"Peninsula of Lies: A True Story of Mysterious Birth and Taboo Love"
(reviewed by Jenny Dressel APR 4, 2004)
When I read Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, I wanted to pack up my family and move to Savannah, Georgia, because the town's "bizarre-ness" seemed like so much fun. My brother-in-law, who is a true-blue Southerner and knows my personality, said, "No, Jenny, if you want to go South, go to Charleston. It's as beautiful as Savannah, but the people in Charleston don't take "society" so seriously."
So, when Edward Ball's new book, Peninsula of Lies, came out and I was offered the book for review, I jumped on it. Peninsula is about Charleston, South Carolina, in the '60's, and a particularly infamous woman, Dawn Langley Simmons, who spent part of her life there.
"The year before she died, Dawn Langley Simmons, a person I'd never met but knew from her infamous reputation sent me a letter.I was living in Charleston.Dawn's adopted hometown.Dawn explained that she was a lover of antiques, and some years earlier had bought a piece of eighteenth century furniture previously in the hands of my family."
Ball didn't get the chance to speak to Dawn Simmons before she died, and he reproached himself "for letting the chance to meet one of the most unusual people ever to put down roots in the South." He decided to look into Simmons' past, and find the true story of this woman.
Dawn Langley Simmons arrived in Charleston in the early sixties as Gordon Hall. Gordon had been born in England "sometime before World War II" and had become a successful writer in London. In the early '50s, Gordon moved to New York's Greenwich Village to start his career as a writer over here. In 1952, he met Isabel Whitney, an elderly spinster heiress, and moved in with her.
"He became the accommodating male whenever Isabel needed a companion.The December- May partnership between the old lady and the youthful English arriviste seemed to have been a relationship of convenience." In 1962, Isabel Whitney died, and Hall moved to 56 Society Street in Charleston. Due to the inheritance he received he was able to renovate the townhouse, and the Historic Charleston Foundation accepted him into society.
All was fine until 1968 when Hall proclaimed he that he was an intersexual (the politically correct term for hermaphrodite) and was admitted to Johns Hopkins University for a sex change operation. Gordon came back to Charleston as Dawn Hall. Dawn proceeded to marry a black man, John Paul Simmons, and told everyone in Charleston that she was pregnant, and "gave birth" to a daughter, Natasha, in October, 1971. This somewhat bizarre tale has become legend in Charleston and Ball sets out to unravel this woman's life, and figure out what is real and what is fiction.
I found this book to be especially tragic. This woman, who died in 2000, could never find the courage to tell the truth about her life. Through research (Dawn Langley Simmons' correspondence, essays, articles, etc. are held at Duke University), and speaking to everyone alive- from estranged family members in England, to New York and Charleston acquaintance, to her schizophrenic husband and bewildered daughter, Ball pastes together a tale of a woman prone to lying.
Her truth is quite ordinary in this day and age. There is no doubt that it was extraordinary in the 1960's for people to go through sex changes, and for white women to marry a black man in the South, but nowadays, I find nothing bizarre about it. And it's evident in this book that Simmons' neighbors in Charleston knew when she was "reinventing" herself, and really didn't care enough to challenge her stories.
Ball's book hasn't turned me off my interest in Charleston, although he did little to add to it. And while this book may be compared to Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil, I didn't find it nearly as compelling. This would have been a great magazine article, but this 271 page book is filled with the redundant material reworded, and I found it cumbersome reading.
If you are from Charleston, and have heard of "the man who was really a woman," you may find this interesting- otherwise in this day and age, you can turn on Jerry Springer, to find tragic characters trying to re-invent their lives by making it up.
- Amazon readers rating: from 18 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Slaves in the Family (1998)
- The Sweet Hell Inside: A Family History (2001)
- Peninsula of Lies: A True Story of Mysterious Birth and Taboo Love (2004)
- Genetic Strand: Exploring a Family History Through DNA (2007)
- The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Guilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures (2013)
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- PBS Online News Hour interview with Edward Ball
- CNN.com on Slaves in the Family
- Salon.com review of The Sweet Hell Inside
- Washington Post review of The Genetic Strand
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About the Author:
Edward Ball was born in Savannah, Georgia, graduated from Brown University. He began his career in 1984 as a freelance journalist, writing on film, art and architecture, and became a Village Voice columnist in 1990. His first book, Slaves in the Family, won the National Book Award. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina, with his wife, Elizabeth.