Peninsula of Lies: A True Story of Mysterious Birth and Taboo Love

Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
(March 7, 2005)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0743235614
ISBN-13: 978-0743235617

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Peninsula of Lies:
A True Story of Mysterious Birth and Taboo Love

Peninsula of Lies is nonfiction mystery, set in a haunting gothic locale and peopled by fascinating and eccentric characters. Its hero and heroine is Dawn Langley Simmons, a British writer who lived in Charleston, South Carolina, during the 1960s and became the center of one of the most unusual sexual scandals.

Born in England, Dawn began life as a boy named Gordon Langley Hall, the son of servants at Sissinghurst Castle, the estate of Vita Sackville-West. In his twenties he made his way to New York, where he wrote about and befriended great society ladies. A small fortune inherited from Isabel Whitney allowed him to buy and decorate a mansion in Charleston. But Gordon’s world changed in 1968 when at The Johns Hopkins Hospital he underwent one of the first sex reassignment surgeries, scandalizing the Southern community that had welcomed him. Months later Gordon shocked Charleston again. Gordon — now Dawn — married a young black mechanic, soon appeared to be pregnant, and shortly thereafter became the mother of a young girl.

In this biography-cum-detective story, Edward Ball unwraps Dawn’s many mysteries. The result is a beguiling story of a person who tested every taboo, as well as the belief of every onlooker in what he sees with his own eyes.


Peninsula of Lies:
A True Story of Mysterious Birth and Taboo Love

Chapter 1

“Death of a So-called Transsexual”

The Communiqué

The year before she died, Dawn Langley Simmons, a person I’d never met but knew from her infamous reputation, and someone whose sexual identity was a matter of speculation, sent me a letter. I learned later she’d asked someone to draft the letter for her, despite being a published writer, because she suffered from Parkinson’s disease and could no longer type. Dawn Simmons said she’d gotten my address from a friend, and she had a question.

I was living in Charleston, South Carolina, Dawn’s adopted hometown, an old city where she’d settled after sampling its atmosphere of forgotten manners and antique buildings. Dawn explained that she was a lover of antiques, and some years earlier, she’d bought a piece of eighteenth-century furniture previously in the hands of my family. “I once owned the Ball commode chair, which was Chippendale in style,” she said.

It was stolen with everything else after my marriage, which Newsweek said ‘shook the cradle of the Confederacy.’ It disappeared in a fake auction, turned up in an estate, and was featured in Antiques magazine. I would still like to know where the commode chair is. I would be quite happy to find it in a museum, as I did my harp, Palmetto mirror, and grandfather clock.”

A Chippendale commode once used by family members was a bond I didn’t share with many people, but what kind?

There are two types of commodes in furniture. One is a paneled chest that was popular in Victorian drawing rooms. The other is a chair with a big hole in the seat and a bowl underneath, used at night to empty the bladder. Dawn was asking about the Ball family toilet.

Although I had no idea where the thing might be, the chair created a link between this stranger and me, through the warmth of the seat, you might say. I answered the letter with a friendly note, but didn’t promise to locate the commode. When I had more time, I’d get back in touch.

Too many months passed, however, and Dawn Simmons died. When I heard the news, I reproached myself for letting the chance pass to meet one of the most unusual people ever to put down roots in the Southern states, a region that grows a strong crop of weird personalities. Even in the South, with its flair for the bizarre, Dawn’s life had been exceptional, the kind of thing with which people marked the passage of time, like a hurricane, or a war—as in, “Charleston was such a dignified place, until Dawn came to town.”

The feeling of regret passed, however, and I wondered about the letter. Had she really just wanted to talk toilets?

Dawn Simmons, the sexual enigma, had led a lopsided life. She was celebrated in her first incarnation, that of an author of biographies, who happened to be male. Later, she made it known she/he was a transgender person whose identity fell somewhere between the sexual poles, a revelation that led to her ostracism. She faced her punishment with a smile, like an actress catching trash thrown by the audience. In the end, however, she found a kind of vindication, and surprised even her detractors.

With all this, I wondered whether there was another reason she’d written, whether she meant her letter to convey some message in code. I recognized too late that perhaps what she’d wanted was a listener, someone who might pay careful and not mocking attention to her fascinating and unlikely story.

She’d been born in England sometime before World War II as a boy named Gordon Hall, and raised in modest circumstances. During the 1960s, Gordon Hall, who’d grown up into a slight, handsome man and who’d acquired a small fortune, moved to the moldy, provincial American city of Charleston, South Carolina. A picturesque enclave very in love with its Southern heritage, and slow to change, Charleston was still getting used to air conditioning and airplane travel. In those years, the city was so out of date it felt like an island adrift in time. Some people still kept chickens in the yard, while a few rich whites lived in decaying mansions surrounded by antique silver and old black servants. Gordon Hall arrived into this motionless setting with a great deal of money, and he began spending his fortune like a river in an effort to soak open the city’s closed, stuffy society, to which newcomers were, on the basis of their newness, refused admission.

It helped him that Gordon Hall was a modestly successful writer who’d published a couple of chatty biographies (a royal one on Princess Margaret, sister of Queen Elizabeth), plus a memoir. In Charleston, where few people actually read books, this entitled the Englishman to the kind of respect that goes to a magician who can pull things from his ear. It helped also that at every opportunity, Gordon Hall dropped the name of Margaret Rutherford, a dotty English movie star who he said was his adoptive mother, and whose reputation suited the local society, where dowagers had special influence. (Rutherford became known to Americans as Miss Jane Marple, the lady detective in big-screen adaptations of Agatha Christie novels, like Murder She Said and Murder Most Foul.)

All that was a long time ago. But it was still impossible in Charleston, after forty-odd years, to speak coolly of these things, because of what the British writer did next.

In 1968, Gordon Hall surprised everyone when he began living as a woman, and took the name Dawn Hall. To change to the other sex was not a very Southern thing to do, and it was particularly out of line in Charleston, the queen city of the old Confederacy, where men and women were considered two species who only met in church. Doubling the shock, Dawn Hall claimed she already was a woman. She said she’d actually been born a girl, but, due to a genital anomaly, misidentified as a boy. Therefore, the surgery she’d decided to obtain had merely corrected her sex, not changed it.

This was a lot for people to digest, and the local reaction fell somewhere between bewilderment and fear. Many Charleston people could not even pronounce the “T-words,” like transsexual, and transvestite: and yet here was a trans-person many knew and had shaken hands with. The figure of the “trannie” had not yet emerged from the secret barrooms of downtown New York, and certainly she’d never showed up at the fake Civil War battles that passed for weekend entertainment in South Carolina. Among people who knew a little about medicine, the term “sex reassignment” had only been spoken in whispers, referring to the strange new practice of one or two sleek hospitals—and fortunately, those were in the north.

Soon after the news of the sex change (or sex correction, as she insisted), Dawn Hall introduced a further nuance into her character (for she was beginning to live like an actress, whose audience was a small city). As a fresh, rich white woman, Dawn decided to marry a young black man, named John-Paul Simmons. By different accounts, Simmons was a mechanic, fisherman, or gardener. (A popular rumor, which Dawn vehemently denied, was that Simmons was her butler.)

Around town, the lady’s marriage to “a Negro” aroused even stronger feelings than her evolution from Gordon to Dawn, if that was possible. This time, magazines ran stories, and television crews appeared at Dawn’s door. Those few white people who’d remained her friends during her journey from one sex to the next now ceased to have anything to do with her; and Dawn Hall, the new Mrs. Dawn Simmons, passed from one side of the invisible wall that separated the two races, to the other. She entered black society, joining an African American church, becoming a regular at civil rights meetings, and in other ways making herself into an honorary person of color.

But the third act, and the climax, was yet to come. Two years after her marriage, Dawn Simmons began to appear around Charleston in maternity dresses, showing signs of pregnancy. And in October 1971, her baby, Natasha, was born. Pictures showed that Natasha was a striking mixed-race child, the perfect creation of a white mother and her black husband—that is, if they’d been capable of conceiving. Dawn Simmons claimed that yes, she had conceived—that Natasha was her biological child, proof of her natural state as a woman—and it was her prior incarnation, Gordon Hall, that was the invention, the costume, and the sexual prop.

Now she was gone, and no one knew the truth.

* * *


Peninsula of Lies:
A True Story of Mysterious Birth and Taboo Love

“A bizarre story, wonderfully told, with the right blend of gossip and research…intimacy and revelation.”
—Jeanette Winterson, Evening Standard (London)

“Excellent biography… [I]t reads like a parody of the American myth of self-invention.”

A polymorphously entertaining exposé.
—The Advocate (Los Angeles)