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'Casa Susanna' photos up for auction

'Casa Susanna' photos up for auction
Photos from Casa Susanna, a midcentury haven for cross-dressers, are up for auction at Wright. (Casa Susanna)

When it came out, it was a sensation.

Simply titled "Casa Susanna" and published in 2005, the book featured hundreds of yellowed snapshots of cross-dressing men at a weekend retreat in rural New York during the mid-'50s and '60s.

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The book sold out its first printing and was reissued a year later. It was sold in trendy shops like Paul Smith and Marc Jacobs and spawned a Tony-nominated Broadway play called "Casa Valentina," by Harvey Fierstein.

Three hundred and forty of the photos are going to auction Oct. 30 at Wright, an auction house in New York and Chicago that specializes in modern and contemporary design. They will be sold as one lot and are estimated to go for between $100,000 and $150,000.

The current owners are Robert Swope and Michael Hurst. Swope stumbled across the trove of pictures in 2003 at the 26th Street flea market in Manhattan. He immediately recognized their value and became fascinated with the private world they revealed.

Named for its hostess, Susanna Valenti, a buxom brunette who was also known as Tito Valenti, Casa Susanna provided respite for men trapped in gender roles that didn't suit them. Or rather, somber suits that constrained them.

The photos are of the men dressed in a variety of typical midcentury looks: the demure housewife, the giddy girl in curlers, the sexy seductress ready for a date. The photos are notable because they are not garish or bawdy; these are not drag queens, simply men enjoying the freedom to explore sides of themselves normally locked up tight.

Valenti hosted Casa Susanna with his wife, Marie, who ran a wig shop on Fifth Avenue and acted as a house mother of sorts, providing tips on makeup and cooking meals.

Many of the men who came to Casa Susanna had wives or girlfriends at home, and others felt comfortable enough to bring their spouses or girlfriends with them.

The photos reveal an unassuming world where women share secrets, meals and card games. That so many photos were taken, and how relaxed the men appear, shows that the level of comfort at the retreat was extremely high.

The auction will take place at 10 a.m. Pacific, and all the photos will be on display in Wright's New York gallery, 980 Madison Ave., from Oct. 16 to 30.

Follow me on Twitter @jessicagelt

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