It started with an inquiry. It was 1999, maybe 2000. Receiving a letter was surely becoming less common, but it was not yet an anomaly, a quirky, quaint reminder of simpler times. It was a means to an end — Dear so and so, I am inquiring about — and in this case, it was an alleged family heirloom, an antique piece of furniture. A commode chair. A toilet.
The letter was sent to author Edward Ball, who was residing in Charleston at the time. Although Ball now lives in Connecticut, he was born in Savannah and raised in Louisiana and South Carolina. He is all too familiar with the proclivities of the South, the long simmering malevolence beneath the haint blue ceilings and Spanish moss laced porches, the secrets buried in the backyard. But nothing could have prepared him for the letter he received from a Dawn Pepita Simmons. A letter about a toilet.
"In her letter Simmons said 'we must meet,'" says Ball. "[She wrote] 'I want to know the whereabouts of an antique that I owned that used to belong to your family. It was the commode chair of Elias Ball.'"
Ball didn't know of any such piece of furniture, and tucked the letter away. He made a mental note that it was certainly interesting, something perhaps to pursue at a later date. That date would never come, though. "She died the following year," says Ball of Dawn. "I went to her funeral, justifying that by the fact that she had reached out to me. What I saw there at Stuhr's Funeral home on Calhoun was so interesting that I decided to investigate her life."
What Ball saw was a peculiar sight — even on the cusp of the 21st century, especially in the South. "On the right side of the chapel were all white elderly gay men and the left side were all African-American church people," says Ball. "And these were two groups that didn't normally come together but they seemed to contain something of Dawn's journey."
The journey of Dawn Pepita Simmons began across the pond, in Sussex, England. Simmons was born a male, named Gordon Langley Hall in the '30s, the son of servants with auspicious connections. "Dawn was quite proud that she had known Viriginia Woolf," says Ball. Dawn's parents were servants for author and gardener Vita Sackville-West (Woolf's friend and lover). The young, observant Dawn (then Gordon) was privy to the goings on of the Bloomsbury group, an intimate circle of writers, artists, and intellectuals including Woolf, her husband Leonard, E.M. Forster, Desmond McCarthy, and John Maynard Keynes, among others.
When Simmons (still going by Gordon) grew up, she moved to the U.S., living as a gay man in Greenwich Village, flourishing in the 1950s, able to live loudly in a space that would foster both the LGBT and counterculture movements. "She was a woman who crossed many boundaries," says Ball. "From gentry England which she was from the bottom to gay New York ... to antique Charleston where she was a minor society member."
It was in Charleston in 1968, a Southern city embroiled in the Civil Rights movement, a city that to this day struggles with its identity, that Gordon Hall decided to change his own. "It was an outrage," says Ball about the reaction to Gordan Hall's sex reassignment surgery. Dawn Pepita was born, and, soon after, became Dawn Pepita Simmons. "The crescendo of course is the interracial union that she made with John Paul Simmons. To have a black partner was preposterous and not only that, it was self-destructive. It brought a very hard life on both of them."
"It's all very strange in restrospect," says Ball. "Because trans experience has become practically mainstream — it's certainly an issue of interest and sympathy now." Ball says when he published Peninsula of Lies, the investigation of Dawn's life and the scandal that followed her, in 2004, it was still ahead of its time. "12 or 13 years ago, people understood Dawn to be something of a freak. An entertaing side show. I think she suffered quite a lot for what she did."
After her gender reassignment, which was funded by actress Margaret Rutherford and heiress Isabel Whitney, Simmons' antics escalated. "I think that Dawn wanted notoriety. She wanted fame, and the way she got it was to offend people," says Ball. When Whitney died, Dawn inherited a fortune, purchasing an 1840s mansion in Ansonborough. "I wonder what her life would be like today," says Ball. "Within the last five years it seems, so rapidly [the trans experience has been accepted]. As rapidly as gay marriage has become mainstream. I think if Dawn were alive today she would not have been victimized, she was made to suffer."
Ball says that now, years after the fact, he understands why Simmons sent him that letter. "The toilet was a pretext, which I did not grasp. She wanted to tell me her story."
Listen to granddaughter of Vita Sackville- West, Juliet Nicolson; descendant of Admiral George Anson, Charles Anson; and Edward Ball at the St. Stephen's Episcopal Church as part of the inaugrual Charleston to Charleston Literary Festival. Ball will be signing copies of Peninsula of Lies.