“A bubble of dignity”: Inside the Catskills cross-dressing retreats of the '60s

As Harvey Fierstein’s “Casa Valentina" opens on Broadway, Salon talked to one of the women who inspired the play

Published April 22, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

Nick Westrate, John Cullum, Gabriel Ebert in "Casa Valentina"     (Matthew Murphy)
Nick Westrate, John Cullum, Gabriel Ebert in "Casa Valentina" (Matthew Murphy)

Tomorrow night, Harvey Fierstein's new play “Casa Valentina” opens on Broadway. This, his first play in 30 years — he most recently penned the hit musical “Kinky Boots” — is based on the true story of a group of heterosexual cross-dressers in the early ’60s who would gather at a Catskills hotel in upstate New York to freely inhabit their female alter egos.

One member of the audience tomorrow night will be Katherine Cummings, an actual resident of the “Casa Susanna,” as it was really called. Katherine attended the resort back when she was still known as John Cummings, and is now an award-winning author and well-known advocate for transgender rights in Australia. She was a consultant for Fierstein for more than two years as he worked on the script for “Casa Valentina.” And for the past few weeks, she's been in New York in the lead-up to opening night. I spoke to Katherine about her memories of the real “Casa” and what it’s like to see her life represented onstage.

You attended Casa Susanna back in the '60s. Is it true that some of the men actually brought their wives with them to the house?

Oh, absolutely. Perhaps the only element that's missing in the play is the presence of the wives, because virtually everyone ... was heterosexual and married and many had children.

It was a kind of reassurance for the wives who came along with their husbands that nothing was going on between these men up in the Catskills.

Were you married at the time?

No. I was engaged. One of my reasons for coming to the states was to find out a how big a hold on me this cross-dressing had. Like many of us, I thought, after I get married, I won't need this imaginary woman anymore. I'll have a woman of my own. When, in fact, very often that wasn't the issue.

Can you talk about your experiences there?

It was a very liberating experience. The very first time I went, which was virtually as soon as I arrived from my postgraduate work in Canada, I was sharing an apartment with a cross-dresser.

The very first weekend I felt such a sense of freedom and liberation. For the first time I could walk freely in the open air, talk to anyone I met, be understood without having to go through long explanations about my sexuality. I met a lot of people on that occasion who became lifelong friends, and when I say “lifelong” I mean that, because most of them are dead now.

Many of the characters in “Casa Valentina” are composites of people who attended the resort. But the two central characters of George/Valentina and Rita are based on real people. Did you know them?

Valentina (George's female alter ego) is very close to the Susanna I knew, in attitude as well as in appearance. Rita, the wife, is less like the real-life Marie, because Marie was older than Susanna by about 10 years or so, in late middle age, sort of a ... housefrau, but she was a lovely, generous heart ... and everyone loved her.

You consulted with Harvey about the play for a long time. What was it like, getting to know him and working with him?

It came out of the blue that Harvey emailed me and asked me if I'd be interested in helping … Harvey is a wonderful person, very easy to work with and very easy to get to love.

I remember in the first draft there was a food fight scheduled between the transvestites and as I said to Harvey, that would never, ever, ever have happened. We lived inside a bubble of dignity trying to be ladies as well as women.

The central conflict of the play arises when Charlotte wants to register the group publicly as a sorority with the government. Concerned about public perception, she asks everyone at the resort to sign an affidavit that they are not gay men. What was the attitude of Casa Susanna’s residents toward the gay population?

Certainly not homophobic. We used to cavort with gay people outside of the resort. But the resort had its own rules and we lived by those rules and one of their rules was that it was for heterosexual transvestites. I do not doubt — in fact, I know — that some of the people there were either gay or bisexual, it's just that they didn't practice [that] at the resort. And I don't think it mattered to any of us if that was true. One of my dearest friends at the resort who only died this year once said to someone there at one time “I'm 51 percent heterosexual.” When I came back to live in the United States in the early ’70s, he was shacking up with a female impersonator, so it seems like the [other] 49 percent was taking over.

You didn't transition until you were 52, but you were at the Casa Susanna resort at 27, 25 years earlier. What were the years in between like for you?

I always had in my mind a desire to be female, but I sublimated this for the sake of my parental family in the first instance and then for my marital family. Only when new pressures came into play and I was given an ultimatum to stop cross-dressing or give up the marriage did I go forward to transition, after an unsuccessful six-month attempt to give it up.

During the 25 years of my marriage I wavered between the belief that I was a cross-dresser and the urge would eventually wane as I became older, and the underlying feeling that had been with me since memories began — that there was a female element of my psyche that needed to gain her freedom, despite my obligations to others.

How do you feel about the current landscape for cross-dressers and transgendered people? Has there been enough progress?

I don't think you can say there has been "enough" progress without defining some terms. There is no uniformity of progress, partly because different cultures define transgender differently. India has recently established a "third sex" for transgendered people, but this would be of no use to most Western transgenders who simply want to be accepted in the binary gender pattern, as men or as women. And even in Western society there are exceptions to the rule. But there is no doubt that progress has been made.

What do you hope audiences will take away from “Casa Valentina”?

I hope it will make them think. To some extent I don't care much whether they come up with a negative impression or a positive one, as long as they've thought about it.


By Eric Sasson

Eric Sasson writes Ctrl-Alt, a column on alternative culture for the Wall Street Journal. He is the author of Margins of Tolerance. You can follow him on Twitter @idazlei or visit his website here.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Broadway Casa Susanna Casa Valentina Harvey Fierstein Katherine Cummings Transgender