transgender woman born in 1935, was a frequent patron of Casa Susanna from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. Cummings was born in Scotland, was raised in Australia, and lived in Canada (mostly in Toronto) when she would go to Casa Susanna. During her previous life living as a man named John, Cummings was married to a woman and had three daughters during this marriage. (Cummings passed away in 2022. The documentary includes an end credit stating, “In memory of Katherine Cummings.”)
Diana Merry-Shapiro, a transgender woman born in 1939, grew up in a conservative farming community in Iowa but has spent much of her life as a resident of California or New York. She was a frequent patron of Casa Susanna in the early-to-mid 1960s. Just like Cummings, Merry-Shapiro previously lived her life as a cross-dressing man (she used the name David), was married to a woman, and had gender affirmation surgery after the marriage ended in divorce. After her gender-affirmation surgery, Merry-Shapiro married a man and became a homemaker, but that marriage also ended in divorce. Merry-Shapiro then became a computer programmer who had a long career at Xerox when she was living in California. She and her third spouse, a woman named Carol, live in New York City, and have been married since the early 1990s.
Betsy Wollheim, born in 1952, is president, co-publisher and co-editor-in-chief of Daw Books, a New York City publishing company whose specialty is science fiction. She is the cisgender daughter and only child of sci-fi author Donald Wollheim (also know as Doris Wollheim), who presented himself as a cross-dressing, cisgender man. Betsy says that her mother not only knew before the marriage that Donald wanting to dress as a woman but her mother also usually went with Donald to Casa Susanna. However, it was a family secret until Betsy’s widowed mother was on her deathbed and told her.
Gregory Bagarozy, born in 1951, is the cisgender grandson of Marie Tonell, the cisgender woman who co-owned Casa Susanna with her spouse. Bagarozy tells the story about how Tonell used to own a wig shop in New York City, where one of the shop’s customers was an immigrant from Chile named Tito Arriagada. Tonell quickly figured out that Arriagada was a cross-dresser, she completely accepted it with no hesitation, they fell in love, and they got married in 1958. For years, Arriagada (who was a radio announcer) lived separate lives as a man and as a woman named Susanna Valenti (Casa Susanna’s namesake), but eventually lived life openly full-time as a transgender woman. (Valenti and Tonell are now deceased. They sadly died a week apart from each other in November 1996.)
All of this background information unfolds throughout the documentary in memories and anecdotes shared by the interviewees. Not surprisingly, Cummings and Merry-Shapiro have the most interesting stories to tell, since they were actually part of the Casa Susanna community. Bagarozy and Betsy Wollheim were children when Casa Susanna existed, so they only have second-hand knowledge of what it was like to be in this adult environment. However, Bagarozy and Betsy Wollheim both say that they found out later in life that many of the Casa Susanna regulars were people they already knew as friends of their respective families.
Cummings says that she remembers Casa Susanna as a place of “total freedom” to be who she was at the time, which was someone figuring out which gender to live as permanently. In the documentary, Cummings says from as early as she could remember, she never felt quite right living as a male. Cummings remembers being 5 years old and loving the feeling when her older sister would let Cummings wear her clothes. Cummings says that going to Casa Susanna was a “necessity” because “I needed to know what it was like to live as a woman for an extended period.”
Merry-Shapiro talks about childhood memories of being in the third or fourth grade and praying that she would wake up as a girl. “It was a secret that I had,” Merry-Shapiro says of this feeling. “I kept thinking that I would grow out of it. It never did go away.” She also talks about being fascinated with news about actress Christine Jorgensen, who became America’s first famous transgender woman when she had gender affirmation surgery in 1952. However, Merry-Shapiro remembers being afraid to talk to anyone about it, because she knew people in her community would shun or bully her for being interested in transgender issues.
When Merry-Shapiro was an adult and eventually came out as a transgender woman, her mother (whom Merry-Shapiro describes as “a serious Lutheran”) was much less accepting than her father. One of the most poignant scenes in the documentary is when Merry-Shapiro tearfully describes what happened when she visited her parents for the first time after having her gender-affirmation surgery. Still, her father’s acceptance only went so far. Merry-Shapiro says of her parents’ overall attitude: “I was an embarrassment to them. It was just as well that I disappeared.”
“Casa Susanna” gives detailed descriptions of the secrecy involved in Casa Susanna’s history. Because of homophobic laws and beliefs in society, Casa Susanna (which was originally located on a 288-acre property and later relocated to a 188-acre property) started off being marketed as an entertainment destination where heterosexual couples could go to watch shows featuring “female impersonators.” In those days, being a transgender woman or a drag queen was acceptable as entertainment, but not as a way of life.
According to the documentary, these “female impersonators” were really transgender women, drag queens and transvestites who already considered Casa Susanna a community gathering place but went along with the idea that they could also be part of the Casa Susanna’s entertainment for paying customers. The bungalows were where visitors and semi-residents stayed at Casa Susanna. Although Casa Susanna publicly presented these entertainers and other cross-dressing guests as heterosexual men, Bagarozy says that it’s highly unlikely that most of the people at Casa Susanna were heterosexual men.
Bagarozy comments on the transgender women and cross-dressing men at Casa Susanna: “These people were major film directors, attorneys, airplane pilots—all sorts of professions where people reached the pinnacle of their careers. They risked a lot for doing what they wanted to do.” Bagarozy adds, “It’s not like they wanted to be [pinup model] Bettie Page, or someone like that. They wanted to be an acceptable person of the female persuasion in society.”
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, identifying as any sexuality that wasn’t heterosexual was dangerous and (in many places) illegal in the United States. And that’s why Casa Susanna could not advertise in mainstream media that it was a place for transgender women and cross-dressers. Therefore, the community that grew from Casa Susanna mainly heard about it through word of mouth.
However, a lot of credit for creating awareness about Casa Susanna is given to Tranvestia magazine, which was founded in 1960, by a scientist named Virginia Prince, who was a transgender activist. Prince also created the Foundation for Personality Expression (FPE) for transgender people. Cummings says in the documentary that Prince got the idea to launch FPE at Casa Susanna, where Prince was a regular visitor. After Casa Susanna relocated to a smaller 188-property, it stopped offering “female impersonator” shows and became only a business of resort lodging.
Bagarozy paints a rosy picture of Casa Susanna’s transgender and cross-dressing people, whom he remembers as being cheerful and friendly to him when he was a child. He also acknowledges how rare it was to have a grandmother who was immediately accepting of having a transgender spouse. By contrast, Bagarozy says his mother Yolanda, who was Tonell’s daughter, never approved of Tonell’s marriage and Casa Susanna.
Although Casa Susanna was a happy place where people could be themselves, the reality was much bleaker for people who had to hide their true selves in their everyday lives. Cummings and Merry-Shapiro say that they struggled for years with shame, confusion and indecision over whether or not to have gender affirmation surgery. Cummings says she came to the decision to have the surgery because too many of her transgender friends were committing suicide, she didn’t want to die that way, and she wanted to be happy as her authentic self.
Cummings and Merry-Shapiro both admit that the women they were married to during their Casa Susanna years were okay with cross-dressing (and often accompanied them to Casa Susanna), as long as Cummings and Merry-Shapiro identified as cisgender men who just happened to dress as women in secret. Merry-Shapiro’s first wife Julie knew about Merry-Shapiro’s fashion preferences before they got married, when they were college sweethearts. Cummings’ then-wife didn’t find out until about a year after they were married, and the wife eventually didn’t want to go to Casa Susanna anymore.
Cummings and Merry-Shapiro say that their respective marriages eventually fell apart when Cummings and Merry-Shapiro decided they wanted to live openly as women and eventually have gender affirmation surgery. Cummings says that while one of her daughters completely accepts her as a woman, her other two daughters chose to remain estranged from her. The documentary doesn’t mention if the two estranged daughters made peace with Cummings before she died. Merry-Shapiro does not have children.
Merry-Shapiro and Cummings both say in the documentary that they have no regrets about having gender affirmation surgery. “I felt marvelous,” Cummings says of how she felt after getting the operation. “I felt for the first time in my life, I was the real person, that I had discarded bits of me that weren’t necessary, and I had gained bits of me that were [necessary].”
Merry-Shapiro says that she got her surgery with the help of a friend/benefactor named Gloria, who offered to pay for this medical procedure and went on a road trip with her to Mexico, where the procedure was done, because it wasn’t legal in the U.S. at the time. Merry-Shapiro admits, “That is a very isolating experience for any human being, I think, when who you are is against the law. There’s still a little bit of anger in me, even now, that I had to leave the country to have the surgery done.”
Donald Wollheim and his wife stayed together until he died, but daughter Betsy isn’t so sure if it was a marriage that ever had romantic passion. She says in the documentary that she was very surprised to read in her father’s memoir that he was in love with his wife. Betsy comments, “I knew he loved my mother deeply, but I didn’t see the ‘in love’ part.” She says that her parents would send her away to summer camp as a child when the parents would take their secret trips to Casa Susanna.
Betsy also remembers that her father had a favorite women’s nightgown when she was a child, but it wasn’t until she was about 12 years old when she really began to understand that her father was a cross-dresser. She describes how on Halloween Eve in 1964, her father wanted to dress as his sister for a Halloween party. He spent about five hours in the bathroom getting ready. She recalls thinking that he looked “very ghoulish” with all the makeup on, but she was suddenly struck by being fully aware for the first time that her father was “really into this [cross-dressing]—I just didn’t know to what extent.”
As for Donald Wollheim’s sexuality, Betsy says that all she knows is that her father was a “very isolated introvert” who “had no relationship with women until he met my mother.” She adds, “His childhood was very complicated and gothic,” because Donald Wollheim’s urologist father, whose specialty was treating sexually transmitted diseases, taught his children to have a fear of the human body and spreading germs.
Betsy also shares painful memories of her father being verbally abusive to her, which she says got worse when she reached puberty. He would tell her she was ugly and wrongfully accuse her of being a liar and a fraud. She says it took her years to understand that her father was projecting a lot of his self-hatred onto her, considering how much he wanted to look like a woman. Betsy also says that even though her father could be cruel to a lot of people, she’s convinced that he was never cruel to his friends at Casa Susanna, which she believes is the only place where he was truly happy.
“Casa Susanna” has several photos of people at Casa Susanna in its heyday, but it’s also mentioned in the documentary that people at Casa Susanna were very cautious about who was taking photos and where these photos might end up. Cummings says, “We were all a little bit paranoid of: ‘Who’s going to find out? Am I going to lose my job? Am I going to lose my family?’ Which is what happened back then.” The documentary doesn’t mention Robert Swope and Michel Hurst’s 2005 photo book “Casa Susanna,” which inspired playwright Harvey Fierstein’s 2014 Broadway play “Casa Valentina.”
Even though “Casa Susanna” offers a very limited number of perspectives, it’s a documentary that still gives a vivid portrait of a community of people who found each other and thrived in a society that wanted this community to hide in shame or be punished. It’s an inspiring story about human connections and camaraderie that made a lasting and positive impact on people’s lives. But it’s also a sobering reminder that homophobia causes human rights violations that are still going on today and aren’t just history from a past century.
The PBS series “American Experience” will premiere “Casa Susanna” on a date to be announced.