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

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Overview

Peninsula of Lies is a nonfiction mystery, set in haunting locales and peopled with fascinating characters, that unwraps the enigma of a woman named Dawn Langley Simmons, a British writer who lived in Charleston, South Carolina, during the 1960s and became the focus of one of the most unusual sexual scandals of the last century.

Born in England sometime before World War II, Dawn Langley Simmons began life as a boy named Gordon Langley Hall. Gordon was the son of servants at ...

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Overview

Peninsula of Lies is a nonfiction mystery, set in haunting locales and peopled with fascinating characters, that unwraps the enigma of a woman named Dawn Langley Simmons, a British writer who lived in Charleston, South Carolina, during the 1960s and became the focus of one of the most unusual sexual scandals of the last century.

Born in England sometime before World War II, Dawn Langley Simmons began life as a boy named Gordon Langley Hall. Gordon was the son of servants at Sissinghurst Castle, the estate of Vita Sackville-West, where as a child he met Vita's lover Virginia Woolf. In his twenties, Gordon made his way to New York, where he became an author of society biographies and befriended such grandes dames as the actress Margaret Rutherford and the artist and heiress Isabel Whitney, who left him a small fortune.

The money allowed Gordon to buy a mansion in Charleston and fill it with period furniture, providing a stage for him to entertain more great ladies and to climb the social ladder of the Southern gentry to its heights.

However, Gordon's world changed instantly in 1968, when at The Johns Hopkins Hospital he underwent one of the first sex-reassignment surgeries, returning to Southern society and scandalizing Charleston as the new Dawn Langley Hall. Dawn Hall furthermore announced that her surgery had been corrective, because she'd actually been misidentified as a boy at birth.

Three months later, Dawn raised the stakes in still-segregated Charleston when she arranged her very public marriage to a young black mechanic, John-Paul Simmons. In due course, Dawn appeared around town pregnant; finally, she could be seen pushing a baby carriage with a child -- her daughter, Natasha.

National Book Award-winning author Edward Ball (Slaves in the Family) has written a detective story that deciphers the riddle of Dawn Simmons, a once rich and infamous changeling who died in 2000, her sexual identity never determined.

Peninsula of Lies is an engrossing narrative of a person who tested every taboo, as well as the confidence of observers in their own eyes.

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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
1968, an eccentric middle-aged English writer named Gordon Hall scandalized his adoptive home town of Charleston, South Carolina, by undergoing a sex change. Returning from surgery as a woman called Dawn, she married a black mechanic nearly three decades her junior, and set tongues further wagging by appearing with a baby daughter whom she claimed as her own. Ball’s genteel detective story, attempting to get at the truth behind Dawn’s self-invention, charts the course of an almost absurdly colorful life. Born illegitimately to a servant on the Sackville-West estate at Sissinghurst, Gordon moved to New York in 1952, where he was taken up by the actress Margaret Rutherford and the heiress Isabel Whitney. The latter left him a fortune, which, after he moved to Charleston, was frittered away on the opulent life of a Southern gentleman, then belle. Life took a sadder turn after marriage. Dawn’s husband, mentally unstable, beat her and was institutionalized. Dawn herself died, almost destitute, in 2000.
Publishers Weekly
Gordon Langley Hall (1922-2000), a biographer who underwent one of the most celebrated gender switches in the 1960s, is the focus of this meandering expose of Southern snobbery. English by birth, Langley Hall was the son of a maidservant at Sissinghurst Castle (made famous by Vita Sackville-West in the 1930s). Leaving England in the bleak postwar era, he eventually made his way to New York, where, after befriending an elderly heiress, he inherited enough of her money to start a new life in the "Peninsula of Lies," Charleston, SC. There Langley Hall started an antiques business and mixed with Anglophile society who ignored his quasi-Cockney accent and origins. At age 45, he met a teenage garage mechanic, John-Paul Simmons, and promptly made an appointment at the new Gender Identity Clinic at Johns Hopkins, the first U.S. hospital for sex change operations. Newly a woman, "Dawn Pepita Hall" married her mechanic in a lavish church ceremony, defying in one stroke gender expectations and the racial codes of the American South, for she was white, her husband black and the year 1969. Most perplexingly, she emerged two years later with a baby girl, Natasha, whom she said was her own. Edward Ball, who won the National Book Award in 1998 for Slaves in the Family, had enough material here for a longish Vanity Fair piece; through judicious padding and an unstoppable barrage of irony, he has made a murky, garrulous detective story. If there are easy ways to try to make transsexuals look silly, then in the machinations of his hero/heroine, he's got a whole barrel of fish to shoot dead. Unfortunately, Ball never lets us sees what might have motivated either Gordon or Dawn. In his evocation of a tawdry, snooty Charleston, populated with colorful coots, he keeps trying for that old John Berendt magic, and missing every time. Photos; 100,000 first printing; 10-city author tour.(Mar.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
While most likely to be compared to John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil because of its forays into the curious corners of Southern subculture, this eminently readable book is sui generis. National Book Award winner Ball (Slaves in the Family; The Sweet Hell Inside) is drawn into investigating the intriguing life of self-appointed Charleston society "matron" Dawn Langley Simmons, born Englishman Gordon Langley. Retracing Dawn's steps into transsexualism, Ball attempts to account for both her transformation and her adamant claim that she gave birth to a daughter. Thus, he tracks down and interviews all of the key players in her life, from Dawn's sister and daughter to Harold Nicholson, whose family employed Dawn's parents, and John-Paul Simmons, the schizophrenic African American man who married Dawn. Moreover, Ball consults scientific literature and interviews experts on transsexualism to investigate Dawn's claim about giving birth. His solution to the mystery may not entirely surprise, but it will certainly captivate. Recommended for all gay, lesbian, and transgender studies collections, as well as for larger public library collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/03.]-Lynne F. Maxwell, Villanova Univ. Sch. of Law Lib., PA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
National Book Award-winner Ball (Slaves in the Family, 1998) returns with a silly, salacious story of sexual identity and interracial marriage. A young Englishman living in Charleston, South Carolina, Gordon Hall in the late 1960s underwent sex-change surgery, became Dawn Hall, married a black man named John-Paul Simmons, then claimed she was pregnant and subsequently produced a baby named Natasha she said she'd delivered in 1971. Dawn Simmons published some celebrity biographies (Princess Margaret, Lady Bird Johnson) and a memoir; for a while she enjoyed a sordid sort of tabloid celebrity. She died, virtually unknown, in 2000. As Gordon Hall, he had ingratiated himself with Isabel Whitney and inherited from her a sizable sum (perhaps as much as a million dollars), then moved to Charleston to set himself up as an antiques dealer and subsequently to become the woman he said he always had been. Gradually the money vanished. For some unimaginable reason, author Ball decided this was a story worth his talents and so traveled all over America and England to interview people who knew Simmons and to stand at the sacred shrines of his/her nativity, childhood, youth, and so on. The author writes of this with enormous gravity, as if he were investigating the identity of Shakespeare or identifying pieces of the True Cross, but his only real questions are: What plumbing did Simmons have? (Male.) Where did the baby come from? (She bought it.) The writing is banal by every measure. Hall offers formulaic head-to-toe descriptions of every person he interviews, he tries to leave the reader hanging at the end of each chapter, and he fashions sentences that seem lifted from bad YA mysteries ("I had a hunchthe place might hold some clues"). Were it not for the risque subject matter and the absence of a blue roadster, this piffle might well be a Nancy Drew called The Mystery of the Curious Plumbing. (45 b&w photos) Agent: Kris Dahl/ICM
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743235600
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 3/10/2004
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.53 (w) x 9.55 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Edward Ball was born in Savannah, Georgia; graduated from Brown University; and was a writer for The Village Voice. His first book, Slaves in the Family, won the National Book Award. He is also the author of The Sweet Hell Inside.

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Read an Excerpt

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, 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, exactly, is a commode chair? 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 theBall 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 South, a region with a flair for the bizarre. Even among the South's strong crop of weird personalities, 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 dignifed place until Dawn came to town."

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. Had she really just wanted to talk toilets or did she mean 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 to become 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 lot of money, and he began spending it 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 that Gordon Hall was a modestly successful writer who'd published a couple of chatty biographies (including 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 met only in church. Doubling the shock, Dawn Hall claimed she already was a woman. She said she had actually been born a girl but, due to a genital anomaly, had been 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: 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 pass for weekend entertainment in South Carolina. Among people who knew a little about medicine, the term sex reassignment had been spoken only 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, John-Paul was a mechanic, fisherman, or gardener. (A popular rumor, which Dawn vehemently denied, was that John-Paul 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 were yet to come. Two years after her marriage, Dawn Simmons began to appear around Charleston in maternity dresses. 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 a black father -- that is, if the couple had 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.


A LIVING MYSTERY

When Dawn Simmons died, in September 2000, a friend invited me to the funeral; but because I'd never met her, I was reluctant to go. The friend persisted, however, and I justified my appearance with Dawn's letter to me.

We drove to the J. Henry Stuhr Memorial Chapel, where the better sort in Charleston had been embalmed for generations, and threaded our way between the limousines to the canopied door. I'd asked my friend to lend me a tie, and he'd brought a stained blue one with repeating fleurs-de-lis.

A few mourners mingled and murmured in a room with mahogany furniture and Regency curtains. I talked to the two or three people I knew until suddenly, Joe Trott appeared in the room.

Joe Trott had an amiable, lined face and walked with a cane. He was dressed in a linen jacket and string tie, and his long gray hair was pinched back in a ponytail.

"Dawn, Dawn," Trott said. "She was sweet to the bone. Such a dear heart, with no idea about handling money, or handling her life. I knew Dawn before all the hoopla. I remember him from when he first came to Charleston, when he was just a cute little cockney boy." Trott looked away wistfully, and then he wandered off.

For many years, Joe Trott had owned a house a block from the one belonging to Dawn Simmons, on Society Street, a row of venerable townhouses and converted slave quarters remade into quaint cottages. A retired florist and antiques dealer, Trott had stood by Dawn through her sexual transformation and rise to motherhood, when many of her friends cut her loose.

People used to say things about Dawn, and as we waited for the service, some of the old gossip popped into my head.

He was just a pansy who liked women's clothes. He never was a woman.

A nervous young minister, wearing a white cassock with colored embroidery, approached the mourners, and we all stepped into the chapel. The room was long, white, and entirely without ornament, with a simple altar at one end. As we took our seats, I noticed an aspect of the scene that seemed to sum up Dawn's story. On one side of the chapel sat the black people, whereas we, the whites, sat across the aisle. This kind of thing was familiar in Charleston, oil separating from water, and we might have all gone along without thinking; but there was something more to the split.

The black mourners were of all ages and both sexes, and were evidently Dawn Simmons's in-laws. On the white side, however, most mourners were men over the age of sixty. A couple of them wore ascots, and one or two wore hairpieces. Their romantic dress and touches of vanity implied these were gay men of a certain age, probably closeted in keeping with their generation. They were Dawn's friends from before her sexual rebirth, when she was still Gordon, an English-born dandy who wore pressed cotton jackets.

That Dawn had a coming-out party for his two Chihuahuas, who were dressed in white gloves and pearls and carried down the stairs on velvet pillows. He was more than eccentric.

With a strained expression, the embroidered cassock cleared his throat. "We are gathered in the presence of God to offer final farewell to Dawn Simmons," he said. "I only met her a few times, but on each occasion she made a strong impression. She was a gentle person who cared for other people, who loved her animals, and especially loved her daughter, Natasha."

There were only about twenty-five people in the room even though, in her best years, Dawn had been on a first-name basis with the entire city. If you'd said, "Dawn's back in town," everyone in Charleston would've known you meant the Dawn, and it was a name that provoked a reaction. Some people would smile, and others would roll their eyes, depending (it seemed to me) on how comfortable they were with sex. Given Dawn's notoriety, I'd expected a crowd, not the thin turnout in the chapel. I later learned that Dawn's daughter, Natasha, had placed a misleading announcement in the newspaper, stating the funeral would occur at another location, so that she and her family could escape curiosity seekers. I imagined a restless mob at that false address.

In the front row, and in the position of chief mourner, sat the living mystery of the Dawn story, Natasha Simmons. It's not too much to say that Natasha had been both the culmination of Dawn's life and her greatest ordeal.

She was a tall, thin, beautiful woman whose poise and height, joined with her dark eyes and beige skin, made her the most naturally elegant person in the room. She wore a fitted black dress, and her composure was magnified by grief.

That nigra he, or she, married was a voodoo man, and they used to sacrifice their animals. At night you could hear the damned dogs howling.

The mood in the chapel was somewhat unsettled. There was no casket, because Dawn's body had been cremated, and her ashes divided into three parts. One portion was to go to England, to be buried in the town of her birth; another went to a friend in New Hampshire, who intended to create a shrine with his allowance; and the third part went to Natasha. I saw at the front of the chapel a small metal box, which I assumed held a portion of Dawn's remains.

Someone had set up a pair of card tables in front of the altar and covered them with mementos. Dawn had been an author, and therefore on the first table were several books she'd written, both as Gordon Hall and as Dawn Simmons. Next to these were framed photographs from different stages in Dawn's life. The pictures began with her days as an androgynous young man in a bow tie (the author photo on a book), moved on to her years as a woman (transfigured into a conservative lady in a dress, with beehive hair), and climaxed with Dawn on her wedding day, a bride in a white gown walking with her black (and much younger) groom, the smiling, vigorous John-Paul Simmons. A last picture was a portrait of Dawn as wife and mother, holding her young daughter. In this faded color image, she seemed different, in a way vindicated, her pale white face nestled into the brown cheek of her girl. It also looked a bit like she was holding a trophy.

Common sense said that Dawn Simmons hadn't given birth, but here in the chapel stood her daughter, silent in grief. If she wasn't the child of her mother, then who was she? I'd heard that in recent years, Natasha and Dawn had lived a few blocks apart and seen each other every day. It was what any aging mother would want with her child, an inseparable attachment.

I wondered what Natasha, standing in the front pew, thought of the talk her mother had stirred. Did she know the rumors? How did she feel about the gossip? Obviously, she knew that Dawn had once lived as a man -- how did she make sense of that part of her mother's life? I imagined Natasha regarded Dawn as a woman and a mother, because anything else would have been hard to understand.


John-Paul Simmons was not in the chapel; indeed, his family didn't know where he was. A few years after the wedding, he'd been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and he'd drifted in and out of psychiatric care for decades. It was said he was living in New York State. The minister gave a ten-minute eulogy on the theme of kindness, which ended with a prayer. "Dear God, watch over your servant Dawn Simmons as she completes her eventful time on earth. Keep her safe from those who would torment her, and protect those she leaves behind -- her beloved daughter Natasha, and her grandchildren."

That faggot stole that baby and passed it off as his own.

The service ended and we drifted back into the reception room, where my friend introduced me to Natasha. She was the youngest among the mourners, her trim figure fitting just so in her dress. She weakly shook my hand, looking up but not focusing on my face.

"Thank you for coming," she said.

Natasha blinked but didn't really see me. And I knew she was with her mother, whom she'd loved.

I had been thinking that Dawn's claim to motherhood was specious, but Natasha's obviously genuine grief put doubt in my mind.


For several days after the funeral, I felt uneasy. People had once watched Dawn from a distance, like drivers rubbernecking an accident, and I felt like one of the voyeurs.

She'd been properly blessed, but she lingered in memory. The chapel scene was a puzzle: the beautiful Natasha, the black and white factions, the incompatible photographs. Dawn's life seemed like a jagged pile of events, with unbelievable pieces -- unless, of course, you accepted her version of things, in which case all of it made sense.

When I thought about Dawn's sex reassignment, my instinct said she was a transsexual, a man who'd become a woman only with surgery. And a sex-change patient cannot have children. Thus, her daughter's origin was a mystery.

But why did she insist on having been born a girl? Dawn's explanation of her sexuality had brought her a raft of trouble, yet she stuck to her story till the end.

Maybe she'd wanted the adventure. Even if one rejected her account, Dawn's life had been a fascinating production, like music that keeps changing keys. First, she'd masqueraded as a man for decades, then lived as a woman for equal time, which gave her a panoramic view of things. And besides inhabiting two genders, she'd had the unusual pleasure of experiencing sex on both sides of the bed.

That's just to start. Dawn's claim to sexual ambiguity also placed her in the path of science. The first studies of the topic took place in the mid-nineteenth century, and since then researchers have listed many sexual dispositions other than male and female -- from anomalies triggered by hormones to types of genital variation. Her decision to undergo sex reassignment made her a pioneer in twentieth-century medicine, which had been revolutionized by transplant surgery and a willingness to alter the body.

Crossing into social history, in the years before civil rights won the upper hand, Dawn flouted the ban against interracial marriage. She broke a taboo of the Deep South that reached back to slavery times -- the one that called for white women to stay away from black men -- and she faced down the punishment. In the midst of this, Dawn produced an heir whose life summed up and extended her story. Natasha Simmons was proof of her mother's womanhood -- and a guarantee that the enigma of Dawn's identity would outlive her.

All this was like a pageant. From a distance, however, it seemed Natasha would be made to pay the psychological bill run up by her own birth. I wanted to unravel Dawn's story not only because she'd broken all the rules but also because there appeared to have been a human cost. Dawn's daughter was at stake, and perhaps other people I hadn't met. And what about Dawn's husband? Was John-Paul Simmons, a schizophrenic, born into madness? Or had his mental illness been deepened by the events of his marriage?


I started looking into cases of sexual ambiguity and found several examples of women who'd lived in sexual disguise. A jazz pianist called Billy Tipton had grown up in Oklahoma in the 1920s as a girl named Dorothy but started living as a man at age nineteen. When Billy Tipton died, in 1989, her secret was finally uncovered. She had married several women and had adopted children; among those lulled by the deception were Billy's last wife, Kitty, and their sons. (Her biographer said Billy used to bind her breasts with elastic, telling people she had rib damage from an auto accident. In her sex life, Billy Tipton seems to have kept the lights off, and used a strapped-on dildo.)

No, it was ridiculous -- Dawn Simmons hadn't been a "passing woman," or female transvestite. She'd lived as Gordon Hall for half her life, so why would she suddenly switch as an adult and invite problems?

Could Dawn have been a person whose anatomy fell between the sexes? The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan used to begin certain of his lectures with a question: Pourquoi n'y a t-il pas un troisième sexe? (Why isn't there a third sex?) People have long said that there are "masculine women" and "feminine men." Could Dawn have been a blend, an example of a third way?

Sexual variance is a medical fact, unusual but not especially rare. Some babies come from the womb with mixed organs -- a vagina and a small penis -- and medicine now labels them intersexuals. (Hermaphrodite was the old word.) These infants can spend weeks in the hospital as distraught parents and excited doctors decide how to categorize them. In earlier generations, some intersexuals ended up in freak shows. (I had a dim memory of seeing a "bearded lady" at a traveling carnival in the South when I was a child.) Did Dawn's parents have a (mostly) girl baby, and mistakenly assign her the male sex? When put this way, it no longer sounded impossible.

If Dawn was a girl and a boy, she could not have chosen a more inhospitable setting to realize her nature than Charleston, South Carolina. Dawn's adopted town was a quiet, parochial Southern city whose sense of self was as a still life. Charleston seemed to deny the world had advanced much beyond the Civil War, which had started in its very harbor in April 1861, when rebel batteries opened fire on federally occupied Fort Sumter. I tried to imagine Charleston in the early 1960s, during the days when Dawn was still the handsome Gordon Hall. Many whites had grandparents who'd fought for the Confederacy, as they were fond of reminding you, and a century after that war, Charleston had still not fully recovered. Gordon had arrived in town before the boom in tourism, and most everybody, white or black, was still poor. Only half the people owned cars, and airconditioning was for movie theaters. An intersexual in Charleston would have fit like a snake in a church.


EYEWITNESS

I asked Joe Trott, whom I'd seen at the funeral, to have lunch and talk about Dawn, hoping he could shed some light on the mystery of his late friend.

When I picked him up, Joe was wearing a striped long-sleeve shirt, buttoned to the neck, and a leather string tie. His ponytail fit into a silver barrette. He said he was eighty-three, and that he didn't like it; but he was quick in his movements, and his mind was alive in his pale, blue eyes.

Joe Trott had been born to an ancient family name, an important fact in Charleston, where genealogy is an alternative religion, and his inheritance even appeared on his right hand, where he wore a gold signet ring.

"It's a Trott family ring, with the family crest," said Joe. "They used it to seal the wax on documents."

Joe's illustrious forebear had been one Nicholas Trott, an early white settler who'd written the first body of South Carolina law in the early 1700s. "I've got one of his deeds on the wall at home," Joe said, wrapping his status and shutting the car door.

As the lawman's descendant, Joe Trott had grown up in Charleston, spent several years working in theater in New York City and California, and then moved home, where he went into the antiques business.

When Gordon Hall descended in the 1960s, Joe and a partner were running a store called Cobblestone Antiques out of their house, along with a flower business.

Joe wanted to eat where he was a regular, at Kitty's Fine Foods, a homey place much liked for its lunch counter, dirty tile floor, and 1970s paneling. The restaurant stands on an industrial strip across the street from the longshoremen's union building, on East Bay Street, which runs along the Cooper River through the wharf district. At Kitty's, construction workers and salesmen yell at each other from across the room, the walls are decorated with dozens of pictures of cats, and a hand-lettered sign reads, "BFIC."

"Best Food In Charleston," said Joe.

As we slid into a vinyl booth, the greasy table stuck to our hands. Joe said, "Yeah, the clean problem. Some customers started bringing in toilet paper, because the restaurant never bought it, and we still bring it. But they keep coming to Kitty's. If this place could talk, a lot of people would have to leave town."

The salty feeling of the place got stronger when a middle-aged waitress stepped up and recognized Joe. "Come on, you shit ass! What you want?"

Joe nodded, used to the attention. "The honey ham, okra, and sweet potatoes," he said.

The waitress turned to me -- "I've been waiting on him for thirty-five years!" -- and disappeared.

"She likes me," Joe said, smiling.

Retired from the antiques business, and having buried a lot of friends before Dawn, Joe didn't mind turning over memories. He had the soft accent of coastal Carolina, with slightly nasal vowels and a low-decibel delivery. His face looked well kept, and although it was lined, his skin didn't sag. There was a strong jaw and heavy eyelids, but the most distinctive part of Joe's appearance was the gray ponytail.

This aging furniture expert was one of the few witnesses to the whole of Dawn Simmons's journey -- from British immigrant, to social gadfly and proprietor of an antebellum mansion, to woman, wife, and mother.

"I was devoted to Dawn," Joe said, "and I miss her. But she had her problems. The main problem was that she let her heart run away with her good sense. When Dawn came to Charleston, I mean Gordon Hall, he was a little English boy. He was very, very slight, and a very happy-go-lucky type of man. He made people feel good when they were around him.

"I assume you know she inherited all this money from Isabel Whitney, in New York," Joe went on, switching back to the female pronoun. "The Whitneys were the cotton gin people, Eli Whitney and all that. Isabel Whitney, who was an artist -- she painted murals -- she befriended Gordon in New York, and left him extremely wealthy."

Gordon Hall's money had come suddenly, in an inheritance, and his benefactor was the unlikely figure of Isabel Whitney, an elderly and unmarried member of a venerable American family whose fortune had come from silk mills. (Another from the clan, at least by marriage, was Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a sculptor who used family money to create the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.)

"Along with Gordon, Isabel Whitney also befriended another person who worked for her, and that was her butler," Joe said. "He's now dead, but he was a New Yorker, an Italian fellow. He'd worked in one of the bigger auction houses, in addition to being Whitney's servant. That's why he and Gordon thought, with all the money Isabel had left, they would go into the antiques business. And they thought the best place to do it was Charleston, South Carolina." Joe chuckled, as though this was a strange scheme.

I studied Joe's appearance as he talked. He had two rings on his left hand, in addition to the one on his right, and his fingernails shone as though they'd been painted with clear polish. I noticed his hairline had been powdered, and it looked like it had been stitched.

"It was 1961 or '62," he said. "Gordon came down as a guest of the Historic Charleston Foundation, which was trying to promote the cleaning up of Ansonborough, and which had sold him his house." As he spoke, Joe sometimes gestured with his hands, marking out spaces on the table for emphasis.

The Historic Charleston Foundation is an architecture preservation group; Ansonborough is Joe Trott's (and Gordon's) neighborhood. A little "borough" six blocks long and three blocks wide, it takes its name from Captain George Anson, an eighteenth-century English sea captain who acquired the land in colonial times. It is now one of the moneyed sections of town, full of beautifully restored nineteenth-century townhouses.

Gordon gave lovely parties in his renovated mansion, Joe said, and well-heeled Charleston couples wanted to be known as his friend, "this fabulous little English man, who was an author."

Joe's voice suddenly became thick with emotion, and tears formed in his eyes. "Later on, people criticized Gordon so unmercifully for his manners, and the way he acted! They were so cruel to him! And some of those people didn't amount to a fucking row of beans!"

Kitty's Fine Foods had filled up, and the lunch rush rose to a din. The waitress delivered corn bread and refilled our glasses of iced tea. Joe composed himself and continued, "Oh, he was so naive. Very naive."

I asked whether Joe had an opinion of Dawn's claims about her sex.

"He swore that he was a he-mor-pho-dite when he came here. Gordon said to me, 'You know, I have the two sexes already.'" Joe mimicked an effeminate voice with a cockney accent, like an actor playing a drag queen from East London. "He said, 'I have the two sexes. We just have to make one more ready than the other.'"

Delivering Gordon's lines, Joe managed to look both amused and disturbed.

"I told Gordon, 'Good luck!' And he said, 'I know you don't believe me, but it happened to me. I have two sexes! I can take my choice.' So I told Gordon, 'Be my guest!' "

The subject made Joe raise his voice, and he grew louder and more emphatic.

"The truth is, I didn't give a shit who he slept with, or what he did when he got there! He would say, 'Well, now I can have babies.' I said, 'Go on and have 'em. But you're either gonna have to spit it up or shit it out, because you ain't gonna have a baby through that thing you've got on you now!'"

Our food arrived. "Here you go, shit ass!" said the waitress.


Dawn had written about what she called her "condition," but she didn't give anatomical details. In 1970, she'd had this to say:


There was only a midwife present when I was born. Although she had a physically healthy little baby on her hands, because of the shape of the genital organs the midwife had been hard pressed to determine the child's sex. Finally she had decided to call it a boy.


How strange that Dawn, talking about herself, used the pronoun it. She added:


In America, this [being labeled a boy] would never have happened, for babies born with genital defects can be treated almost immediately. In my own case, I should have been registered as a girl. Up until the age of five, when I started school, I truly believed that I was a little girl.


My lunch with Joe Trott had failed to help me make sense of Dawn; the library of the local medical school offered another resource.

The medical literature on intersex births was limited, but the books held my attention. Most had pictures of naked patients whose eyes were covered with a black box and whose genitals looked abnormal.

In a standard text on the subject, Hermaphroditism, Genital Anomalies and Related Endocrine Disorders, Howard W. Jones and William Wallace Scott explained a syndrome that sounded like what Dawn said she had. Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), the most common intersexual condition, occurs when the endocrine system in the fetus secretes excessive androgens, or male growth hormones. With female babies in utero, the hormone spurt triggers masculine traits and enlarges the sex organs (the extra growth being the hyperplasia). A girl with CAH will have ovaries and a uterus -- but also an enlarged clitoris that might stick an inch out from the body, and possibly fused labia that could look like a scrotum over the vaginal opening.

A biologist had compiled studies and determined that as many as fifteen births in one thousand are of infants with varying degrees of congenital adrenal hyperplasia. Was Dawn Simmons a CAH baby?

Reading around some more, I found that history offered some remarkable cases of apparent intersexuals who'd lived before the routine diagnosis of sexual variations, including that of an Italian soldier who'd become a mother. In 1601, Daniel Burghammer, a blacksmith and infantryman from the town of Piedra, Italy, gave birth to a baby girl (much to the surprise of his wife). Daniel had been baptized male and had served in the army for seven years. His wife requested an investigation, and under questioning by church authorities, the blacksmith said that he was, as he put it, half female and half male, and that the father of his baby was a Spanish soldier. The child was christened Elizabeth, and she was weaned at Daniel's breast. Eventually, the Vatican declared the birth a miracle, though the church granted a divorce to Daniel Burghammer's mystified spouse.


Still digging for background, I went as far as Duke University Library, in North Carolina, where I found one thing that really undermined my doubts of Dawn's version of her life. In the reading room of the Duke archives, I opened a file of papers, and the birth certificate for Dawn's daughter, Natasha, fell out onto the table. As I picked up the green document, I felt new trust and belief coming on slowly, like a ship approaching a dock. The birth certificate had been issued by the state of Pennsylvania, and dated October 17, 1971; it was a true copy, embossed with the seal of the Pennsylvania Department of Health. It named Dawn Simmons as Natasha's mother, and John-Paul Simmons as her father. It made no mention of adoption.

Vital records, like birth and death certificates, are used to settle disputes over such issues as when a marriage took place, or how a person died. People trust the records because they exercise two hands of authority. Not only does a birth certificate carry the clout of medical science, with many professional controls, but the government backs it as well, with presumed neutrality. Birth certificates are supposed to give answers, but that of Natasha Simmons raised questions. Was Dawn really Natasha's mother? What was Dawn, anatomically speaking? How could this have happened?

Natasha's birth certificate teased me with its implications. While they laughed, the trannie became a mother. Dawn wasn't just a novelist; she was the man who became a woman and gave birth.

Dawn Simmons was like the riddle of the sphinx -- only in this case, the riddle was not the question posed by the creature to the traveler, but the sphinx herself. Dawn was the enigma, half-human and half-divine.

Copyright © 2004 by Edward Ball

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