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In September 1962, a young English writer named Gordon Hall arrived in
by chauffeured limousine. Gordon was accompanied by his parrot Marilyn, and his
two pedigreed Charleston
- Miss Nellie and Annabel-Eliza. Chihuahuas
Gordon moved to arts-oriented
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 Charleston 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
took a job for a year as a teacher on an Ojibwa Indian reservation in England . 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 Ontario 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
art and social circles. New York
|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
Two weeks later, Charleston February 2,
1962, Isabel Whitney died in her bed in . When her will was read, Gordon had
inherited the New York
mansion on New York 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.
Gordon took the money, moved to
limousine and restored the Charleston 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 men - florists, hair stylists,
decorators and restaurateurs. Charleston
One of Gordon's neighbors, Billy Camden, lived in Ansonborough in the 1960s.
was the owner of the gay bar, Camden 's
Tavern, in the center of the city. He claims that Camden
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 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.
people would have nothing to do with him. He was an insult to the gay community; we were never friends. Charleston
Nicky, another Ansonborough man claimed that Gordon “patrolled
at night. He loved black men almost as much as he liked old ladies with money.”
In the late spring of 1967 Gordon began a secret love affair with a black man named John-Paul Simmons. Secret because this was
- the capital of slavery, the city
that organized the Confederate States of Charleston , the city that fired the
first shot of the War Between the States. Because in America of 1967, blacks and whites did not
engage in romantic sexual affairs, particularly a homosexual affair. Charleston
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.
December 11, 1967, Gordon Hall arrived at John Hopkins, in
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 Baltimore
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. Charleston
|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
Soon, he was making daily trips around the city in dresses and heels. However,
there was a legal issue to deal with.
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
September 23, 1968, after successful surgery, Gordon woke
from anesthesia in room B-403 of
as a woman - Dawn Pepita Langley Hall. John
Dawn was welcomed back by many in
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
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
. 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 South
law unconstitutional, so their marriage looked possible. Dawn hired a local
African-American attorney named Benard Fielding to help obtain the license. Virginia
On the day of the ceremony, the local radio stations alerted listeners that
wedding of the year (or any year) was
to take place. A crowd gathered on Charleston 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
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 .
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
’s closeted gay
community. Her interracial marriage also sparked racism in the black community.
As Jack Hitt wrote: Charleston
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
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 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. North Charleston