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21 October 2009

Dawn Langley Simmons (1922- 2000) part 1: celebrity biographer, antiques dealer.

Gordon Kenneth Ticehurst was born to an unmarried teenager in the village of Heathfield, Sussex. He was raised by his grandmother. His mother subsequently married, and she and her husband were servants at Sissinghurst in Kent, the home of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson. Gordon visited his mother at Sissinghurst where he was known as Dinky. In later life he would compare his own life to Orlando, the magic-sex-change novel written by Vita’s lover Virginia Woolf, and based on Vita.

At 17 he re-registered his birth with his mother’s husband listed as his father. He started using the name Gordon Langley Hall, Hall being his grandmother’s maiden name.

In 1946 Gordon did a year as a teacher on an Ojibwe reservation at Lake Nipigon in north-western Ontario. He returned to England and taught for two years in Croydon, and did some society journalism.

In 1950 he emigrated to the US and became society editor for The Nevada Daily Mail in Missouri. In 1952 he became a society columnist for the New York suburban Port Chester Daily Item. One evening he attended an art showing and took up with the artist Isabel Whitney (1878 – 1962), a descendant of Eli Whitney (1765 – 1825), the inventor of the cotton gin. Gordon moved into her 40-room mansion on West 10th Street and became her companion.

In 1955 he published Me Papoose Sitter based on his experiences with the Ojibwe. In 1957 his play about interracial same-sex love between soldiers, Saraband for a Saint, was performed in Harlem, and attracted celebrity attention. He also started a career as a celebrity biographer with books on US first ladies and British royalty, and through colleagues on the Villager newspaper was able to meet the actress Bette Davis (1908 – 1989).

In 1959 he wrote a never-published 150-page novella about a 40-year-old writer who picks up a 19-year-old man and makes him his secretary and lover. The young man eventually leaves, and later the older man strangles him and goes to death row.

In 1960 Gordon met the noted actress Margaret Rutherford (1892 – 1972), then 68. Rutherford and her husband Stringer Davis(1899 –1973) adopted Hall two years later, as they had done with three other adults.

As Isabel aged, she and Gordon decided to buy a pink stucco house in the gay area of Charleston, North South Carolina, but she died before they could move. Hall flew her body to Heathfield for burial, although she had never been there in life. Whitney left him an estate reportedly worth over $1 million.

Gordon renovated the house in Charleston, filled it with antiques, and became part of Charleston society. In 1963 the aging Carson McCullers visited Charleston and met Gordon at a party. She is reputed to have taken him aside and said to him: “You are really a little girl”.

Dawn and John-Paul
Not being married, Gordon did not really fit in with the Charleston gay scene, but he cruised the nearby bus station. At a time when Charleston white gay men rarely went with black men, Gordon was smitten when he met the 18-year-old John-Paul Simmons (1948 – 2012).

Hall first courted John-Paul as a man, but without success, and then as a woman. She persuaded John-Paul to start living in her house. By 1967 Hall had been accepted in the new Gender Clinic at Johns Hopkins University Hospital.  John-Paul went with her to the Clinic. Dr Milton Edgerton told her that the operation would be a mistake, but they would do it if she insisted.

John-Paul left her, but came back when she said that she would not have the operation, but then she had it anyway in 1968. She was one of the first to have surgery with Dr Howard Jones under the Johns Hopkins program. She changed her name to Dawn Pepita Langley Hall (Pepita was the grandmother of Vita Sackville-West).

John-Paul left her again, and again she pestered him to return. Dawn had to hire a lawyer to persuade the judge to issue a marriage license. On the license she claimed to be 31. South Carolina still had a law forbidding interracial marriage, but a similar law in Virginia had been struck down by the US Supreme Court (Loving v. Virginia 1967). The engagement photograph was printed in the UK on the front page of the News of the World. The marriage was held in their home on 22 January 1969 presided over by a pastor from the Shiloh African Methodist Episcopal Church of which Dawn had recently become the sole white member.

Dawn with Margaret Rutherford
It was international news featured in the New York Times, Newsweek, the black weekly, Jet, and the tabloid, National Insider; the Japanese tabloid Shukan Shincho, and in the UK, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Express and the Sussex Express. The People paid her ₤3750 for a series on her life, and supported her claim to have been examined by a Harley Street surgeon (Dawn later said that this was Dr Elliot Phillip) who said that she had been wrongly sexed at birth and was capable of becoming pregnant. She was also on radio and television in the UK and Canada, but not in the US where her story was too hot.

Dawn’s mother died, and Mr and Mrs Simmons planned a visit to her grave. Margaret Rutherford enabled a blessing of their marriage in an Anglican church in Hastings, Kent.

Continued in Part 2.

3 comments:

Barbara Barsa said...

If you look at pictures of Dawn, and of Gordon Langley-Hall, and compare them with those of Vita Sackville-West and her son Nigel Nicolson (or even grandson Adam Nicolson), there is an inescapable family resemblance. To put it bluntly, Dawn looked like Vita, and most people certainly don't! Dawn/Gordon was either Vita's child or the offspring of a close relative. She was passed off as a servant's child at Sissinghurst but treated as something more...as would be expected as anyone who was obviously closely related to the lady of the castle! The deeper you dig, the stranger the story gets.

sallie parker said...

She lived in Charleston, North Carolina? I did not know North Carolina had a Charleston.

Zagria said...

Oops. It took over two years for anyone to notice. That's what happens when you have two states dedicated to the same king.