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Then and Now

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Editor's note: A newly released book, "Peninsula of Lies," by Edward Ball (Simon and Schuster, 2004) delves into the truth and consequences woven into the story of Gordon Langley Hall, who lived in Nevada some 50 years ago. Following is local historian Pat Brophy's take on ...

Nevada's bit-part in a

transsexual's bizarre story

In the spring of 1951 a young Englishman named Gordon Langley Hall came to Nevada to work for the Daily Mail as "the only male society editor in the state." The small, winsome, wistful fellow was soon taken up by the town's more socially conscious matrons. He moved on to New York after only a couple of years. When next Nevada heard of him, he'd seemingly struck it lucky with his would-be book-writing, and had bought and was restoring an old mansion in Charleston, South Carolina.
He'd kept in touch with a handful of Nevada friends, however. In 1955 an article of his appeared in the Kansas City Times about his Nevada sojourn, in which he exhibited his talent, exercised on a grand scale elsewhere, for "namedropping." The story was basically about his interview with Miss Jane Truman, Harry Truman's sister, met in the Nevada home of Mrs. C. C. Urner. Other Vernon Countians he managed to "namedrop" in the brief article were "Miss Katy" Wight, Fannie Dickerman, county clerk Elva Denning, "Doc" Hatten the dentist, Paul Jenner, Herbert Pettibon, Eleanor Koontz, Warren Loy, fellow Daily Mail staffer "Miss Amelia" Kimberlin, and Henry Johnson, the man who, starting in 1890, kept a "death book" containing some 3,000 obituary notices.

In 1967 Hall offered to return at his own expense to put on a program for the benefit of the Bushwhacker Museum, still struggling after its founding in late 1964. History was among his cultural interests. His Nevada writings included delvings into local history.

He did come as promised in October, 1967, and in the Nevada High School auditorium presented a slide talk about the Dr. Joseph Johnson House in Charleston and his pricey, painstaking restoration of it. His two Chihuahua dogs had been billed as part of the program, and the audience was expecting tricks. The dogs did appear with him toward the end of the evening, but as he confessed they really didn't "do" anything. The show, however, was a financial success. The paying audience, the Daily Mail reported, was "pleased." Hall also gave the Museum two collectible and probably valuable watercolors of Indian chiefs by 19th-century painter Albert Lorey Groll.
Capping its lionizing of the celebrity, Nevada, by way of a proclamation of Mayor James A. Novak, observed the week of October 9 as "Gordon Langley Hall Week." Not a month after all this, the news burned up the wires: Hall had had a sex-change operation, and was no longer Gordon, but now Dawn Pepita Langley Hall.

If his appearance or behavior had struck Nevadans as strange, it was said, it was because he was already undergoing treatment preparatory to the surgery. He'd fulfilled his engagement in Nevada despite the physical and emotional stress he was understandably under.

Like militantly Southern, tradition-minded Charleston, Nevada was still reeling from this disclosure when, the following year, Mr./Miss Hall announced his/her engagement to John Paul Simmons, an illiterate black (or Negro, as it was then still put). Simmons was 22. Hall gave his/her age as 31, but was in reality 40.

As if that weren't enough, before too long the new Mrs. Simmons announced that she'd given birth, proudly showing off not merely a baby girl of the right age and color but a seemingly legitimate birth certificate from the state of Pennsylvania.

The facts behind this bizarre story are revealed in a new book, "Peninsula of Lies," by Edward Ball (Simon and Schuster, 2004), obtainable from the Nevada Public Library. The title remains unexplained, perhaps an allusion to Charleston's peninsular shape.

Ball's narrative follows his own detective quest for the Hall story, and thus rather confusingly skips around in time. For the "Nevada connection," which earns only a page, obviously he relied on secondary sources. Apart from factual errors, it's the work of someone writing about things with which he's not personally familiar. Nevada is described as a town of 20,000, located north of Little Rock and east of Wichita.

We're told Hall (who never learned to drive) reported on local "farmer" society by traveling the county by bus (a trick we'd like to have seen). One trusts, and truly hopes, this isn't indicative of the accuracy of the book as a whole.

For it's an interesting, revealing book. In New York Hall failed to prosper as an aspiring writer. A prominent critic later listed some of his books, and concluded, "He must be stopped before he strikes again." And Charles Nash wrote that his (her) later biography of Roselyn Carter "may be ranked with hand-painted neckties as the most undesirable gift of the year." The author, he wrote, "displays scarcely nodding acquaintance with her native language."
But Hall did have the same knack displayed in Nevada, of attracting the care and concern of matronly ladies, including Isabel Whitney, of the old-money Whitney family. Hall's sudden affluence came not from writing success but from Miss Whitney, who bequeathed him antiques, stocks, and real estate amounting to perhaps two million dollars. (One wonders if the two Groll watercolors came out of the Whitney mansion in New York.) Cutting a long story short, Ball at last solves the Hall riddle through interviews with one of the doctors at Johns Hopkins who performed the sex-change operation and with widower John Paul Simmons. Dawn died in 2000, of osteoporosis and other obvious complications of the sexchange. Simmons has spent his later years in public care for schizophrenia.

Far from being a hermaphrodite, or (as he/she claimed) a woman mistakenly identified as male at birth, Hall, said the doctor, was an anatomically normal male.

By his Charleston period, according to witnesses from Charleston's gay world, he was a practising homosexual.

According to Simmons, Hall first approached him in that capacity. Simmons was horrified, both at the homosexuality and at the black-white question, either potentially deadly in the Charleston of that day. But Simmons soon let himself be talked around. With Simmons' help, Hall quickly went through the Whitney money, and spent his/her last years in chaotic poverty and obscurity.

Also according to Simmons, the child was his by another woman, whom Hall paid $1000 to enter the hospital under her name and then hand over the child. By a subterfuge Hall obtained a birth certificate in Pennsylvania rather than South Carolina.

In retrospect, Hall comes across as a well-meaning person who did harm only to himself and those closest to him. His sexual obsession dominated and wrecked his life. Johns Hopkins advised him against the operation, but performed it anyway.

In this writer's opinion such goings-on ought to be discouraged, if not prohibited altogether.