An inconspicuous home nestled in the upper Catskills holds a special place in queer history.

The property in Hunter, New York was once the site of Casa Susanna, a resort for cross-dressing men and transwomen. The resort was run by and named after Susanna Valenti, who also went by Tito, and her wife Maria.

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For men who identified as transvestites in the lates '50s and early '60s, Casa Susanna was a refuge where they were free to express themselves without judgment. The use of the word transvestite was indicative of the time period. While most who visited Casa Susanna identified as heterosexual crossdressing men, many would later come out as transwomen.

Watch PBS American Experience Episode on Casa Susanna

The guests at Casa Susanna dressed and lived freely as women before returning to a more restricted existence at home. Casa Susanna drew patrons from New York City and around the country through word of mouth and advertisements in the underground mail-order magazine Transvestia, according to PBS' American Experience.

Photo Album of Life at Casa Susanna Discovered in 2004

Photos taken at the resort were developed by a photographer, who was also a guest. This allowed visitors to Casa Susanna to have a souvenir of their time there without risking the photographs being seen more widely at a time when public knowledge of their cross-dressing would have meant ridicule, ended careers or even criminal charges.

A photo album belonging to Susanna Valenti was eventually discovered by Robert Swope at a flea market in 2004. The photos depicting everyday life at Casa Susanna were published in 2005.

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"It really felt, just from looking at the pictures initially, that these were photographs that were not ever really meant to be seen by anyone outside of their group," Swope told the Times Union in 2023. "I loved the fact that they were so straightforward. ... They were kind of like, ‘Here I am — like it or not, this is who I am.'"

Casa Susanna Documentary Explores Catskill Resort's History

In 2022, Sébastien Lifshitz released a riveting documentary on the resort's history. Casa Susanna featured revealing interviews with Katherine Cummings and Diana Merry-Shapiro, who spent time at the home, as well as relatives of Valenti and the resort's guests.

The documentary also showcases the beauty and peaceful seclusion of the Catskills, which has made it an appealing region not only for Casa Susanna's visitors but Borscht Belt guests and avid hikers and other lovers of the outdoors.

The full documentary and supplemental materials are available at PBS.

Have ideas for other interesting and lesser known stories of Hudson Valley history? Email me at jackie DOT corley AT townsquaremedia DOT com.

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Gallery Credit: Keri Wiginton & Lauren Liebhaber

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