Dawn Langley Simmons

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Dawn Langley Simmons
Born Gordon Langley Hall
(1937-10-15)October 15, 1937.[1] Probable birth year: 1922 [2]
Kent, England
Died September 18, 2000(2000-09-18) (aged 62)
Charleston, South Carolina
Occupation Biographer, essayist
Language English
Spouse John-Paul Simmons
Children Natasha Simmons

Dawn Langley Pepita Simmons (15 October 1937,[1] or unknown date in 1922, depending on source[2][3][4] – 18 September 2000) was a prolific English author and biographer.[3] Born "Gordon Langley Hall", Simmons lived her first decades as a male. As a young adult, she became close to British actress Margaret Rutherford, whom she considered an adoptive mother and who was the subject of a biography Simmons wrote in later years.[5] After sex reassignment surgery in 1968, Simmons wed in the first legal interracial marriage in South Carolina.[3]

Early life[edit]

Simmons' parents were servants at Sissinghurst Castle, the English estate of biographer Harold Nicolson and his novelist wife, Vita Sackville-West.[6] Simmons was born in Sussex as "Gordon Langley Hall" to Jack Copper, Vita Sackville-West's chauffeur, and another servant, Marjorie Hall Ticehurst, before they were married.[6] Although she claimed to have been born with an unusual condition that resulted in the swelling of her genitals with the result that she was mistakenly identified as a boy, Charleston author Edward Ball's book Peninsula of Lies (2004) states that she was born male.[7]

As a child, Simmons was raised by her grandmother and at one point visited the castle and met Virginia Woolf, Sackville-West's lover.[6] Woolf made Sackville-West the subject of the novel Orlando: A Biography, which bears a striking resemblance to Simmons' own life story.[3]

Early career[edit]

Simmons exhibited an early talent for writing—with the first poem published at the age of four. At nine Simmons wrote a column for the Sussex Express, once interviewing Mae West while sitting in the visiting star's lap.[8]

In 1953, aged sixteen, Simmons emigrated to Canada after the grandmother's death.[6] Still living as a man, she crewcut her hair and became a teacher on the Ojibway native reservation on Lake Nipigon, experiences from which were translated into the best-selling Me Papoose Sitter (1955)—the first of many published books.[6]

After a stint as an editor for the Winnipeg Free Press,[3] Simmons moved back to England in 1947, to teach theatre at the Gregg School in Croydon.[2] She moved to the United States in 1950, and became the society editor for the Nevada Daily Mail in Missouri before moving to New York and working as the society editor of the Port Chester Daily Item.[2][3] Shortly after moving to New York, Simmons met artist Isabel Whitney, beginning a friendship that would last until her death in 1962.[2]

During this time, Simmons began a prolific writing career, including a series of biographies which covered personalities such as Princess Margaret (1958), Jacqueline Kennedy (1964), Lady Bird Johnson (1967), and Mary Todd Lincoln (1970) among many more.[3] While living in Whitney's New York townhouse in the 1950s, Simmons was introduced to Margaret Rutherford and her husband Stringer Davis. Rutherford, interested in meeting Simmons to discuss a role in a possible adaptation of Me Papoose Sitter, became enamored with the young author and she and Davis agreed to serve as unofficial adoptive parents.[6] Subsequently, Simmons and Whitney purchased a house in Charleston, South Carolina, though Whitney would die two weeks later,[2] leaving Simmons the house and $2 million.[3]

Move to South Carolina[edit]

The mansion Simmons purchased with Whitney, was located in the Ansonborough neighborhood of Charleston, a neighborhood known for housing the city's queer elite.[3][6] Simmons began restoring the house, and designed the interior with early American antiques and furniture by Thomas Chippendale.[3] Her pursuit of Chippendale pieces brought her into contact with Edward Ball, a journalist who owned a Chippendale commode and who would later write a biography about her.[6]

In her autobiographical books, Simmons said she was born intersex with ambiguous genitalia, as well as an internal uterus and ovaries, and was inappropriately assigned male at birth.[6] Simmons underwent sex reassignment surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1968, carried out by Dr. Milton Edgerton.[6] In Ball's Peninsula of Lies, he disputes Simmons claim that she was intersex, suggesting instead that Simmons had male genitalia and was unable to bear children.[6]

Marriage[edit]

Simmons legally changed her name to Dawn Pepita Langley Hall, and became engaged to John-Paul Simmons, then a young black motor mechanic with dreams of becoming a sculptor.[6] Their marriage on 21 January 1969 was the first legal interracial marriage in South Carolina,[2] and the ceremony was carried out in their drawing room reportedly after threats to bomb the church.[3] After a second ceremony in England, the crate containing their wedding gifts was firebombed in Charleston, and Simmons received a ticket the next day when the charred remains were obstructing a sidewalk.[9]

On 17 October 1971, her daughter, Natasha Margienell Manigault Paul Simmons, was born, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.[6] Ball claims to have been told by John-Paul Simmons that Natasha was his child from another relationship, although "Natasha fervently believed Dawn was her mother".

After an intruder raped Simmons and broke her arm, the family moved to Catskill, New York.[6]

Later years and death[edit]

In 1982, she divorced John-Paul Simmons,[2] who had been abusive and suffered from schizophrenia.[6] After spending several years in Hudson, New York, she moved in with her daughter and three grandchildren, who had returned to Charleston.[3] In 1985, while back in Charleston, Simmons was featured as an extra in several scenes of ABC's miniseries North and South.[6]

In her final years, Simmons developed Parkinson's disease, and died at her daughter's home on 18 September 2000.[3]

In culture[edit]

In the 1987 film Withnail and I, set in 1969, the character Marwood reads a tabloid newspaper article about Gordon Langley Hall, entitled "I Had to Become a Woman".[10][11] Author Jack Hitt profiled Simmons in a 1996 episode of This American Life titled "Dawn".[12] Hitt, a native of Charleston, had grown up down the street from Simmons. From interviews, including with Simmons, Hitt assembled stories of her transsexuality, interracial marriages in the South, her rumored voodoo powers, and rumored hosting of a full fledged debut for her chihuahua.[12] Hitt expanded the piece for publication in the October 1998 GQ.[12][13][14]

Bibliography[edit]

  • Saraband for a saint: A modern morality play in two acts (1954)
  • Me Papoose Sitter (1955)
  • The Gypsy Condesa (1958)
  • Princess Margaret (1958)
  • Golden boats from Burma: The life of Ann Hasseltine Judson, the first American woman in Burma (1961)
  • Peter Jumping Horse (1961)
  • The two lives of Baby Doe (1962)
  • Vinnie Ream: The story of the girl who sculptured Lincoln (1963)
  • Jacqueline Kennedy: A biography (1964)
  • The sawdust trail: The story of American evangelism (1964)
  • Dear vagabonds: The story of Roy and Brownie Adams (1964)
  • Osceola (1964)
  • Mr. Jefferson's ladies (1966)
  • Lady Bird and her daughters (1967)
  • William, Father of The Netherlands (1969)
  • A rose for Mrs. Lincoln: A biography of Mary Todd Lincoln (1970)
  • Man into woman: a transsexual autobiography (1971)
  • All for Love (1975)
  • Rosalynn Carter: Her Life Story (1979)
  • Margaret Rutherford: A blithe spirit (1983)
  • The Two Worlds of Pearl S. Buck (1992)
  • She-Crab Soup (1994)
  • Dawn: A Charleston Legend (1995)

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Thompson, Bill (9 September 1999). "Versatile Bacon in 'Stir of Echoes'". The Post and Courier (Google News). p. 5D. Retrieved 2013-08-15. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h "Inventory of the Dawn Langley Simmons Papers". Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University. Retrieved 2012-11-16. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Smith, Dinitia (September 24, 2000). "Dawn Langley Simmons, Flaymboyant Writer, Dies at 77". The New York Times (NYTimes.com). Retrieved June 10, 2009. 
  4. ^ "Index entry: Births 1922 December". FreeBMD. ONS. Retrieved February 9, 2013. 
  5. ^ Langley Simmons, Dawn (1983). Margaret Rutherford: A blithe spirit. Barker. ISBN 0-213-16890-1. Retrieved June 10, 2009. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Ball, Edward (2004). Peninsula of Lies: A True Story of Mysterious Birth and Taboo Love. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0-7432-3560-6. Retrieved June 11, 2009. 
  7. ^ "The tale of the sex-change boy who had a baby". The Argus (Brighton and Hove). 5 October 2004. Retrieved 2013-08-15. 
  8. ^ Matthew Sweet (March 7, 2004). "A LIFE IN FILMS: Murder she hid". The Independent on Sunday (via findarticles.com). Retrieved 2007-11-30. [dead link]
  9. ^ Langley Simmons, Dawn (February 7, 1988). "Waging Justice in Charleston". The New York Times (The New York Times). Retrieved June 11, 2009. 
  10. ^ Bruce Robinson (director) (1987). Withnail and I. Handmade Films. Event occurs at 3:43. 
  11. ^ Robinson, Bruce (1987). "Withnail and I" (Script). dailyscript.com. Retrieved October 6, 2012. 
  12. ^ a b c "Dawn". This American Life. Season 1. Episode 15. Transcript. February 28, 1996. http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/15/dawn. Retrieved October 6, 2012.
  13. ^ Hitt, Jack (October 1998). "The Legend of Dawn". GQ. 
  14. ^ Jones, Mark R. (2006). Wicked Charleston: Prostitutes, Politics and Prohibition. The History Press. p. 116. ISBN 978-1-59629-134-8. Retrieved October 8, 2012.