Tuesday, 8 May 2012
Casa Susanna, Anonyme, late 50's/early 60's
Pour le reste, Casa Susanna me fait furieusement penser à l’un de mes films préférés, Willow Springs, un Werner Schroeter de 1973. Et toute l’œuvre de Werner Schroeter sera projetée du 11 mai au 11 juin 2012 au MOMA à New York, à quelques kilomètres de là où Susanna et ses créatures venaient vivre leur féminité le temps d’un week-end. La boucle est comme bouclée.
PAR GÉRARD LEFORT, LIBÉRATION, 15 JUILLET 2005
"C'est un vrai conte de fées. Au sens où les fées ont des grosses voix, chaussent du 45 et, bien que souvent lancées dans des divagations de fillettes, accusent un important tour de taille. L'action se situe à la charnière des années 50 et 60, aux environs de New York, dans une pimpante villa néogéorgienne où, tous les week-ends, sous les auspices d'une certaine Susanna, hôtesse accorte, une vingtaine d'hommes de tout poil se réunissent. Pas vraiment pour commenter les résultats du dernier match de base-ball, mais pour se travestir en femmes. Pendant environ dix ans, ces réunions intimes furent photographiées par quelques-uns des participants pour des albums souvenir à usage privé. Le temps passa, semblant refermer à jamais les portes de cet étrange paradis.
Quelques révolutions sexuelles plus tard, en 2000, le magazine new-yorkais Nest exhumait certaines de ces images, et aujourd'hui c'est une sélection plus large qui est devenue un livre publié aux Etats-Unis sous le titre Casa Susanna (1), qui apparemment était le nom de code de cette sidérante association. Mais le récit de cette résurrection n'est pas moins déconcertant. Robert Swope, préfacier du livre, prétend avec une conviction tout ce qu'il y a de flou que le stock de photos (à peu près quatre cents) fut découvert et acheté dans un marché aux puces de New York et qu'en gros il n'en sait pas plus. Même si on peut douter de cette version et présumer, par exemple, que le fonds Susanna a été transmis par un des participants survivants voulant toujours rester anonyme, voire par la mystérieuse Susanna elle-même, cette ambiguïté n'est en l'espèce qu'une pierre de plus dans le jardin du romanesque. Et, si un jour le cinéma s'emparait de l'affaire Susanna, il faudrait tout le talent d'un Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Loin du paradis) ou d'un Tim Burton (de la période Ed Wood) pour être à la hauteur de cette fiction et si possible la transcender. Car le moins qu'on puisse dire à scruter ces femmes différentes, c'est que, plus de quarante ans après, leurs chimères laissent rêveur et subjuguent le regard.
Page après page, année après année, été comme hiver, elles sont toutes les femmes américaines de l'après-guerre. Les étoiles éternelles du glamour (Marlène, Greta, Rita...), les vedettes d'actualité à l'heure où Jackie Kennedy allait imposer son chic Park Avenue à toute une génération, mais aussi bien les ordinaires, les banales aussi moyennes que la classe sociale dont majoritairement elles semblent issues. Donc plutôt tendance Jack Lemmon et Tony Curtis dans Certains l'aiment chaud que Jane Russel et Marilyn Monroe dans Les hommes préfèrent les blondes.
Au fil des pages, comme une machine à démonter le temps, on les voit vieillir, s'empâter, se rider. Embellir aussi. Il y a les débutantes, intimidées par l'objectif, les aguerries qui posent comme des pin-up, quelques beautés sublimes, d'autres créatures plus ingrates et pas moins bouleversantes pour autant. Ces girls, contraintes par la loi à la clandestinité, sont littéralement des femmes d'intérieur. Et cette intimité explose jusqu'à contester la hideur de la décoration concierge de la casa Susanna et se venger du reste, encore plus horrible : le monde extérieur, les autres jours, la vie de ces femmes redevenues des hommes et, probablement, des maris et des pères de famille. Si on songe aux images de Diane Arbus ou Nan Goldin, c'est que, à l'instar de ces deux photographes de l'Amérique monstre, c'est le hors-champ qu'on voit hurler, gémir et pleurer en cette époque où le pédé rasait les murs et où le travesti était considéré au mieux comme un monstre de foire. Bien que sûrement elles en auraient été les premières surprises, ces femmes sont des pétroleuses qui incendient toute forme de majorité, qu'elle soit sexuelle ou sociale. A ce titre, toutes ces dames d'exception, ladies Macbeth d'un «Queendom» ténébreux, sont ad aeternam d'actualité."
BY PENELOPE GREEN, NY TIMES, SEPTEMBER 7, 2006
THERE was a pilot and a businessman, an accountant, a librarian and a pharmacologist. There was a newspaper publisher, and a court translator. By day, they were the men in the gray flannel suits, but on the weekends, they were Felicity, Cynthia, Gail, Sandy, Fiona, Virginia and Susanna. It was the dawn of the 1960’s, yet they wore their late 50’s fashions with awkward pride: the white gloves, the demure dresses and low heels, the stiff wigs. Many were married with children, or soon would be. In those pre-Judith Butler, pre-Phil Donahue days, when gender was more tightly tethered to biology, these men’s “gender migrations,” or “gender dysphoria,” as the sociologists began to call cross-dressing, might cost them their marriages, their jobs, their freedom.
Decades later, when Robert Swope, a gentle punk rocker turned furniture dealer, came across their pictures — a hundred or so snapshots and three photo albums in a box at the 26th Street flea market in Manhattan — he knew nothing about their stories, or Casa Susanna, beyond the obvious: here was a group of men dressed as women, beautiful and homely, posing with gravity, happiness and in some cases outright joy. They were playing cards, eating dinner, having a laugh. They didn’t look campy, like drag queens vamping it up as Diana Ross or Cher; they looked like small-town parishioners, like the lady next door, or your aunt in Connecticut.
Mr. Swope was stunned by the pictures and moved by the mysterious world they revealed. He and his partner, Michel Hurst, gathered them into a book, “Casa Susanna,” which was published by Powerhouse Books in 2005 and reissued last spring, and which became an instant sensation, predictably, in the worlds of fashion and design. Paul Smith stores sold it, as did the SoHo design store and gallery Moss, which made a Christmas diorama of a hundred copies last year. Last month, you might have seen it in the hands of a child-size mannequin in the Marc Jacobs store on Bleecker Street.
But it was only after the book’s publication that Mr. Swope and Mr. Hurst began to learn the story of Casa Susanna, first called the Chevalier d’Eon resort, for an infamous 18th-century cross-dresser and spy, and only in recent months, as they have begun working on a screenplay about the place, that they have come to know some of its survivors.
“At first, I didn’t want to know more,” Mr. Swope said. “I didn’t want to find out that the stories turned out to be tragedies.”
But the publication of the book has drawn former Casa Susanna guests out, and it turns out that their stories, like most, have equal measures of tragic and comic endings. Some are still being told.
Robert Hill, a doctoral candidate in the American studies program at the University of Michigan who is completing his dissertation on heterosexual transvestism in post-World War II America, came across Mr. Swope and Mr. Hurst’s book by accident in a Borders last year, reached out to them through their publisher, and sketched in many of the details.
“These men had one foot in the mainstream and the other in the margins,” Mr. Hill said the other day. “I’m fascinated by that position and their paradox, which is that the strict gender roles of the time were both the source of their anxiety and pain, and also the key to escaping that pain.”
What still moves Murray Moss, the impresario behind Moss the store, about the images in the book is their ordinariness. “You think of man dressed as woman and you think extremes: it’s kabuki, Elizabethan theater, Lady Macbeth,” he said. “It’s also sexual. But these aren’t sexual photos. The idea that they formed a secret society just to be ... ordinary. It’s like a mirror held up to convention. It’s not what you would expect. It’s also not pathetic. Everybody looks so happy.”
At first, Casa Susanna was a thrilling place, said Sandy, a divorced businessman, “because whatever your secret fantasies were you were meeting other people who had similar ones and you realized, ‘I might be different but I’m not crazy.’ ” Now 67 and living in the Northeast, he hasn’t cross-dressed for decades, and asked that his identifying details be veiled. He was a graduate student in 1960, he said, living in New York and visiting Casa Susanna on the weekends.
“It was the most remarkable release of pressure, and it meant the world to me then,” he said. “I’d grown up in a very conventional family. I had the desire to marry, to have the house, the car, the dog. And I eventually did. But at that point there were all these conflicting desires that had no focal points. I didn’t know where I fit.”
Sandy remembers one weekend sharing a cabin with another man and his girlfriend. “She obviously accepted the situation with him for better or worse,” Sandy began. “Anyway, I didn’t get dressed until later in the day, and when I did, the girlfriend was just coming down the stairs. ‘Oh my,’ she said, ‘you certainly have made a change. I have to tell you, I much preferred the person who got out of the car.’ And with that she reached under my dress and groped me. She said, ‘It’s a shame to have all that locked up in there.’ In one sense, it was titillating, in another, depressing. And yet in another way, it put a finger on the issue.”
The resort catered to hunters as well, Ms. Cummings said, and sometimes there was overlap. “Libby, who was very beautiful, was also Lee, who was a very macho person. And one day the hunters were there and so were we and they all had a great time discussing rifles.”
Mostly the guests talked and talked. “They talked about fashion, and passing, and how and if they’d told their wives or girlfriends,” said Ms. Cummings, who is divorced and has three daughters. “In those days we didn’t know where we were going.”
They had parties, and even a convention of sorts, one Halloween in 1962, that drew cross-dressers from all over the country, as well as a few psychologists from the Kinsey Institute. Led by the irascible pharmacologist Virginia Prince, who made them their own magazine, Transvestia, for which Susanna was a columnist dispensing exhortatory advice and tips on deportment and makeup, many of them formed a loose collective that decades later grew into a not-so-secret society called Tri-Ess (a k a the Society for the Second Self).
“I remember the first morning we all arrived,” Ms. Prince said last week, “and all these, let’s just call them people, descended on the bathrooms and you see all these folks in their nighties and kimonos and so forth standing around shaving. It was a very amusing sight. Beards tend to grow. I had mine removed years ago.”
Ms. Prince became known as the founder of the transgender movement, and wrote copiously on the subject for science and sex research journals and conferences, irritating more than a few Casa Susanna graduates, who weren’t comfortable with the politicizing of their issues, or the strict categories she created. Born male (and still biologically male), she has been living as a woman for the past 40 years. At 94, she’s no longer allowed to drive, but she leads the Lollies (“little old ladies like me,” she said the other day) at her California retirement home in a study group (they’re covering astronomy this month) and drives a red scooter.
“I invented gender,” she said proudly. “Though if the ladies here find out I’m a biological man I’m a dead duck.”
Of Susanna herself, the trail ends with her last column for Transvestia in 1970, when she, like Virginia, announced her plans to live henceforth as a woman.
“Scene: The porch in the main house at our resort in the Catskill Mountains,” Susanna writes in a snippet from one of her early columns, courtesy of Mr. Hill’s research, and trimmed a bit. “The time: About 4 o’clock in the morning as Labor Day is ready to awaken in the distant darkness. The cast: Four girls just making small talk. ... It’s dark in the porch; just a row of lights illuminate part of the property at intervals — perhaps a bit chilly at 2,400 feet. ... An occasional flame lighting a cigarette throws a glow on feminine faces — just a weekend at the resort, hours in which we know ourselves a little better by seeing our image reflected in new colors and a new perspective through the lives of new friends.”
Casa Susanna (edited by Michel Hurst and Robert Swope), powerHouse Books, NY, 2005