Portico Library … Casa Susanna


Portico Library

The Portico Library on the corner of Mosley Street and Charlotte Street in Manchester, is an independent subscription library designed in the Greek Revival style by Thomas Harrison of Chester and built between 1802 and 1806. It is recorded in the National Heritage List for England as a Grade II* listed building and has been described as “the most refined little building in Manchester”.

The library was established as a result of a meeting of Manchester businessmen in 1802 which resolved to found an “institute uniting the advantages of a newsroom and a library”.

The library’s notable members include John Dalton, Reverend William Gaskell, Sir Robert Peel and more recently Eric Cantona.

Out In The City members met at Piccadilly Gardens Bus Station and took the short walk to the library.

We had booked the café area for the afternoon and enjoyed tomato and basil soup and various sandwiches followed by tea or coffee with biscuits in the library’s tranquil interior.

We were able to view the books on display and the current exhibition – Refloresta! – a groundbreaking installation of immersive sculptural and textile works by world-renowned Brazilian artist Maria Nepomuceno. Maria’s brightly-coloured artworks bring the vibrancy of the natural world alongside natural history books and archive materials from the Library’s 19th-century collection.

There are more photos to see here.

Casa Susanna, a 1960s resort where cross-dressing was safe

In the 1960s, Casa Susanna was a haven for cross-dressers, away from a world that didn’t understand the peace that came from trading in masculine clothing for bouffant hairdos and simple day dresses.

Many guests were heterosexual men who identified as transvestites, a term often considered derogatory today. Later in life, some would identify as trans women.

Photos taken at the Catskills resort were displayed at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) as part of an exhibition, Outsiders: American Photography and Film 1950s-1980s, which features snapshots of people on the perceived margins of society, from musicians and bike gangs to cross-dressers.

In 2003, collectors Robert Swope and Michel Hurst found a box of photo albums and loose snapshots of 1960s cross-dressers, taken in a bucolic country setting, in a cardboard box at a New York City flea market. “I was electrified. I realised instantly that these photographs were extraordinary and something that no one, outside of the group, was ever meant to see,” Swope says. A business card was attached: “Susanna Valenti. Spanish Dancing and Female Impersonation.”

Swope and Hurst published the photos in a book in 2005, and the AGO acquired the collection last year. The photos mostly showed life at two resorts in upstate New York that catered to the cross-dressing community back in the 1960s: Chevalier d’Eon and Casa Susanna, both run by Susanna Valenti and wife Marie. Some pictures had notes scrawled on the back — “Do you like my hair like this or like that?”

That the photos escaped the dustbin of history is “wonderful” to think about, says Sophie Hackett, the AGO’s associate curator of photography. “They are an amazing record of trans community in the becoming,” she says. “They are typical snapshots on the one hand — there they are on the front porch, there they are at a picnic, or at the diving board. But then you kind of realise how exceptional they are as well, just for the subject matter alone.”

Virginia Prince (far left)

Virginia Prince, far left in the photo, was a pioneer in the trans movement. A guest at Chevalier d’Eon for the first time in 1961, she wrote about it in Transvestia magazine, hoping to reach out to the fearful: “Here we were, 15 otherwise normal active men living and dressing like women, and very happy and comfortable we were too. It wasn’t a ‘show,’ a special ‘situation’ or even a ‘party’. We were like any bunch of women who had gone on a weekend trip to some resort.”

Swope, one of the collectors who found the photos, was touched by the courage of the people they portrayed, who risked their families and livelihoods if anyone found out. “These photos are not pictures of drag queens exaggerating femininity but men who longed to experience what it would be like to be a woman,” he says. The resort was not just for the Zsa Zsa Gabors and Marilyn Monroes, Prince wrote in her 1961 article. “The cost is nominal; the value in acceptance, sociability, freedom of expression, conviviality and satisfaction is tremendous.”

Many of the photos in the AGO’s collection are attributed to “Unknown American.” There are several linked to Andrea Susan. Michael Gilbert, a York University professor who researches gender theory, says his late friend, who cross-dressed as Andrea Susan, took photos at the resort and developed them on site in a darkroom, because of the paranoia and fear that would come from handing them over to a stranger.

“You can almost feel their pleasure at being who they are,” says Gilbert, noting how it felt the first time he went to a gender diversity conference, dressed in a skirt and top, and walked outside in 1995. “I had to sit down on the bench and breathe deeply to keep from bursting into tears. Then of course, the next question is why can’t I do this whenever I want to? Who does it hurt? It doesn’t hurt anybody, and that’s the sadness.”

Susanna Valenti, the co-owner of the resort, wrote an advice column for Transvestia magazine. In 1969, she wrote that she had lost the “fabulous thrill” of the two identities and was going to live as Susanna full-time. It was one of her final columns, after which “we lose track of Susanna altogether,” curator Sophie Hackett says. The AGO suspects this collection was hers — perhaps something she tossed out or, if she died, something that was taken to a flea market.

Virginia Prince founded Transvestia magazine in 1960, and was prosecuted in 1961 for distributing obscene materials in the mail. In the late 1960s, she began living as a woman full-time. Michael Gilbert, the York professor and a lifelong cross-dresser who has the alter ego of Miqqi Alicia, calls her “the grandmother of us all.” Prince was very encouraging to others, but as she got older, she became very opinionated and alienated some people, he says. “In those days she was the only game in town.” Prince died in 2009.

In 1966, Darrell Raynor published A Year Among the Girls, which describes Raynor’s time at the inn. “If there was a place where transvestite friendships were made and sealed it was at this resort,” Raynor wrote.

“He shared an apartment with two other men, neither of whom has any suspicion of his transvestism,” Raynor wrote. “I was curious how he could share an apartment and get away with it. He explained that he kept his feminine clothing in a locked bureau. He slept in satin nightgowns, kept his bedroom locked, and managed to attend to his special laundering without anyone ever spotting it.”

Katherine Cummings is a transgender rights advocate from Australia. She visited Casa Susanna as a 28-year-old student, then living in Toronto. Like several of the cross-dressing community who went to the resort, she later had gender-confirming surgery. In an article for Polare magazine, she called it “the first place where I could walk around openly in daylight, confident that anyone I met could be engaged in conversation without the need for subterfuge about my underlying sex.”

Gloria was a Midwestern steel magnate who owned a Polaroid camera, a prized possession because “the results are instantaneous and transvestites cannot wait one minute longer than necessary to be shown just how beautiful they are,” Cummings writes in Katherine’s Diary. “The other reason for their popularity is the need to hide one’s oddness from the world.”

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