Like many other aspects of the life of Dawn Langley Simmons, her date of birth remains a matter of some dispute. While she always claimed to have been born in 1937, official records reveal the year of her birth as 1922; and the timing of some of Dawn’s own recollections certainly make that date far more plausible. Dawn’s mother was Margery Hall Ticehurst, a domestic servant, and her father, Jack Copper, the resident chauffeur at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. Though the pair eventually married, Margery’s family were initially enraged at the thought of her having a child out of wedlock, so much so that her brother viciously kicked her in the stomach while pregnant. Dawn later suggested that she believed this incident was the cause of confusion, among both doctors and her parents, over her gender. Mistakenly believing her to be a boy, she argued, they had consequently brought her up as one.
Christened Gordon Langley Hall, although affectionately known by her family and friends as ‘Dinky’ on account of her slight frame, as an adult Dawn would fervently maintain that she had been born with a condition that caused swelling of the genitals, thereby leading doctors to wrongly identify her as male at birth. In his 2004 book Peninsula of Lies, based upon Dawn’s life, the journalist Edward Ball states that Dawn genuinely was born male, a fact certified to him by the doctor who carried out Dawn’s gender reassignment surgery in 1968. Yet regardless of whatever Gordon Langley Hall’s sex might have been at birth, Dawn Langley Simmons was a most remarkable woman.
Reminiscing about her childhood many years later, Dawn admitted to having a distant relationship with her parents, but an exceptional bond with her maternal grandmother, Nellie, whom she greatly admired. Nellie would inspire Dawn to follow her own path recalling how, ‘Knowing that because of my affliction I would never be able to contract a proper marriage, she decided early to fortify me with so much knowledge that I would be able to hold my own with anybody.’ Growing up at Sissinghurst, Dawn spent much time with the castle’s bohemian owners, Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson, both of whom were homosexual; and through Vita’s lover, Virginia Woolf, she would also encounter the highly intellectual and artistic Bloomsbury Group for whom notions of gender and sexuality were often blurred. This was to leave an indelible mark upon her, as a close friend revealed to Edward Ball, ‘All this is what Dawn saw when she was growing up – a bunch of messed up artists.’
When asked by Virginia Woolf what she wanted to be when she grew up, Dawn remembered telling the novelist without hesitation, ‘a writer.’ Woolf’s own work also played a part in influencing the impressionable young Dinky, particularly her 1928 novel Orlando, about an epicene character with the ability to change sex, apparently based upon the androgynous Vita Sackville-West. Indeed, Dawn acknowledged, ‘I had a recurring dream in which I saw an old fashioned glass hearse with plumes turning to go into the cemetery. And in the casket was Gordon. And that was a recurring dream. And of course, I grew up at Sissinghurst. And Virginia Woolf had written Orlando, the wonderful story about her friend and lover Vita Sackville-West. How over the years Orlando had turned from a beautiful young man into a beautiful woman. And so I felt in my heart that I was the living Orlando.’ As Woolf had done, Dawn displayed a precocious talent for writing from an early age, and at nine years-old even had a regular column in a local newspaper, The Sussex Express, for which she once interviewed Mae West.
During the Second World War, Dawn was deemed unfit for service, but made herself useful by taking theatre classes and entertaining the troops, an endeavour that would have been unlikely had she been born in 1937. Still living as a man, in 1950 she moved to the United States, where she became the society editor for the Nevada Daily Mail in Missouri. A year later, she left for a brief stay in Canada, and found teaching work at an the Ojibway native reservation, an experience which would inspire her to write her 1955 book Me Papoose Sitter, the first of her critically acclaimed works.
Returning once again to New York, where she was the society editor of the Port Chester Daily Item, she met the painter and muralist Isabel Whitney; and the two enjoyed a great kinship until 1962, when Whitney died. In her will Whitney left Dawn $2 million and a 40 room mansion the two had planned to share in the Ansonborough neighbourhood of Charleston, South Carolina, where there was a large homosexual community. Arriving in Ansonborough with Marilyn, her pet parrot, and her two Chihuahuas, Annabel-Eliza and Miss Nellie, named after her grandmother; legends soon sprung up about the flamboyant new resident. It was even claimed that Dawn had held a coming out party for her dogs, seating them on velvet cushions and draping them with pearls.
Dawn, or Gordon as she was still known at that time, became the toast of local high society, ‘The invitations from would-be matchmakers kept pouring in’ she recalled, ‘leading hostesses gave suppers that I really dreaded. Always some poor husbandless girl was purposely placed beside me at the table. When I showed no particular interest in the feminine sex, there were those who decided that I must be homosexual.’ Dawn noted that such attempts at matchmaking were not abandoned after she officially became a woman, she was just seated next to eligible bachelors instead.
After leaving England, Dawn’s writing career had begun to flourish, and she discovered that she had a remarkable flair for biography, recounting and embellishing the lives of others as she had done her own. Notable subjects and works included Princess Margaret (1958), Jacqueline Kennedy (1964), Dear Vagabonds: The story of Roy and Brownie Adams (1964) and Lady Bird Johnson (1967). In New York, Dawn had also become exceptionally close to the eccentric English actress Margaret Rutherford and her husband, the actor Stringer Davis; who was himself rumoured to be a homosexual. The pair would come to think of Dawn, and treat her, as their own child.
Above: Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple in Murder Ahoy! (1964)
A friend spoke of how Dawn had once told him she believed gender was a matter of choice, and that it was up to the individual, ‘to make one more ready than the other.’ On September 3rd 1968, Dawn underwent surgery at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, a procedure she asserted was intended to correct the condition that had caused her gender to be mistaken, rather than a full gender reassignment. To cement her new identity, a new name was also needed, and she became Dawn Pepita Langley Hall, choosing Dawn because the operation marked her rebirth in the body she felt matched her already feminine mind. As a child, Dawn remembered, ‘all I wanted was to grow up and be a beautiful lady,’ and it would seem she had finally got her wish. Margaret Rutherford remained as supportive as ever, telling her friends that she no longer had a son, but now had a daughter instead.
In her own words, Dawn ‘stunned the city’ when she married John-Paul Simmons, on 21st January 1969, a car mechanic nine years her junior with ambitions of becoming a sculptor. The couple had courted in secret for months before Dawn’s operation as they feared the local community would not be accepting of their relationship, yet they finally decided that their love was strong enough to overcome any prejudice that they might face. Their marriage was the first legal interracial ceremony ever held in South Carolina, such unions being illegal in the state until 1967. Local radio stations referred to their nuptials as the ‘wedding of the year.’ When asked, Margaret Rutherford would remark that her only misgivings about the marriage stemmed from the fact that Dawn was an Anglican, whereas John-Paul was a Baptist. When visiting England soon after, Dawn and John-Paul had a second ceremony in Sussex, with Davis giving Dawn away and Rutherford acting as the proud mother of the bride.
Two years later, in October 1971, the couple’s first and only child, Natasha Margienell Manigault Paul Simmons, was born. Before Natasha’s birth, Dawn had been seen in Charleston with a large bump, although some locals had ridiculed her, claiming that it was in fact a pillow under her dress. Ball has also claimed, that John-Paul confided in him that Natasha was the product of an affair that he had with another woman. However, Dawn insisted that her condition had done nothing to prevent her from being able to bear a child, and Natasha unquestioningly accepted that Dawn was her biological mother.
Dawn continued to enjoy a successful writing career, as well as motherhood, and soon after her daughter was born she published the first volume of her autobiography, Man into woman: A Transsexual Autobiography. The second volume, All For Love, followed in 1975 and her third, Dawn: A Charleston Legend, was published in 1995. She also wrote the first biography of her adopted mother in 1983, entitled, Margaret Rutherford: A Blithe Spirit.
Despite her professional success, family life in Charleston did not prove quite so straightforward; several of Dawn’s dogs were killed, and she was subjected to an attack after an intruder broke into their home. The final straw came when threats were made against Natasha, and the family felt they had no choice but to move to New York. In 1982, Dawn divorced her husband, claiming that he had been abusive throughout their marriage, yet they remained amicable for Natasha’s sake. John-Paul was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia, after he began to hear voices and start conversations with ‘Big Girl,’ an entity he believed to be a three-eyed Martian. After suffering from severe mental illness for many years, John-Paul Simmons died in New York in April 2012.
In 1985, Dawn returned to Charleston to live with Natasha and her three grandchildren, and continued to write. On 18th September 2000, surrounded by Natasha and her family, Dawn died at home from Parkinson’s disease. When asked to give a comment for Dawn’s obituary in The New York Times, Natasha said that she was unperturbed by her mother’s past and wanted her to be remembered, ‘as the grandmother that she was, as a family woman.’ Attendees at Dawn’s funeral were few in number, possibly because Natasha had put a false notice in the paper, in order to deter those who might come simply out of curiosity rather than a genuine desire to pay their respects to the woman, described by the minister taking the service as, ‘a gentle person who cared for other people, who loved her animals, and especially loved her daughter, Natasha.’
Shortly after her mother’s funeral, Natasha agreed to meet with Ball, to discuss her life with Dawn. Natasha told him that her mother was devoted to her, and had been her ‘Brownie troop leader!’ She was also eager to dispel any doubts as to Dawn’s true gender, emphasising how she was ‘a proper woman’ who ‘didn’t like games, or television. And she always wore dresses or skirts. It wasn’t until the last couple of years of her life – when she got sick – that she put on a pair of pants!’ Ball noted that Natasha wore Dawn’s wedding ring on a chain around her neck.
One of the last books Dawn published was The Great White Owl of Sissinghurst, an enchanting children’s story that drew upon elements of Native American folklore, in which an owl represents the death of an old way of life and the start of a new one. Owls were commonly spotted in the castle’s grounds, as Vita Sackville-West herself wrote in her horticultural text, In Your Garden, ‘I cannot help hoping that the great ghostly barn-owl will sweep silently across a pale garden, next summer, in the twilight – the pale garden that I am now planting, under the first flakes of snow.’
Vita’s son, Nigel Nicolson, had been a childhood friend of Dawn’s and they had often roamed the grounds of Sissinghurst, perhaps seeing owls themselves on occasion. Reviewing the last volume of Dawn’s autobiography, Nicolson confessed, somewhat ashamedly, that as an adult he had forgotten his early friendship with Dawn and had ‘mocked her strange fate and refused to meet her.’ In spite of this, she wrote about him in the fondest of terms, leaving Nicolson to admire how her turbulent life had done little to dampen Dawn’s own blithe spirit, which remained ‘gallant, resilient and unfailingly generous.’
Peninsula of Lies – Edward Ball (2004)