Peninsula of Lies

Book cover for Peninsula of Lies: A True Story of A Mysterious Birth and Taboo Love by Edward BallPeninsula of Lies: A True Story of A Mysterious Birth and Taboo Love by Edward Ball.

Catchy title, isn’t it?  I saw this book on a sale rack at the library and was intrigued by the title and even more drawn in by the cover.  After I read the jacket summary, I was hooked.  Billed as a “nonfiction mystery,”  it explores the enigmatic life and relationships of Dawn Langley Simmons, a British author who was at the center of one of the most unusual  lifestyle scandals of the century.

Born in England in the 1930s, Ms. Simmons (I’m sure she would disapprove of this title) began life as a boy named Gordon Langley Hall.  He was the son of working class parents, servants of Vita Sackville-West, and raised primarily by his maternal grandmother.  After a stint teaching on an Indian reservation in Canada during World War II and then teaching theater in London upon his return, he started his writing career contributing articles to a small local newspaper.  He wanted to travel and continue his writing career and moved to New York in 1952 where he found work as a file clerk and moved into an apartment.  He managed to parley these simple beginnings into a career as an author of the biographies of famous society women and into a relationship and living space with heiress Isabel Whitney from whom he inherited a house in Charleston, South Carolina and a substantial amount of money when she passed on.

Mr. Hall moved to Charleston and proceeded to refurbish the house and fill it with antiques and tried to join in Society by throwing dinner parties and opening his house to tours (while selling some of the antiques on the side).  Then things got strange.  Gordon, claiming to have been born intersexed, went to Boston in the sixties to have a sex change operation to ‘correct’ the mistake nature had made, changed her name to Dawn, married a much younger African American man named John-Paul Simmons and shortly thereafter became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter who she named Natasha.  Her life went downhill from there.  Her husband went through her money, the family lost their Charleston home and ended up moving north.  John-Paul was unfaithful and abusive and was diagnosed with schizophrenia and from that time on has been institutionalized off and on.

Truth is indeed stranger than fiction — or is it?  That is what the author, Edward Ball, determined to find out.  Was Gordon Hall born intersex or was he gay?  Did his operation correct a mistake of nature?  Was he really capable of having a child ‘naturally’?  How much of his/her background was based in fact and how much the product of a fevered imagination?  Mr. Hall’s investigation takes him from the collection of Dawn’s papers at Duke University to his/her home and gravesite in England with stops along the way to speak with experts on transgender surgery and the intersexed.  He interviews her friends, her living relatives and, maybe most significantly, her daughter and estranged husband.  All of this in an attempt to arrive at the truth behind all of the rumors, stories and lies told by and about this fascinating character.  Herein lies an intriguing tale told very well.  It will keep you guessing until the end and maybe beyond.

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