a new dawn for the dowdy doppelganger

Dawn Langley Simmons (1937-2000) was born Gordon Langley Hall, the illegitimate son of Vita Sackville-West’s chauffeur.  

image of Gordon before becoming Dawn found here

“Jack Hitt, a journalist who grew up in Charleston across the street from Mrs. Simmons and wrote about her for GQ magazine, remembered her as a figure with a piercing stare, a pillbox hat and ”a Dippity-Do hairstyle, a dowdy doppelganger of Jackie Kennedy.’

image found here

Mrs. Simmons was a person around whom legends swirled. She lived in a grand house filled with antiques and a hidden garden. She was said to have had a coming-out party for two of her dogs, who were displayed on velvet cushions in the living room, dressed in chenille, long gloves and pearls.

image found here

Mrs. Simmons was born with an adrenal abnormality that caused her female genitalia to resemble a male’s and was thus raised as a boy. She always maintained that she was — unequivocally — female. In his late teens, Mr. Hall emigrated to Ontario, where he worked as a missionary, teacher and midwife among the Ojibwa Indians, according to his book about his experiences, ”Me Papoose Sitter”. He also wrote books about Princess Margaret, Jacqueline Kennedy and American Evangelism.

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Moving to New York in his twenties, Mr. Hall met the actress Margaret Rutherford. She and her husband, Stringer Davis, were so enchanted with Gordon that they adopted him.

Stringer and Margaret found here

During that time Gordon also befriended the painter Isabel Whitney, who left him $2 million at her death in 1962. He moved to Charleston, settling into a faded 1840 house on Society Street in the Ansonborough section, which had a large gay population. He became friendly with Charleston’s grandes dames, restored his house and filled it with Chippendale furniture, mirrors said to belong to George Washington, and bed steps said to have been owned by Robert E. Lee.

image by Joan Perry found here

Then in 1968 Gordon underwent a sex change operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, and became Dawn Pepita Langley Hall. The following year she married her 22-year-old black butler, John-Paul Simmons. The publisher of ”Dawn: A Charleston Legend” was quoted as calling it the first documented interracial marriage in Charleston’s history. A bomb threat forced the couple to move the wedding from a Baptist church to the bride’s home, and the gifts were destroyed by a firebomb.

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In England, Miss Rutherford was reported to have said, ”I am delighted that Gordon has become a woman, delighted that Dawn is to marry a man of another race, and delighted that Dawn is to marry a man of a lower station, but I understand the man is a Baptist!

John the Baptist found here

Soon, Mrs. Simmons appeared to be pregnant. Then in 1972, she began strolling with a baby carriage bearing a little girl whom she called Natasha. In 1974, after a period of turbulence in which she accused her husband of selling her belongings to buy whisky, the family moved to Catskill, N.Y. Some time later, Mr. Simmons was confined to a mental institution near Albany. 

Dawn died in September 2000. Her daughter asked that she be remembered as the family woman she was, devoted to her children.