Tito Valenti immigrated to the US from Latin America in the mid-1940s.
Katherine Cummings says that Tito worked as a law court translator, however Darrell Raynor says that he was “a radio commentator who is well known internationally” and that he had interviewed the President and top generals, and Hugo Beigel says that he was a writer and dancer.
Valenti consulted a doctor in the late 1940s about his desires to cross-dress. The doctor showed understanding, and introduced him to another transvestite, the first that he had met.
Valenti’s second wife, Marie, ran a wig boutique in New York, advertised it in Transvestia, and introduced many of her clients to Susanna, her husband’s other persona. Indeed Susanna also had met her when looking for a wig. Marie also catered to professional female impersonators and was regarded as one of the better wig-makers in New York.
With the profits from her wig business, Marie purchased, in the mid 1950s, a country home in the Catskills, which she and Susanna called Chevalier D’Eon Resort. It was an isolated 150 acres with a main house, a barn and several snug but unheated bungalows. For $25 ($190 in 2011 money) a weekend visitor from the city got food and board and lessons in passing as female. There were too few transvestite visitors to make a profit for the Valentis, and most weekends the resort was rented to regular guests. However Susanna did her impersonation show even for these.
She published her address in Transvestia and hosted transvestite social events in her spacious New York apartment. From there, Susanna and others went to the drag shows at the 82 Club, and the drag balls put on by the Phil Black and by the National Variety Artists. A few entered the beauty contests at the drag balls but in competition with the gay world and professional impersonators they rarely won. Susanna relished the crowds and the cameras at the entrance to the drag balls.
As Susanna, she wrote 53 opinion columns, “Susanna Says” for Virginia Prince's Transvestia magazine, from 1960 to 1970. She was known as more easy going than Prince. She coined the metaphor of the ‘girl-within’, that became popular among Transvestia readers. She is quoted as saying:
“Let us, for heaven’s sake, strive to forge a nice, clean cut, real person out of ‘the girl-within.’ Let’s give her a personality of her own. If possible, let’s give her even different tastes than those of ‘the guy within.’”Like Prince she believed in a dual personality that could be developed and worked on.
In 1961 Tito was summoned by postal officials. Two of her correspondents had been charged with mailing obscene materials, and Susanna’s name had come up. Tito pleaded respectability and denounced the obscenities.
|Susanna in 1961|
Both Virginia and Susanna were upset by one guest who not only did not bother to shave, he also smoked a cigar. This brought Susanna closer to Virginia’s point of view that a cultivation of ‘inner femininity’ distinguished true transvestites from drag queens and fetishists. She expressed this opinion in her column several times. Initially 'fetishism' had been equated with partial dressing, but FPE increasingly identified as fetishistic those who fully dressed as female but failed or didn’t bother to fashion themselves as truly feminine. A few years later Sheila Niles would propose the term ‘whole girl fetishist’.
In 1965 Hugo Beigel wrote an article for Siobhan Frederick’s Turnabout, a New York alternative to Transvestia. In “The Myth of the Latent Femininity in the Male” Dr Beigel dismissed the idea that a male-bodied person could have a feminine soul. Susanna replied in Transvestia that Beigel was taking the girl-within over-literally rather than as a metaphor. The metaphor of the girl-within, she maintained, was simply an uncomplicated way of expressing these various motivations and urges that make up a transvestite’s second personality, the feminine self that had to be kept hidden in public settings out of fear of social disapproval. She also countered his claim that transvestism is an acquired condition. Her position was that
“a congenital predisposition (genes, chromosomes, hormones, chemical patterns, etc.) in the TV makes him gravitate towards these diverse elements which, together, spell femininity in our time ... no matter what social and psychological elements play on a boy, he will not be a TV unless he carries within his body the biological seed of TVism”.From this she argued that transvestism could not be cured, and it was not a behavioral disorder.
“But how about the thousands of TVs who do not feel the need to go to a mental doctor. How about us, who feel that dressing gives us serenity, calm, contentment, happiness?”In 1966 the noted photographer Walter Rutter came and took a series of photographs at Casa Susanna.
In 1968 Susanna responded in her column to Prince’s recent appearance on the Alan Burke television show. Burke pushed the line that a transvestite taking hormones and considering surgery was close to being a transsexual. Prince replied that she would not have the operation for anything. Susanna commented:
“Such a statement marks the boundary between the TV and the TS. The TV rejects the thought of surgery. He enjoys living the two sides of the human coin.”However she estimated that she personally knew a dozen transvestites who had had surgery.
“I met them all before the sex change, and some of them, at first, did not know they were TS’s, they only knew that they enjoyed dressing and would feel much happier as girls than in their male role.”However she believed that many who did think themselves as transsexuals were mistaken. She also criticized transsexuals as a group as not being able to pass:
“Very few of the TS’s I know have learned to move and gesture with that suppleness that is exclusively female”.The next year she continued:
“Society insists upon females behaving like ladies—and this is where our TS and pseudo TS friends fail in a most regrettable way. I am thinking right now of several instances whereby people continue to ‘read’ a TS as being a man even AFTER the operation”.Susanna doubted Harry Benjamin’s statement that he knew of no one who had undergone the operation and was disappointed. Instead, Susanna could imagine few successful scenarios for post-operative transsexuals.
By 1968 Susanna had decided to live full-time as female. She started getting to know the merchants and others in Hunter and surrounding towns. She avoided going in with other transvestites as they might ‘blow her cover’. In 1969 she had her ears pierced, took voice lessons and told her three step-grandchildren.
In the October 1969 Transvestia she announced what she was doing. She had lost the “fabulous thrill” that comes with the transformation from ‘him’ to ‘her’ but it was becoming increasingly agonizing for her to make the switch back to ‘him’.
She planned to quit her job in the city and run Casa Valenti as a year-round bed-and-breakfast. She was criticized, as Virginia Prince had been two years earlier making a similar announcement, for failing to maintain the balance. In her last column, January 1970, Susanna spoke about the support from family and friends, and her ability to pass. She said nothing about her relationship with Marie, or what Marie thought about what she was doing. Susanna did provide an article for the 100th issue of Transvestia in 1979 on accomplishments in heterosexual transvestism, but said nothing of her own situation.
Nothing is known of her after that, and it is not known when Susanna died. Katherine Cummings mentions that Marie died in a domestic accident, but doesn’t say when.
In the 2000s, Robert Swope discovered hundreds of photographs at the 26th Street flea market in New York. He instantly read the photographs as of men dressed as women, and purchased them. He and his partner, Michel Hurst arranged the photographs as a book, and when it was published in 2005, it became a fashion item and was sold in design stores.
Robert Hill, working on his PhD about Virginia Prince and Tri-Ess, found the book in a Borders store, and contacted Swope and Hurst through their publisher, and was able to connect the photographs to his own work.
Hurst and Swope were commissioned by a Hollywood studio to write a treatment, and dreamt of cis male stars. Presumably the film was lost in pre-production hell, as the film people say.
In 2014 Harvey Fierstein (Torch Song Trilogy, La Cage Aux Folles, Kinky Boots, Hairspray) turned Casa Susanna into a Broadway play, Casa Valentina.
- Darrell Raynor. A Year Among the Girls. New York: Lyle Stuart, 1966. New York: Lancer Books, 1968:32, 41-2, 44-5, 63-4, 110-4, 116-130.
- Hugo G. Beigel. "A Weekend in Alice's Wonderland". The Journal of Sex Research, 5,2, 1969: 108-122.
- Kate Cummings. Katherine's Diary- the Story of a Transsexual. William Heinemann Australia 1992. Revised and updated 2008: 130-4, 142, 147-9, 151, 195.
- Michel Hurst & Robert Swope (eds). Casa Susanna. PowerHouse Books. 156 pp 2005.
- Robert Hill. Susanna Valenti. www.freewebs.com/a2goblue.
- Walter Rutter. “The Girls of Casa Susanna”. Laurence Miller Gallery Exhibition. 1966. www.laurencemillergallery.com/rutter_exhibition.htm.
- Penelope Green. “A Safe House for the Girl Within”. The New York Times. Sept 7, 2006. www.nytimes.com/2006/09/07/garden/07trann.html?pagewanted=1&ei=5088&en=65cb0552fd285f7a&ex=1315281600&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss
- Robert S. Hill. ‘As a man I exist; as a woman I live’: Heterosexual Transvestism and the Contours of Gender and Sexuality in Postwar America. PhD Dissertation. University of Michigan. 2007: 182-190, 363-385.
- Jay Blotcher. “Queens of the Catskills: Casa Susanna”. Chronogram, March 29, 2007. www.chronogram.com/issue/2007/4/Community+Notebook/Queens-of-the-Catskills
- Patrick Healy. "Clothes Make the Man: ‘Casa Valentina,’ Fierstein’s Play About ’60s Cross-Dressers". New York Times, April 10, 2014. www.nytimes.com/2014/04/13/theater/casa-valentina-fiersteins-play-about-60s-cross-dressers.html?_r=0.
- Paul Moakley. "Casa Susanna: Photographs From a 1950s Transvestite Hideaway". Time, April 14, 2014. http://lightbox.time.com/2014/04/14/casa-susanna.
What is it with New York Route 23A? Casa Susanna was outside the village of Hunter. Continue 15-20 km east on the 23A and you come to Palenville where you can find the Cybele Maetreum and the same distance again gets you to the village of Catskill which is where Dawn Langley Simmons fled to in 1973.
I have no reason to think that this Robert Swope is the one fired in 2000 for criticizing the Vagina Monologues.
The distinction between transvestite and drag queen that I mainly use is that a transvestite wishes to pass and a drag queen likes to be read. Given Susanna’s stage performances and her thrill in running the gauntlet into the drag balls, we can see quite a bit of drag queen in Susanna.
FPE/Tri-Ess is of course known for its homophobia, so it is a nice irony that a gay couple found and published the photographs. (Original meaning of nice = fine or subtle).
Don’t you just love it that the HBS narrative, of we the true trans are congenital and those we don’t like are fetishists, is found full-blown in FPE in the early 1960s. They did it first.