Sunday, March 11, 2012


To read the entire story of Gordon Hall's strange life, purchase

Charleston has been described as America's most aristocratic city and it may well be, since aristocracy in Charleston has nothing to do with money, and everything to do with heritage, family and tradition. Charleston has always been a city that worships its past and is blindly proud of its Southern heritage. During the turbulent 1960s, Charleston was a city completely out of step with the times. Most people had yet to install air conditioning, in a city where today living without air conditioning is unfathomable.

In September 1962, a young English writer named Gordon Hall arrived in Charleston by chauffeured limousine. Gordon was accompanied by his parrot Marilyn, and his two pedigreed Chihuahuas - Miss Nellie and Annabel-Eliza. 

Gordon Langley Hall (and dogs)
Gordon moved to arts-oriented Charleston with money to burn and a plan to take the city by storm. He had written several books, including biographies of Princess Margaret, Jacqueline Kennedy, and a critically acclaimed volume on Mary Todd Lincoln. Gordon soon became part of the social elite in Charleston, throwing lavish parties and attending most of the exclusive social occasions in the city. He claimed friendship with Hollywood legends Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and writer Pearl S. Buck. His godmother was famed British actress Dame Margaret Rutherford, who lavished motherly affection on him.
Gordon and Bette Davis
At age sixteen Gordon decided to leave England. He took a job for a year as a teacher on an Ojibwa Indian reservation in Ontario. He also got a job as the obituary writer for the Winnepeg Free Press. He then moved to New York City where he lived with his distant cousin, Isabel Whitney. “Visiting Isabel's home was like entering some Tiffany cathedral,” Gordon later wrote. Gordon moved into the forty-room Whitney mansion at 12 West Tenth Street, taking over most of the top floor.

Through Isabel's patronage, Gordon was introduced to the elite of New York Society, including English actress Dame Margaret Rutherford, who had recently won an Oscar as best supporting actress for the film The V.I.P.s. Like Isabel, Rutherford and her husband, Stringer Davis, were childless, and soon Gordon was calling them Mother Rutherford and Father Stringer. Gordon soon became quite a personality in New York art and social circles.
Margaret Rutherford as "Miss Marple"
In 1961, Gordon went looking for a house in the south with the intention of moving Isabel to the warmer climate to enjoy her final days. Gordon purchased a dilapidated mansion at 56 Society Street in Charleston. Two weeks later, February 2, 1962, Isabel Whitney died in her bed in New York. When her will was read, Gordon had inherited the New York mansion on West Tenth Street, art, jewelry, furniture and stock in Edison, General Electric, Standard Oil, and Sears. All told it was more than $2 million. “I was surprised to have been left so much,” he commented.
56 Society Street
Gordon took the money, moved to Charleston by chauffeured limousine and restored the Society Street house in Ansonborough.Today Ansonborough is one of the city’s most prestigious communities, however when Gordon moved in, it was just shaking off a century of neglect. From its antebellum heyday, Ansonborough had taken a steady downward spiral so that by the 1960s, many of its mansions had been converted into tenements, flophouses, and shabby apartments. There were small corner groceries and tobacco shops. The neighborhood was a mixture of blacks, blue collar whites and a significant population of gay Charleston men - florists, hair stylists, decorators and restaurateurs.

One of Gordon's neighbors, Billy Camden, lived in Ansonborough in the 1960s. Camden was the owner of the gay bar, Camden's Tavern, in the center of the city. He claims that
The gay couples really restored Ansonborough. I was on the Board of Directors for the Ansonborough Historic Foundation - it was made of 80 percent gay men! There was a gay couple or person in almost every home. They should have called it 'Queensborough' instead .
Ansonborough’s reputation didn't rest only on the presence of a large gay population. There also were several houses of prostitution in the neighborhood. The first night in his new home Gordon was awakened at midnight by a group of drunken sailors. Seeing the lights from the chandeliers in the front room, the sailors had mistaken the newly restored home for a just-opened bordello.

Within a month Gordon had settled in his home. Gordon claims that
The invitations from would-be matchmakers kept pouring in . . . 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. 
Billy Camden described his impressions of Gordon: 
When he first came, everyone accepted him. He was small-framed, very effeminate guy with a thick English accent. At the beginning, the people connected with historic Ansonborough included him. But as soon as it got out what was going on - with all the blacks he entertained - that was the end of it! He would always be with a group of black, screaming queens. Charleston people would have nothing to do with him. He was an insult to the gay community; we were never friends.
Nicky, another Ansonborough man claimed that Gordon “patrolled Meeting Street at night. He loved black men almost as much as he liked old ladies with money.” 
John Paul Simmons & Gordon Hall
In the late spring of 1967 Gordon began a secret love affair with a black man named John-Paul Simmons. Secret because this was Charleston - the capital of slavery, the city that organized the Confederate States of America, the city that fired the first shot of the War Between the States. Because in Charleston of 1967, blacks and whites did not engage in romantic sexual affairs, particularly a homosexual affair.

For several months the two carried on their furtive courtship. John-Paul was poor, black and uneducated, a brutish, bulldog of a man. Gordon was rich, white, cultured and elite. He was frail, with fine features, gentle and quiet. An odder couple could hardly be found. But, Gordon was in love. 

On December 11, 1967, Gordon Hall arrived at John Hopkins, in Baltimore. During the five days he spent at the Gender Identity Clinic he met with seven doctors. By the end of the week Gordon was placed on estrogen tablets and told to dress as a woman immediately, in preparation for sexual reassignment surgery. He returned to Charleston and while in the house he began to dress the part of a woman. He also underwent electrolysis to eliminate body hair John-Paul began calling Gordon “Dawn” - to signal the dawn of their new life.
John Paul & Dawn Hall
Gordon's first public appearance as a woman was sitting in a car at a drive-in restaurant. Next, he went shopping at the Piggly Wiggly on Broad Street. Soon, he was making daily trips around the city in dresses and heels. However, there was a legal issue to deal with. Charleston had a city ordinance that prohibited one gender as going out in public dressed as the other. Gordon was afraid there would be an incident and he would be arrested. Gordon hired a lawyer to alert the authorities that he was going though the process of having sex change surgery so he would not be arrested.    
On September 23, 1968, after successful surgery, Gordon woke from anesthesia in room B-403 of John Hopkins Hospital as a woman - Dawn Pepita Langley Hall. 
Dawn was welcomed back by many in Charleston society who tried to understand and be sympathetic. After all, she still had a lot of money and a good family background. There were persistent rumors of her affairs with several prominent Charleston men. The dinner invitations now included seating arrangements next to eligible bachelors.

But not everyone was so accommodating. Many who had welcomed Gordon into their homes now shunned Dawn when they passed on the street or encountered her in the pews at St. Philip's church. Even so, the dissenters were in the minority . . . until Dawn and John-Paul announced their engagement. 
Wedding Day: John Paul & Dawn Langley Hall Simmons
At that time, the marriage of a black man and white woman was a crime in South Carolina. The state constitution prohibited the “marriage of a white person with a Negro or mulatto or a person who shall have one-eighth or more Negro blood.” However, in 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled a similar Virginia law unconstitutional, so their marriage looked possible. Dawn hired a local African-American attorney named Benard Fielding to help obtain the license.

Charleston's first 20th century inter-racial marriage of record was set for January 22, 1969.  John-Paul was hanged in effigy and several of their dogs were poisoned. Dawn (and Gordon) had always attended St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Charleston, the oldest Anglican congregation in America south of Virginia, established in 1680. A bomb threat to the church convinced Dawn to hold the ceremony in her home on Society Street. In the Charleston News and Courier, the marriage was written up on the obituary page.

On the day of the ceremony, the local radio stations alerted listeners that Charleston's wedding of the year (or any year) was to take place. A crowd gathered on Society Street. Curious onlookers mixed on the street with dozens of reporters, everybody shouting, jeering and cheering. There was a heavy police presence, alert for any violence. Dawn recalled that “the street was packed, their bodies rippling like waves.” 

Dawn had spent an incredible amount of money in a twelve month period. The wedding, a trip to Europe, and the Ford Thunderbird she had purchased as John-Paul’s wedding gift. When he totaled that car, she bought him a second, and a year later, she purchased a third Thunderbird. Dawn refurbished her mother-in-law’s house. John-Paul also told Dawn he had decided he wanted to fish for a living, so she bought him a twenty-seven foot trawler, which he used for drunken parties.The boat ended up abandoned in the marsh along the Cooper River.

In the meantime, John-Paul was continually unfaithful and fathered an illegitimate son another white woman. He was diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia, which often caused delusions and hallucinations. John-Paul began to hear voices and having conversations with a three-eyed woman from Mars he called “Big Girl.”    
Dawn Langley Hall, 1990s                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               
Dawn's extravagant life proved too much for Charleston’s closeted gay community. Her interracial marriage also sparked racism in the black community. As Jack Hitt wrote: 
Typically when one crosses forbidden lines: interracial marriage, announcing one is gay, taking a lover from another religion or class, or even changing one’s sex at least there is a community on the other side waiting for you. But Dawn charged across so many borders at once that she slipped into a country where she was the only inhabitant.
In 1995, Dawn published her third memoir, Dawn: A Charleston Legend. Her first two, Man Into Woman and All For Love, had been published more than twenty years before. For several years she had been living in North Charleston in a federally subsidized housing project. She published a novel, She-Crab Soup, which managed to sell seventeen copies in its first year publication.

Dawn Pepita Langley Hall Simmons, the former Gordon Hall, died quietly on September 18th, 2000, of effects from Parkinson’s disease. The funeral took place at the chapel of the J. Henry Stuhr Funeral Home. Her body was cremated.


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