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. Continue reading