Transcript

15:

Dawn
Transcript

Originally aired 02.28.1996

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/15

Prologue.

Different Voices

From PRI, Public Radio International. From PRI, Public Radio International. From PRI, Public Radio International. Public Radio. Public Radio International.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. And I'm here to tell you first today about Mr. Lewis. And I call him Mr. Lewis because, although I have asked him what his first name is and I found out, like a good journalist, I've never actually heard anybody use his first name. So it seems kind of wrong to use it here.

Mr. Lewis is the kind of man who has a certain effect on people. And if you visit the school where he works, James McCosh Elementary, on Chicago's South Side, you can hear what that effect is.

At Halloween, Mr. Lewis helps the kids convert the field house out on the school's parking lot into a two-room haunted house. It's a low-budget, handmade affair, but done so effectively that when the kindergarten, first grade, and second grade children walk in, they panic with the kind of panic that makes them drop things, that makes them scream and not stop screaming. They do not notice that the two monsters writhing on top of open graves are really just two sixth graders lying on top of barely disguised ping pong tables. They do not catch that the undead are wearing Nike cross trainers, or that sometimes, when the monsters flail about, yellow student IDs on neck chains come flopping out.

Girl 1

I want your brain. I want your brain. I'm hungry.

Ira Glass

This sixth grader extends her arms and sends a bunch of kids running in the other direction. The older kids play their parts with hilarious abandon, so happy they can't help grinning from ear to ear at moments when they're supposed to be scary.

Mr. Lewis

Come on. [UNINTELLIGIBLE] Come on. They won't mess with you. Mr. Lewis is with you.

Ira Glass

Into the fray, in baseball cap and yellow jacket, walks Mr. Lewis. In theory, he's the school disciplinarian, but his reign is one of love more than fear. Three or four small children grip onto each of his hands, and he walks them past the ping pong table of terror, telling them he'd never let anything bad happen to any of them. Until, suddenly, they bolt for the door.

Mr. Lewis

My group left me. Hey, come on, Mr. Lewis is here. That group went back out that door.

Ira Glass

He heads off for another group of kids to protect. The crowds thin after a while, and the girls on the ping pong table consent to an interview. One of them is holding forth on the thesis that, sure, a person could look at their outfits as striped referee jerseys, or you could choose to see them as pirate costumes. When the other girl volunteers, without any prompting, this--

Girl 1

Mr. Lewis is like a father to all of us at James McCosh School. He nice and he fun to be with.

Girl 2

He makes us feel good. He been here for a long time. He knows most of our parents that went to this school and he just knows us.

Girl 1

When we're sad, sometimes he makes us happy and stuff.

Girl 2

When were frowning, he make us laugh.

Girl 1

He funny. He like the jokester. He like to talk about people.

Ira Glass

They tell me about their favorite activities at McCosh, the Student Leaders of Tomorrow Club, the peer leadership workshops, cheerleading. Mr. Lewis is a big part of all these. It's Mr. Lewis who made the tombstones on their ping pong table that read, "RIP, Cause of death: Gym."

It's Mr. Lewis who mediates their fights. It's Mr. Lewis who really knows them.

A month after I record this tape, a child is shot after school on the parking lot just outside this building. Just a few yards from the ping pong table these girls sit on. McCosh sits in a neighborhood that has all the problems of any inner city neighborhood, and it's easy to see why the students at McCosh need someone like Mr. Lewis so badly. And it's easy to imagine these girls, decades from now, remembering Mr. Lewis, talking about him, wondering what became of him. All of us have certain figures from our childhood who assume a kind of mythic status later when we remember them. Sometimes they're people who loved us. Sometimes they're more disturbing figures.

Well, today, we've devoted much of our show to a story about a man who not only had one of these legendary figures in his childhood, he decided recently he was going to track down the legend, and along the way, stumbled into this kind of odd, epic story. It is a story of the Old South, the New South, Chihuahuas, high society manners, homosexuals, and some [UNINTELLIGIBLE] changes in American journalism. Stay with us won't you?

OK, I'm going to begin things with this song about respecting those who came before you and influenced you.

[MUSIC - "RHYMIN' ON THE FUNK," DIGITAL UNDERGROUND]

Act One. Dawn.

Ira Glass

Act one. So many stories about childhood are set at the first moment of adolescence, that moment when we first try to cope with the giddy, nauseating fact of what it's going to be like for us as adults. The sixth grade. This is where Jack Hitt's story and his search begin.

A quick warning before we start. Parts of this story might not be suitable for younger listeners.

Jack Hitt

Most people have a funny little story about finding out where babies come from. I've got one.

My friend Parker Coleman told me about it. We were playing in his backyard at this particular time and place. That being 1967 in Charleston, South Carolina. Until then, I knew about the sex act only from cuss words. In my mind, it was earthy, nasty, certainly forbidden. From the air, I had picked up the idea that sex was something black folks did. Maybe whites without the right breeding. Proper people did not really have sex. A youthful impression that I've since learned is true. But when Parker told me that babies and sex were connected my sister Diane was pregnant for the first time. So I punched him in the face, hopped on my bicycle, and sped on home.

But this rather standard tale of sexual awakening occurs within a larger story. For me, a much larger story. See, in my neighborhood, we lived down the street from a British writer named Gordon Langley Hall. A slim man who preferred bow ties. I remember hearing one day that Gordon had left for a distant hospital-- Johns Hopkins-- and returned fully reconstituted as a woman who now preferred to be known as Dawn Pepita Langley Hall.

My new neighbor favored Jackie Kennedy dresses and pillbox hats. Her hair was grown out until it curled at the collar in the fashion of that time. She wore lipstick. A modest '60s bosom appeared. Not long after her operations, she announced her engagement to a handsome shrimper named John-Paul Simmons. John-Paul also worked as Dawn's butler, and John-Paul was also black.

I remember hearing that Dawn's adopted mother, the British film actress Dame Margaret Rutherford, was quoted to the effect that she didn't mind Gordon changing his sex, or Gordon marrying a man of another race, or Gordon marrying into a lower station. But she did wish that the young man was not Baptist. Such anecdotes never seemed to cease, especially after Dawn announced that she was pregnant by John-Paul. I can remember seeing her a lot during this period, walking down the street, heavy with child. Everyone said it was a pillow under her dress. The town began to freak, and properly did so when she returned from the secret birthing-- it was in England-- with a beautiful mulatto baby.

Well, that was the last straw for Charleston. Unseen pressures were applied and one day I heard that the house was sold. Almost overnight Dawn disappeared, and almost as quickly, became a bizarre Gothic yarn I told to stunned audiences.

But over the years, even I no longer believed the story and just quit telling it. Eventually, one ceased to hear about Dawn at all.

Now around the time she announced her marriage, I remember being sent to my brother's room. Bobby, who was 17, was given the task of setting me straight on the facts of life. Given what was going on down the street, Bobby had a lot of ground to cover.

I remember he confirmed Parker Coleman's story. Then by way of bridging his material to Dawn, he told me what homosexuals were and what they did. Then he told me about transsexuals with complete details on cutting up the penis and surgically fashioning a vagina. I was 10.

Part of what I remember of that era is that the media arrived every time there was a new outrage in the ongoing Dawn saga and that the story went national many times over the next few years. I can remember sneaking down to that house, trying to catch a peep of anything through the wrought iron gates. Dawn. She became my own Boo Radley, a sexual parable, a Zen koan of the bizarre. For me, the mystery of sex still has an overwrought tabloid grandeur to it.

Almost three decades have passed, and like I said, I've come to doubt the entire Dawn epic cycle. I knew there had to be some truth to it, but I also know that childhood memory is a net, snagging and shaping every little fact and rumor into the stuff of symbolic language. I assume that there is a little nugget of truth in Dawn, and I wanted to find out what it was. So I ran back to mom. She has lived in Charleston all her life.

We poured some iced tea one afternoon and sat at her dining room table.

Jack Hitt

When Gordon was still a guy--

Jack's Mom

Can you say that?

Jack Hitt

Yeah, I can say that.

Jack's Mom

OK.

Jack Hitt

That's my mom whispering. You can't really hear her. What's she saying is, "Can you say that on the radio?" Here, listen again.

Jack Hitt

When Gordon was still a guy--

Jack's Mom

Can you say that?

Jack Hitt

Yeah, I can say that. When Gordon was still a guy--

You see, good Charlestonians do not discuss private affairs openly. If at all, we discuss them sotto voce, sometimes literally in a whisper. This impulse is compounded by the fact that Dawn's story is so over the top that my mom can't really talk about it, even still. Dawn can not be considered seriously. Dawn can not even be considered. The very question is preposterous.

Jack's Mom

No, I never really had anything to do with him at all.

Jack Hitt

We never had him over for dinner.

Jack's Mom

Are you kidding? I didn't even hardly speak to him. My goodness, Jack.

Jack Hitt

I'm sorry, Mom.

I can't get Mom to really remember much about Dawn. As we talk, she whispered to me a number of times that she really has nothing to say, would rather not talk about it, and would prefer I turn off the tape recorder. So I tried to change the subject to the neighborhood we shared with Dawn because it's part of the story.

In the mid '60s, Daddy had moved the family out of the historic part of downtown Charleston, a white neighborhood, into an uptown slum called Ansonborough, predominately black. The few whites in the area were mainly homosexuals who had moved there, as we did, to buy an antebellum home for cheap and fix it up.

In this context, Gordon was just one of what was known as the "confirmed bachelors" in the 'hood.

Jack's Mom

He seemed to be very [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. He'd written a couple of things that, whether anybody read them or not, I don't know. But they were written up nicely in the papers. And the people mostly that entertained him were-- he did socialize a little bit with some writers and all. And a few of the dowagers, so to speak, really had him for entertainment value, and they liked him. And then of course, later when they found out about him, they didn't. They cut him off fast.

But he was a kind of a semi-sensation for a while around Charleston.

Jack Hitt

Now what made him sensational? Was it that he was a writer, or that he was flamboyant, or what?

Jack's Mom

No, he was very different. And then he had--

Jack Hitt

I mean, did people understand that he was possibly a homosexual?

Jack's Mom

No. No, I don't think they-- this was the beginning of a lot of people like that coming to Charleston. And a lot of them have added a lot to Charleston.

Jack Hitt

After 45 minutes of tea drinking and considering the cultural contributions of homosexuals, mom did remember one story. It was not about race, or class, or genitals, or sex. But like every Dawn account, it was Gothic, almost supernatural. It concerned Dawn's restored mansion.

Jack's Mom

When a friend of your sister's bought the house it was so horrible inside.

Jack Hitt

Like what?

Jack's Mom

Just pretty bad.

Jack Hitt

In what way?

Jack's Mom

All of the floors had to be re-sanded and everything. It had animals in there. They had kept a pig in there. That type of thing. Just filthy. Just filthy.

Jack Hitt

He kept a pig in there?

Jack's Mom

Well, he kept some kind of animals. Yeah, there was a pig in there. And there was all kind of animals. Just everything had to be sanded and scoured, and all like that.

Jack Hitt

That's right, a pig. See, that's how Dawn's stories kind of go. Anyway, Mom did suddenly recall one important detail of Dawn the person.

Jack's Mom

He had piercing brown eyes. I remember, he would look at you, and it would kind of almost be scary, I thought.

Jack Hitt

For you Yankees who have never heard a pure Charleston accent, that's piercing brown eyes. I remember their haunting quality too. And as I talked to people in town, both on and off the radio, it was all they remembered of Dawn, the person.

Otherwise, the tales sounded like an emerging mythology. Cloven-hooved animals, Medusa-like stare. Dawn, a Charleston legend.

For most of my adult life, especially as I became a reporter, I have also seen the story cycle as a parable of modern journalism, the last stand of an old fashioned media that struggled not to let scandalous claims dictate the headlines.

In my own personal history, Dawn was the first Lorena Bobbitt, Tonya Harding, or Joey Buttafuoco. I only mention this because my father was the editor of the Afternoon Daily in Charleston, and he never ran a single article about the Dawn scandal. He thought it was all a publicity stunt to sell Gordon's treacly books that had titles like Golden Boats to Burma.

My father died before the wedding. But even afterwards, the local coverage was subdued. Dawn's wedding announcement appeared as a filler on the obituary page.

Meanwhile, this was a national story in the tabloids and on television. Newsweek splashed a full page spread of Dawn's wedding, complete with controversial photos of the interracial couple. And the New York Daily News ran some classic headlines, "Troth is Stranger Than Fiction," said their first story on the nuptials.

In another edition, there is a first person account of the wedding. Here, let me read it. "Dawn Pepita Hall, a British born male before a sex change operation last October, changed her name tonight, marrying her former butler, a negro. Wearing a full-length white gown with a 12 foot train, the thin, brown-haired Miss Hall entered the wedding room in her restored Charleston mansion to the strains of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and was married to John-Paul Simmons, 30. 25 guests and a handful of newsmen witnessed the 20-minute ceremony, performed by the Reverend William Singleton, a negro who appeared ill at ease."

That might be my favorite sentence of the Dawn coverage, although this one, also from the same tabloid, is close. Quote, "Miss Hall said the news had not been received so joyfully in Charleston's top society, in which Gordon Langley Hall, the man, once moved freely."

The writer of these sentences, it turns out, is an old family friend, Jack Leland. He worked for my dad as a writer on the paper. But given the local embargo, and being no fool, Jack started stringing for the Daily News. Jack is now the town elder in Charleston, a famous storyteller and authority. Everyone knows him, and anyone who writes about Charleston must obtain an audience with Jack. When V. S. Naipaul wrote his book, A Turn in the South, the entire Charleston chapter is basically a long dinner and late afternoon constitutional with Jack Leland.

These days, Jack has trouble walking. He is living with his daughter, [? Chivas, ?] way outside of town at a spit of land in the woods. [? Chivas' ?] new house, provided by post hurricane Hugo funds, has stunning views past a yard full of oaks, the obligatory Spanish moss snagging every branch, and then a small creek and a vista of brown green marsh grass out to the horizon. Jack spends his morning with an attendant in the quiet of the house taking in the view. So I stopped by. He remembered Gordon.

Jack Leland

He came down there with a very good recommendation. He knew the proper people in New York, and he had written a book, and he had an English accent. And that was enough to make him the darling of Charleston society for a while. Until they found out he was a homosexual, then they dropped him. Because at that time, being a homosexual wasn't exactly proper in Charleston. At that time.

Jack Hitt

I forgot to ask Jack when it became proper to be a homosexual in Charleston. Anyway, Jack is the only person I know who attended the famous wedding of Dawn Langley Hall and John-Paul Simmons, at the house on 56 Society Street.

Jack Leland

It was a farce. They were all gathered in the living room, the big living room. There was a group of people in there, and the bride wasn't present. They had a negro minister who couldn't read the prayer book properly. And they had a makeshift altar in front of the fireplace. There was a TV station there. And when the bridal party came down the stairs to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which I thought was the beginning of a farce at the moment.

They came into the living room and he discovered that he would have his back to the camera. So he made the preacher turn around and put his back to the camera and let him face the audience.

There were two little babies toting the train. He had a regular wedding gown on, with a mantilla on his head over a wig. And the train was attached to the mantilla in some way and those two little ones, when they went to swing around, were swinging in a wide circle, and almost pulled his wig off.

Jack Hitt

And what happened after the vows were exchanged? Were you there for the reception?

Jack Leland

It was a wang bang affair with a lot of people, all black. Very much all black. There were just a few whites.

Jack Hitt

Who was there?

Jack Leland

Well, I can't remember the names now. But there were people who worked in the furniture business. And that business generally attracted homosexuals.

Jack Hitt

The furniture business attracted homosexuals?

Jack Leland

In Charleston it did, the antique business.

Jack Hitt

Oh, right.

It turns out Jack was right about homosexuals and antiques. In the 1960s, there was a well known, though never admitted, gay aristocracy in Charleston, centered in part on antiques, and located in my neighborhood.

One of those men was [? Jay Romp, ?] who's still a family friend. We spent a lot of time together when I was little. I can remember as a boy climbing through a dense garden down the street, up a high wall to get onto his balcony. To hang around and crack jokes and gossip with Jay and his hilarious friends.

I don't think I ever walked through his front door. I thought maybe Jay would remember Dawn, maybe even Gordon, and who they were. So I called him up and one warm afternoon, he picked me up in his convertible.

As is still the custom in Charleston, despite all the moral outrage elsewhere, we fixed ourselves what are known locally as travelers. Drinks, that in case the vice squad is listening, we'll describe as [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. And we drove uptown to Ansonborough.

Jack Hitt

Now that's where you lived. That's where you lived. I remember I used to climb in the second story window.

Jay

We've got to go see that gate. We've got to see the wall, because the other thing is that wall-- Jack, when I think about it, that wall was like 18 feet high. There's monkey blood in you, young'un. There has got to be to scale those walls, because the banana trees were like 20 feet tall. We took the house-- rather I took it, Edward took it just because he trusted me. And I said, it's like the dawn of creations of [? Astier's ?] garden. You'll only know that when you hit the back. But as I say, to scale that wall would have been a feat, I think. Even for nine years old, you were then?

Jack Hitt

I think this is how starved I was for culture, Jay.

It has been so long since both of us were in this part of town that we had trouble locating Dawn's infamous house.

Jack Hitt

Which one was her house?

Jay

This one.

Jack Hitt

Was it this one?

Jay

Wait a minute.

Jack Hitt

No, wait a minute. It's this one up here. It's up here.

Jay

Two that look alike, yeah. That's the famous porch.

Jack Hitt

There it is.

Jay

The famous porch.

Jack Hitt

What's famous about the porch?

Jay

Well, you know the wedding was held, and the music was done by, I believe at that point they called it Victrola. A well known orchestra, of course, who played-- who knows? A combination of rap, Japanese, pipe, avant garde music and Charleston spirituals. I have no earthly idea. But anyway, it was on that porch on the other side of the garden. And that's where the main wedding was.

Jack Hitt

You know, when I called Jay, I didn't say, I'm doing a story about gay culture. I said, I'm doing a story about my coming of age in Ansonborough and Dawn.

The truth is, I've known Jay all my life, and we have never discussed his sexual orientation, because people in Charleston see no reason to discuss such things. As with my mom, so with me. And even with Jay.

Jack Hitt

What would it have been like for-- well, first of all, let me ask you this. Are you gay? Because I've never asked you that.

Jay

Well, let's put it as Tennessee Williams said. I have covered the waterfront. And the other thing is--

Jack Hitt

Such a great Charleston answer. Indirect, funny, no bad words. Still, Jay can be wicked, as when he told me about calling his old roommate from those days to help jar his memory.

Jay

When I was talking to Eddie I said to him, Jack is doing a story on Ansonborough, part of his sexual awakening. I didn't sleep with Jack, did I?

Jack Hitt

My mother's going to love that part of the interview.

As Jay and I drove around reminiscing, he told me his version of Gordon's fall from grace. Now, all my life I had heard that Gordon was ostracized right after the sex change operation became public. But Jack Leland had said the city shunned him even before that, when they learned he was homosexual. Now Jay remembers a slightly more extravagant occasion.

Jay

She had her dogs make their debut in Charleston, including wearing real cultured pearls.

Jack Hitt

Get out of here. I don't remember this story. What's this story? When was this?

Jay

That was even in the paper, please. And this was when he was still Gordon Langley.

Jack Hitt

So this is prior to the sex change and prior to the marrying--

Jay

So he was breaking rules even back when.

Jack Hitt

This is what I mean about Dawn. Everyone has a story. And here it is 30 years after her sex change operation and I am still hearing fresh, new ones. And yet, they all fit into the unique genre that is Dawn Langley Hall.

Later during my stay, I was at a cocktail party with many Charlestonians. The dog story would come up from time to time and always slightly different. In one account I heard it was a wedding. In another it was Great Danes that were given a debutante party. But as I moved among the different subcultures of Charleston, these stories provided me with another insight into Dawn. She was a scandal not only for straight Charlestonians, but for the gay aristocracy as well, two groups who were often hard to distinguish in those days.

Jay

The whole thing was you had to be married. So this group I'm talking about who were gay were all married men. Most of them, in fact, I would say at this point all of them-- I can't think of one offhand who did not have children.

Jack Hitt

I would know these children?

Jay

We went to school with them.

Jack Hitt

I would know all these children, wouldn't I?

Jay

You'd know all these children. Actually, Charleston could have almost handled the change, even the black husband to some extent, all of that in time. It would eventually, I think, have been almost accepted to some extent, like you say.

Jack Hitt

Are you talking about among the gay culture, or among the culture--

Jay

I'm talking about this gay culture who was basically straight. This married gay culture with children. And I do believe that if it had not been for the publicity, that at some point, probably, yeah. They would have been accepted.

Jack Hitt

But there was publicity. And the gay culture of Charleston felt exposed. The way Jay described it, Dawn represented a kind of Gone with the Wind, a closing of an era for his crowd. Their private, serene Charleston life, married, but gay, with children, would soon end in a noisy media circus of Dawn Langley Hall. So the homosexual culture really didn't know Dawn either. Although Jay had one encounter with Dawn, sort of like my mom's.

It was a misty evening when he and a friend had passed her on the street. She shot them an evil look from those piercing brown eyes.

Jay

Very foggy night. I mean, the whole thing was perfect for the scene. And we had passed Dawn walking the dogs. And had gone two or three steps. And suddenly, all the lights in Ansonborough went off at one time. I mean, street lights, house lights, the whole thing. And we hauled butt then to my house. I think they were off about 30 or 40 minutes. We talked the other day. We didn't know because we got candles and things and barricaded the door. But again, Dawn was supposed to have some sort of powers. That was the other thing.

Jack Hitt

Now wasn't part of the story that the voodoo that she might have had was learned from her husband, right?

Jay

Well, that was the other story then. Naturally, by marrying black, you would have had more, I guess, background with it then, or someone who could really teach you what to do.

Jack Hitt

A few days after riding with Jay, my brother-in-law and I spent an afternoon, as we often do, hanging out at bookstores. At one called [? Katie ?] [? and ?] [? Daughter, ?] I turned, look onto a shelf, and there was Dawn Langley Hall, just as I remembered her.

It was a wedding picture with the cheerful, young John-Paul Simmons at her side. The title could not have been more apt, Dawn, A Charleston Legend.

She had written it herself and it had just come out. I picked up the book and stared at it incomprehensibly. I hadn't seen her in 30 years.

That person used to live here, said the clerk. I know people who knew her.

I just bought my copy and went home.

The writing in this book is sugary, full of romantic images, wistful goodbyes, big Fabio-like gestures. Dawn drops names and Florida aphorisms with abandon. The first line of the book reads, "My good friend, novelist Rita Mae Brown so aptly said, 'If you take a man to Charleston and in three days he does not propose, throw him in the Crape myrtle.'"

But my biggest discovery while reading the book was the author's bio. I learned that Dawn and I remain neighbors.

She lives in Hudson, New York, not far down the road from where I now live. So I called her up. I didn't tell her immediately I was a Charlestonian, just that I would like to interview her for the radio. She said she'd be delighted.

A few days later, I received a polite note, banged out on an old standard typewriter. Let me read it here.

"Dear Mr. Hitt, I look forward to seeing you on Sunday. I am disabled now since a freak accident. The doctor said I would never walk again, but I am doing so quite well.

Am in the middle of moving into a townhouse, which I'm buying. I have lived in this rundown old Dutch house for five years because it was the only place I could find where my dog would be welcome.

After 10 years, we have my husband home from the mental hospital. It is not easy as he hears voices and sometimes talks, shouts, and hollers all night. So many people do not understand what mental sickness can do to a family until it hits them."

The letter is signed rather formally, "With all good wishes. Yours sincerely, Dawn Langley Simmons."

Ira Glass

Coming up, Jack Hitt's visit with Dawn Langley Simmons. That's in a minute from Public Radio International, when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. The deeper Jack Hitt delved into the mystery of Gordon Langley Hall, aka Dawn Langley Hall, aka Dawn Langley Simmons, the more questions opened up.

Take, for example, this fairly straightforward clipping from the New York Daily News, November 21, 1968, page four. It announces that Gordon Langley Hall, biographer of Jackie Onassis and Mrs. Lyndon Johnson, has changed his sex. And then a little ways into this article, it goes to quote from the hospital that performed most of the early sex change operations that were ever performed in this country or anywhere. Quote, "In Baltimore, a Johns Hopkins spokesman said, in response to a query, 'Miss Hall was a patient. Miss Hall underwent surgery.' He would not comment further."

When Jack Hitt finally met Dawn, even the nature of this surgery came into question. Our story continues.

Jack Hitt

On a rainy, cold morning I pulled up to her house. The only one with a bay window on the street, she had told me. The image I had was of a mansion, like in Charleston. But it turns out her house is near the train station, a vacant street with neglected warehouses. Even in the morning, a bar down the way was open. At her door, the brown paint was peeled and cracked. In the foyer it felt dank. The walls were missing chunks of plaster. A dead vacuum cleaner appeared chucked on a heap of trash.

The wooden balustrade led up the stairs where Dawn appeared from a doorway. She was small, dressed in a red smock and purple leggings. Her grey hair was dyed red. It had three inches of white roots. She looked like an old lady, complete with dowager's hump. And then there were those piercing brown eyes that had not changed in 30 years. Friend or foe, they queried.

Good morning. Delighted, she said.

Inside her house, there were four dogs and five cats racing up and down the wide, last century floorboards. Most of the walls were scratched up. A slight aroma of ancient urine perfumed the air. A few antiques in need of some work were positioned along the walls, above which hung a gallery of photographs and paintings.

As I set up my equipment, a large black man appeared in a doorway in just his underpants. He quickly closed the saloon style swinging doors, and then leapt into a heap of blankets on a bed. From time to time, I would hear him softly snoring. Although I did not see him again, John-Paul's presence never left the room.

Dawn apologized for a hump, which was actually a stoop. She slumped in a chair to get comfortable, adjusted her dress, and began at the beginning.

Dawn Langley Simmons

I was born in a country village in England with a country midwife. And when I was born, the clitoris was so small they couldn't tell if I was a little baby boy or a little girl. And the law in England was at that time-- it was a very cruel law, which incidentally was changed through my case. The law in England at that time was that, when in doubt, the child is just automatically registered as a boy, with dire results.

Now today, if that had happened, the baby is immediately taken to the hospital, and has just a little surgery, and everything is put right. In my case, it wasn't. And it was very difficult. I looked like a little girl. Then when menstruation started, it was irregular and that, but it was very frightening.

Jack Hitt

So here we are at the most fundamental fact of Dawn's life, and her version is totally different from what I had heard. That there was no sex change operation. That she was always a woman, forced to live as a man.

Then she told me that she grew up with her father, who was, in her words, the factotum and chauffeur at writer Vita Sackville-West's famous estate known as Sissinghurst. Living there, Dawn sometimes saw Virginia Woolf and other literary visitors.

Then, as the young Gordon, she moved to America to write for a Missouri newspaper. But for Dawn, every aspect of her life has a kind of gorgeousity. Every anecdote has a silent movie grand gesture to it, as if it should be punctuated with Greta Garbo sweeping into the room and striking a pose near a piano.

Dawn Langley Simmons

My first job was as a society editor in Nevada, Missouri. And it was played up in all the national press that I was the first male society editor in the state of Missouri. And all I can say is, oh, well, if only they knew.

Jack Hitt

When I first decided to explore the Dawn cycle, I wanted to discover the true story of her as a person, assuming it would be so much simpler than all the embroidered rumors I'd grown up with.

Back home, those tales were all about myth, voodoo, the evil eye, pigs. Instead, Dawn's version would turn out to be more fantastic than anything we Charlestonians had cooked up.

One story, for example, featured the mafia, a vengeful ex-lover, two chihuahuas, hit men, a $1 million dollar lawsuit, and the Elvis-bashing biographer, Albert Goldman, who once mentioned Dawn in an Esquire article.

Dawn Langley Simmons

And he said that Dawn Langley Simmons had two Chihuahuas for bridesmaids at her wedding. Well, I didn't have two Chihuahuas as bridesmaids at my wedding. My little maid was married in the house, and she looked after the two Chihuahuas. And she brought them down to her wedding on a cushion. And this was the story.

So I called Dena Crane, who was my media agent. And I said, Dena, you call that Albert Goldman, and you tell him I'm suing him for $1 million if he doesn't print a retraction. I did not have two chihuahuas as bridesmaids at my wedding.

And so he called up, in turn, Dena. He said, you tell Dawn that if she doesn't sue me, I'll tell her who tried to have her killed in Charleston. And we'll come to that in just a moment. And he did. He was investigating the role that the mafia had played in the drug trafficking. They used the inland waterways and so forth, and the lonely plantations and so forth. And he was told this story in a bar. And apparently, this group of old Charleston society people, led by this former lover, had put a contract on my life.

And of course, that night I was alone in the house and Natasha was then been born, my daughter. And I heard a crash upstairs. And I thought the baby had fallen out of her cot. I ran upstairs, and there was a man standing over her wearing a ski mask-- a white man-- holding a knife over the baby. He broke my nose. He crippled this arm, which has never been-- I've been able to use it properly since. And broke my big toe, beating me up. And it was a rape thing. And then he threw me off the porch. The porch was three stories up.

I was fortunate to land on a lump of sand. And covered with blood, I crawled in the house. And that actually happened. And I was very glad to know. But now going back to John---

Jack Hitt

I have to say how strange it was to be sitting there talking to Dawn Langley Hall. All my life, she was a distant figure. Even when she was the man or lady walking across the street, she was mainly myth. Seeing her in her house was like sitting next to Hera, wife of Zeus.

And the odd thing about a radio interview is you have to hold the microphone right in a person's face. I was probably 12 inches from her, a weird zone of intimacy. I could see her pores. I could see the few old lady hairs above her lip, the lines in her pancake makeup.

I set off on this journey to separate Dawn, the person, from all the stories. And while I was sitting there, talking to her, in her house, I realized, I have always wanted to just look at her, the way a 10-year-old boy wants to look at anything new and different, like a car wreck, or people naked through a window, or a dead animal, or a good house fire, or a transsexual.

When I came home that night, my wife and I sat down to exchange accounts of our day. Both of us had amazing stories to tell. Lisa is a med student. And she told me that in the hospital that very day she had assisted with an operation on a newborn girl. The affliction is called virilization, and the symptoms are an adrenal abnormality that causes the clitoris to expand to the size of the tip of your thumb and look like a penis. At the same time, the vaginal lips are fused and swell into what looks like a scrotum.

These days it is easily corrected with a simple operation. So what if it were all true? That Dawn was born a girl, and wrongly sexed, as she called it. So that her life, her awakening, her metamorphosis, even her child, all of that could be biologically possible.

Imagine if the hysteria and outrage that generated the entire Dawn epic cycle just boiled down to all of us reacting like a pack of enraged orangutans at something unfamiliar. Imagine it.

But I'll be honest, I've told myself these stories so many times, I can not imagine it. But Dawn can.

Dawn Langley Simmons

I had a recurring dream in which I saw an old fashioned glass hearse with plumes turning to go into the cemetery. And in the casket was Gordon. And that was a recurring dream. And of course, I grew up at Sissinghurst. And Virginia Woolf had written Orlando, the wonderful story about her friend and lover Vita Sackville-West. How over the years Orlando had turned from a beautiful young man into a beautiful woman. And so I felt in my heart that I was the living Orlando.

Jack Hitt

So here's Dawn Langley Hall, the living Orlando. And yet, all the outlandish stories of her life are contained within an unexpected concern for propriety. She married once in 1969. And long after the publicity faded, she stood with her man through madness and poverty. She never divorced or remarried, a claim that Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh can not make.

She dotes on her daughter Natasha and reports to her pew every Sunday at Christ Episcopal Church in Hudson with her two grandchildren in tow.

Jack Hitt

When you look at the pictures of Gordon, he was dapper, always in a coat and tie, very sharp looking. Very hip in a way. You know, young writer guy. And yet, Dawn turns into this rather, almost frumpy wife-like woman. I mean, what's that about?

Dawn Langley Simmons

Well, I wanted to be a wife more than anything. You're absolutely correct. Dawn was proper, the same as her family in England, the same as Charleston society. Those are the people that I identify with. I have always put duty first, because that was how I was brought up.

Jack Hitt

You know, when I was reading your book, you mentioned that your father was a mechanic and your mother-- I guess this was an illegitimate birth, right? She was 15. She was 15 when you were born. And yet, given the lineage on both sides, there were all these aristocrats. Some of them English, some of them Spanish, and so forth and so on. It's quite a list of contessas and various countesses and so forth.

You know, when I was reading that I kept thinking, it felt like a Dickens novel.

Dawn Langley Simmons

Absolutely.

Jack Hitt

I kept expecting at some point, someone's going to come along and discover who Dawn is.

Dawn Langley Simmons

Yeah, absolutely.

Jack Hitt

And everything will be OK. Is that what's happened?

Dawn Langley Simmons

This came out with-- another fellow author in England wrote and said, I always knew you came from good stock. And it was one of those things. It has been a long road. Everything has just gone full circle.

I've done the mansion bit. I've done the debutante bit. I've been everything. Now, give me a little peace. Let me be me.

Jack Hitt

Violating any boundary is always difficult. But typically when one does cross forbidden lines-- interracial or interreligious marriage, or announcing that one is gay, or changing one's sex-- at least there is a community waiting for you on the other side. But Dawn has crossed so many borders at once that she has slipped into a country where she is the only citizen. She is poor, her husband is schizophrenic, her life is fairly harsh, her books overcompensatingly sentimental. She speaks a unique language, a kind of Gothic romance.

Even as I sat in her living room-- slightly aromatic from her dogs, her once beautiful antiques aged into ruin-- it was difficult not to feel a real respect for her for roughing it out. No one pressured her into the life she chose. She dwells in her own private Charleston. Now a bona fide dowager, ready to serve tea, hospitable, even brave, but alone.

When I asked her at the end of our interview if she remembered a little red-headed boy who stared into her gates, she allowed that she did. She said she had quite fond memories of the family down the street. She chose not to mention the obvious, that my father refused to publish her story in the local paper. Instead, like a true Charlestonian, she behaved as if she had stumbled upon an old acquaintance and was simply delighted to be back in touch.

Then, as every Charlestonian I know, including myself, would do, she changed the subject to something more comfortable.

A few days later, I received another note that began--

"Dear Jack, as you are my red-haired boy at the gate, I think I should call you Jack and not Mr. Hitt." She said that she had bought her new house, a modest two-story place on Hudson's Main Street. It has some age to it, and she hopes to fix it up. As is the custom in England, she wants to give the house a name. She's pretty much set on using the title of a book by her old mentor, Vita Sackville-West. She wants to call her new house All Passion Spent question mark. She invites me to come visit. And then the letter ends casually, "Yours sincerely, Dawn."

[MUSIC - "LA VIE EN ROSE," MARLENE DIETRICH]

Act Two. Dawn Again.

Ira Glass

Act two, Dawn of a New Era. Well, up until this point in our program, you've been listening to a story that first aired on our show two and a half years ago. Since then, a lot has happened. Dawn, incredibly, has moved back to Charleston at the urging of her daughter. She now lives in an otherwise all black neighborhood in a rundown old house. She meets with old women, basically has managed to get the life that she wanted as a dowager in Charleston.

Dawn's schizophrenic husband, John-Paul, now lives in a mental institution. And Jack Hitt has stayed in touch, gotten many letters that begin, "My dear red-haired boy." Just this month, he published a story in the magazine GQ about what he's learned since his original report for our program. He agreed to do a little update with us.

Jack Hitt

After I did the initial interview with her two and half years ago for This American Life, she and I maintained a correspondence. She wrote me pretty much every other day.

Ira Glass

And each of these is a little typewritten letter?

Jack Hitt

Often a letter, but more often than not, it's an envelope containing clips from the local newspaper that are, in some way, indicative of subjects that she thinks she and I share.

Ira Glass

Like what kind of thing?

Jack Hitt

They often have almost metaphysical significance. For example, one story was about finding some sunken treasure just outside the harbor. And I couldn't quite figure out what the meaning of it was until I suddenly just sort of stared at the headline where it said, "Old Charleston Continues to Yield its Secrets." And it just suddenly dawned on me that maybe that was the only reason she sent me the piece--

Ira Glass

Wow.

Jack Hitt

--was that headline.

Ira Glass

It's like each one is like a little hieroglyph.

Jack Hitt

Right. They're rather cryptic. I sometimes don't quite understand why I'm getting them. But anyway, Dawn and I very much stayed in contact. We've seen each other a bunch of times since then. I've met her daughter. I've met her two grandchildren.

Ira Glass

When you followed your story for us, when you did you story for us two and a half years ago, when the story ended, you weren't exactly sure what to believe about her story. And since then, with all this contact with her and meeting her family and spending more time with her, you actually now know what you believe to be the truth.

Jack Hitt

Well, I do. I do believe that she was born a woman with a defect. You know, when I first interviewed her for the program, when I came home, you remember, my wife had just participated in this odd little surgery at the local hospital for this problem called virilization. And subsequent reporting with a pediatrician named Anjali Jain, taught me that this condition is called hyperplasia. And that, in fact, it's common enough that every child at birth in this country is screened for it now.

Her description of what she went through, every detail, the sort of biannual menses and lack of breast development and all the various afflictions she talks about through her adolescence and into her adulthood were described exactly that way by Dr. Jain when I interviewed her.

Plus the fact I interviewed her daughter at length. I found when Dawn moved back to Charleston, the daughter was there. She's working two jobs. And I just asked her outright. There are people who think that your mother is not a woman. And she explained that she knew in a way that a daughter would know that she was a woman.

Ira Glass

Well, she said she took care of her, right?

Jack Hitt

She takes care of her, yeah. I mean, Dawn has had a rough time physically for decades. And the daughter has taken care of her in the way that a nurse would take care of her.

Ira Glass

One of the things that you mentioned in the story is this story that Dawn tells about an attempt on her life and Albert Goldman. And in your original story two and a half years ago, you sort of presented it as like look at all the tales around this woman. Do you have an opinion now about whether, in fact, those things happened?

Jack Hitt

To listen to Dawn tell a story, I mean I think she mythologizes herself as much as we did. But to a different end. I mean, I was amazed that every story she had to tell had very similar themes to them, of a lost aristocrat being denied her due. And in some way, she is, in real life-- I mean in her childhood, she was the illegitimate offspring of Vita Sackville-West's chauffeur. He is shunned by all of these people. She always sees herself as being kept out of her real life, of the life that she was supposed to have lived. And it's true. And those themes never escape her telling of almost any story.

And so when she tells a story of someone breaking into her house and trying to harm her, and beating her, or whatever, I think there is a core of truth to these stories. But I think it's very complicated. I think she has a narrative way of telling her stories that make them seem, I think, preposterous to many people.

Ira Glass

And that gets to one of the things about this story, which is so tragic. There are the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are and then there are the stories that other people say about who we are. And if those two things don't match up in large part, you're in for trouble. And that's what happened to her. The story that she believed about herself was so radically different from the story that the world believed about her.

Jack Hitt

Right. And realize that the world, from the very beginning, was forcing her to live a myth that she was a man. When, in fact, on some level she was a woman.

In the GQ piece, there is an anecdote I ran across. She kept mentioning Carson McCullers, so I went and looked up Carson McCullers' biography. And it turns out that Gordon is mentioned in the book. And it's a rather eerie scene. There's only one mention of Gordon in the entire biography of Carson McCullers.

And McCullers comes to Charleston at some point in the early '60s, when Gordon was still very much a guy. And Gordon, at that point, is a well known novelist and has Carson McCullers in for dinner. This is right down the street. This is when I'm 10 years old. And so Carson is an older person at that point, and at the end of the party-- hasn't said much the entire evening, but at the end of the party asks Gordon to come sit in a chair in the corner of the room. And they talk very briefly.

And McCullers' description of this moment is that Gordon sort of talks on and on for a few minutes about this and that. And finally, McCullers stops him and touches him on the knee or something and says, "You're really a little girl, aren't you?" And Gordon just sort of nods enigmatically.

Ira Glass

Jack Hitt is the author of innumerable magazine articles and numerable books. He writes about Dawn in the October 1998 issue of GQ.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself, with Alix Spiegel, Peter Clowney, Dolores Wilber and Julie Snyder. Contributing editors Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Emi Takahara and [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. Music help today from Steve Cushing and [UNINTELLIGIBLE] Rattles.

If you'd like to buy a cassette of this program, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380. Our email address, radio@well.com. Or you know you can listen to most of our programs for free on the internet at our website, www.thislife.org. That's thislife, one word, no space.

Thanks to Elizabeth Meister who runs the site.

This American Life if distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who attributes our success as a radio program entirely to--

Jack Hitt

Voodoo, the evil eye, pigs.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.