Southern Inhospitality 

New book looks at how Charleston reacted when race and gender lines were crossed

New book looks at how Charleston reacted when race and gender lines were crossed

Peninsula of Lies: A True Story of Mysterious Birth and Taboo Love

By Edward Ball (Simon & Schuster, 288 pp., $24)

Savannah native Edward Ball has made a career of looking unflinchingly at disquieting subjects. His National Book Award-winning Slaves in the Attic (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1998), is an investigation of his own family's slave-owning past, and his new book addresses an equally taboo subject. Peninsula of Lies is the true story of Gordon Hall, the illegitimate son of an English servant, who emigrated to the United States, charmed his way into wealth, became a fixture in 1960s Charleston society, underwent a sex change, married a black man, claimed to have borne a child, and finally died penniless and deranged. But Peninsula of Lies is far more than the potboiler it sounds like: In Ball's sure hands, this unlikely story becomes a touching portrait of an ambiguously sexed person "trying to live in a world that had no place for her."

F. Scott Fitzgerald believed that there are no second acts in American life. But for Gordon Hall, America was a land of ceaseless self-invention—the land of Jay Gatsby. Intelligent, talented and charming, Hall easily beguiled the New York heiress Isabel Whitney, among others. In her will, Whitney, who had met Hall merely by chance, left him a fortune. Instantly Hall's life in high society was launched, and he soon left New York for Charleston, a city he identified with gracious Southern culture.

In Charleston, Hall ingratiated himself into the highest stratum of society. Most of his new friends assumed he was gay—in Charleston not a social disability as long as one was discreet—though Hall himself offered a more complicated explanation of his identity: He was, he claimed, neither homosexual nor hermaphrodite but an actual woman who had been misidentified at birth and reared as a boy. Whatever confusion might have existed about his sexuality, Old Charleston accepted Hall as a charming and engaging man. He bought an old house and filled it with antiques from the Whitney mansion and with his own discerning purchases. He held parties and was quite well-liked. Before long, an old friend tells Ball, "Well-heeled Charleston couples wanted to be known as his friend."

Life might have continued more or less unremarkably had Hall not fallen in love. The object of his affection, John-Paul Simmons, was a young black man at least 20 years Hall's junior. Professing not to be gay, Simmons rebuffed Hall's initial attentions, so Hall began dressing as a woman. For ambiguous reasons which Ball cannot decipher, the relationship between Hall and Simmons blossomed, ending Hall's acceptance in society. Old Charleston could accept a genteel gay man, and even a cross-dresser, but not one who openly crossed the rigid barrier of race.

Wanting to marry Simmons, Hall decided to undergo a sex change operation (which he referred to as a sex "correction"). In the 1960s very few such operations had been performed, and they had been declared illegal in several states. But Johns-Hopkins had a fledgling sexual identity clinic where experimental sex-change procedures were performed, and Hall turned there for help. The procedure he sought was dangerous and painful, and the Hopkins doctors were reluctant to do it, but ultimately Hall won their approval and became, as he so often would, a pioneer.

Old Charleston was beyond being shocked by that time, and many people simply ignored the new "Dawn" Hall. But when she began appearing in maternity clothing, people couldn't help but take notice. Transgendered people, even those born hermaphrodites, can't procreate, but Dawn claimed that her operation had merely uncovered a functioning reproductive system. In due course a biracial baby, Natasha, appeared. Dawn would say nothing about the birth except that the baby was hers. Ball says, "[A] baby would be the culmination of her womanhood, which Dawn had cultivated so long and paid so dearly to acquire."

The truth behind Natasha's birth is in fact the center of Peninsula of Lies. In unraveling this mystery, Ball treats readers to rich portraits of old Charleston antique dealers, black pastors and lawyers, a convention of transsexuals, and, at last, a schizophrenic John-Paul Simmons himself. But beyond the historical sleuthing, Ball's real concern seems to be the chimera of human identity: How clear are the boundaries of our racial and sexual selves? Do race and gender operate on a continuum, not just for Dawn Hall Simmons but for everyone? Ball maintains a skeptical perspective toward Hall's story, but he is nonetheless thoughtful and sympathetic at every turn. He writes gently, with neither irony nor prurience. His book is beautifully paced and cinematically clear, and in the end it is truly moving.

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