Dawn Langley Simmons.
Dawn. Langley. Simmons.
Dear God, where do you start with Dawn Langley Simmons?
Where do you begin to sort the truth from the fabrications, to distil the facts from the gossip in a life which left no hot button unpushed? Gender, sexuality, race, class, religion: Dawn’s life was an exercise in identity insurrection. It was a narrative with the likes of Bette Davis and Mae West hitting their marks in bit parts alongside a wider cast of English aristocracy, genteel Southern queens, astonished press and the occasional hit man. Even 11 years after her death, the volatile elements have still not settled down to anything as accessible as a simple life story.
Start at the beginning, you say? Well, easier said than done: the dates given for Dawn’s birth vary by a decade and a half, although she was most likely born on this day in 1922. But it was the form in which Dawn emerged into the world which constitutes the most contentious part of her story.
As far as the official record is concerned, a boy named Gordon was born out of wedlock in Heathfield, Sussex to Vita Sackville-West’s chauffeur and a fellow servant at Sissinghurst Castle, now a place of pilgrimage for its associations with Vita and her lover Virginia Woolf and for its outstanding gardens. Exhibiting precocious talent as a writer (interviewing Mae West at nine, for instance), Gordon headed for North America at 16, settling first in Canada and eventually winding up in New York in the early 1960s. Having met, interviewed and charmed Bette Davis, he made two important connections with other older women at this time. One was Margaret Rutherford, the English actress best known for portraying Miss Marple, who became Gordon’s adoptive mother. The other woman was Isabel Whitney (of the Whitney Museum Whitneys); Gordon was a major beneficiary of her will when she died in 1962.
Gordon moved to Charleston, South Carolina where he found favour among the city’s discreet, antique-y gays impressed by his literary credentials; he specialised in biographies of women, including a tidy line in First Ladies, as well as the odd work of fiction. But none of his books offered a twist as twisty as the one Gordon was about to pull.
In 1968 Gordon disappeared to Johns Hopkins University Hospital and reappeared as Dawn. The following year Dawn married John-Paul Simmons, a black mechanic.
Verily, Charleston lost its shit. Of course mixed marriage still languishes some distance from universal acceptance (if you can name a mainstream Hollywood movie of recent years which revolves around an interracial couple, you’re doing better than me). In late-1960s South Carolina it was a step which not only almost ensured ostracism from both sides of the racial divide, it was officially illegal. The marriage announcement appeared on the obituary page of the local paper.
All this and a gender reassignment! It appears that the Charlestonians’ chief objection to Dawn was not the substance of her utterly perplexing life passages, but that she drew attention to them, contravening a code of omertà which held sway over the socially unorthodox. The final straw for many who had hitherto sympathised with Dawn came when she was seen around Charleston showing off a prominent bump, with baby Natasha arriving in 1971.
So Dawn now had a husband and child but unlike Jan Morris, for instance, she never managed to rebuild her post-reassignment literary career, ending up in reduced circumstances in upstate New York, caring for John who by now was suffering schizophrenia, before returning to Charleston in the 1980s and dying there in 2000.
After her reassignment, Dawn always maintained that she was born intersex, but predominantly female, and that it was an accident of fate that she was raised as a boy. To dispute that account is to risk appearing to side with a conservative element freaked out by any kind of gender instability. But as others have noted, her unreliable testimony makes it difficult even for communities which might otherwise be inclined to embrace her as a brave pioneer. What to make of Nigel Nicolson, Vita Sackville-West’s son, who went skinny-dipping with the young Gordon, or the gay men who later claimed to have slept with Gordon in Charleston? Surely they would have noticed an absence of male attributes.
Writer Jack Hitt grew up with Simmons as a mysterious, myth-occluded figure in his Charleston neighbourhood, and he remembers the piercing brown gaze of Gordon and then Dawn. Finally meeting her towards the end of her life, he concluded that Dawn’s story largely stands up. However when Edward Ball returned to the story, knowing Dawn only from a letter she sent him a year before she died, he reached a somewhat different conclusion, as the title of his 2004 book Peninsula of Lies infers. He maintains that Gordon fell for John, had no luck winning him as a man and so dressed in drag and finally underwent gender reassignment surgery, retrofitting his biography with the tale of intersex birth. Ball investigates the baby’s parentage and comes up with a version at considerable variance to Dawn’s. As for that 15-year discrepancy in her birthdate, Dawn wasn’t just exercising a lady’s prerogative to fudge her age by insisting she was born in 1937. She was evidently trying to make the chronology, if not the mechanics, of Natasha’s birth more plausible.
The author suggests that Dawn’s compulsive boundary-breaching sprang not from bravery, rather from some kind of masochism. It’s a contentious thesis, but it’s hard not to agree with Ball’s conclusion: “To be a hermaphrodite requires no exertion, but to design the self is a hero’s tale.”