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.
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.