In September 200, Dawn Simmonds was cremated in Charleston, South Carolina. Her husband was not present at the memorial service, but her daughter took the ashes. It was at this service that the biographer Edward Ball decided to investigate the strange life of Mrs Simmonds – who until 1968 had been a man.
It is a bizarre story, wonderfully told, with the right blend of gossip and research. By the end of the book I felt I understand Dawn, aka Gordon, and I wished I had met her – a sure sign that this biography has succeeded in its aims of intimacy and revelation.
Gordon Langley Hall was born in 1922, the illegitimate son of two servants at Sissinghurst Castle, home of Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicholson. Neither parent wanted to raise him; he was brought up by his grandmother. He was a sensitive boy, acutely aware of the unusual marital arrangements of his parents’ employers – Vita had her women, and Harold had his boys. In later life, he would talk about meeting Virginia Woolf, and declare that he was the copy of Woolf’s famous Orlando – a shape shifting, sex changing creature, modelled on Vita.
Gordon, nicknamed Dinky, was only five feet six inches tall and too delicate for National Service. After the war he went to New York where he began to make a living as a journalist. In New York, he attracted the attention of Isabella Whitney, the heiress, who seems to have made a pet of him, and then left him a substantial fortune. In 1962, the newly rich Gordon arrived in Charleston to renovate his inherited mansion.
The American Dream is not just about getting rich, it is about re-inventing yourself, which is exactly what Gordon proceeded to do, with radical results. He was fascinated by the Bloomsbury Group, whose country headquarters were in Charleston, Sussex. He could never belong there, but in Charleston South Carolina, he could tell his story however he liked, He was not a liar as such – simply he wanted the truth to be more glamorous than it was.
He sold antiques. He filled his house with dogs and cats and flowers. It seems he had discreet liaisons with various men. Then he fell in love with a nineteen-year-old black mechanic called John Paul Simmonds.
John Paul was not gay, but he was tempted by wealth and friendship. Both men ran huge risks living together in a town that was segregated and proud of it. Then, in 1986, Gordon disappeared for a couple of weeks and returned as Dawn. As Dawn he announced his marriage to John Paul.
Charleston seems to have collapsed under the weight of this triple blow to its high standards – Gordon dated men, then he dated a black man, then he changed sex and married his black man.
There was more to come; Dawn declared herself pregnant and nine months later appeared with a beautiful mulatto baby. She claimed she had always been a woman, and that her operations were merely corrective. She never changed her story. Like most of Gordon/Dawn’s stories, this too proved fanciful, though her daughter always believed her mother to have been female – until presented with the medical records.
The marriage was not a success; John Paul squandered the money on Ford Thunderbirds and fishing boats, and was diagnosed schizophrenic. Dawn and her daughter eked out a life in a series of seedy motels, selling their last antiques to buy food.
Yet this is not a story of failure or loss. As Edward Ball concludes – ‘To be an hermaphrodite requires no exertion, but to design the self is a hero’s tale.’