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Sun March 21, 2004
Peninsula of Lies
A week spent reading about scandals and skeletons - both in and out of the closet.
By Nicki Leone
Wilmington NC – [Click the Listen button to hear Nicki's commentary.]
About ten years ago this country was seized with what can only be called a frenzy because of an enticing semi-fairytale called Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. John Berendt?s book proved to be an irresistible window into a private and closed society, peopled with Voodoo priestesses, drag queens, families from old money and the nouveaux riche?the very best and worst of upper-crust Savannah.
Now Edward Ball has written a book that suggests that every southern town has its secret scandals. Peninsula of Lies: A True Story of Mysterious Birth and Taboo Love is the tale of Charleston?s own skeleton in the closet. So to speak.
The story begins with Gordon Langley Hall; born into one of the most fascinating households in England, the son of servants at Sissinghust Castle, the estate of Vita Sackville?West. As a child he wandered the famous gardens and knew Virginia Woolf. Although not especially over indulged by the family of the house, Hall grew up to be a charming young man and (perhaps inescapably) a writer. He became mildly famous for his juicy biographies of high society people, and earned the friendship of the great British actress Margaret Rutherford. He moved to New York City in the twenties, where his charms served him equally well. He became fast friends with the upper-crust of New York high society, and especially with the artist and heiress Isabel Whitney, who to show the depth of her regard, left him a small fortune in her will.
Hall used the money to purchase a mansion in Charleston, SC, where he settled down to lead a ?quiet? life collecting period furniture and entertaining the local luminaries. Charleston is a notoriously closed society, not amenable to invasion from Yankee outsiders, but they made an exception for a famous writer who claimed actresses and British nobility among his acquaintances. Hall?s life in Charleston seemed to be as charmed as the rest of his existence.
Until the year 1968. Then, while the rest of the country stewed over civil rights struggles and the Vietnam War, Gordon Langley Hall took a trip to Johns Hopkins Hospital and returned a short while later as DAWN Langly Hall.
It was one of the first sex-reassignment surgeries ever to be performed in the country, and it scandalized the city. As her friends and acquaintances attempted to adjust to her new persona, Dawn very calmly proceeded to fall in love with, and marry, John-Paul Simmons?causing fresh waves of outcry throughout Charleston?s high society, although it is hard to say whether the outcry was against Dawn deciding to marry, or deciding to marry a black man, or deciding to marry her gardener.
But worse was yet to come. Several months after her marriage, Dawn Langley Simmons announced she was pregnant. Nine months later, she was seen pushing a baby carriage with a beautiful little girl: Natasha Langley Simmons.
Edward Ball, a low-country native whose award-winning earlier book Slaves in the Family proves that he is capable of unraveling historical mysteries, attempts to solve the mystery of Dawn Langley Simmons. Was she, as she claimed, always truly female?a child who had been mis-identified at birth? Was she capable of getting pregnant? Was Natasha truly her daughter? Ball pours through medical records and over the memories of Dawn?s friends and family (not to mention her enemies and detractors) in an attempt to define one of the most enigmatic figures ever to grace Charleston?s faded glory.
And although the title of the book, Peninsula of Lies, suggests that it was Dawn weaving all the tales, in the end even the author cannot say he really knows the truth of Dawn?s life. Who was Dawn Simmons? Perhaps the best answer comes from Dawn?s daughter Natasha: now a beautiful and poised woman in her thirties. ?She was my mother.?
Nicki is the manager of an independent bookstore in Wilmington.