It would take quite a story to live up to the melodramatic title of Edward Ball's Peninsula of Lies: A True Story of Mysterious Birth and Taboo Love
. Fortunately for the reader, the bizarre and highly compelling tale of Gordon Langley Hall and his transformation into Dawn Langley Hall is quite a story indeed. Novelists couldn't have dreamed up a more fascinating central character than Hall. Born the son of British servants, Hall, as a boy, befriended Virginia Woolf and her lover Vita Sackville-West. As a young man, he made his way to New York, becoming a biographer of some society figures and endearing himself to others including heiress Isabel Whitney who left him an inheritance that allowed him to move to Charleston, South Carolina, and gain entry to the colorful world of Southern society. In 1968, Hall underwent a sex change operation, claiming that the procedure was corrective and that she had actually possessed female sexual organs all along. Further complicating matters for the people of Charleston was Dawn's marriage to a young black mechanic and the appearance of an infant daughter. Author Edward Ball (Slaves in the Family
) first came into contact with Hall through a uncover more about her. Although it is a biography of Hall, Peninsula of Lies
is also equal parts mystery as Ball tracks down key figures from Hall's life, attempts to separate truth from legend and find the points at which the two intersect. As the facts of her life are brought into the light, Hall's psychology and motivation become more inscrutable and we are left with more questions than answers. Edward Ball's investigative persistence is tempered by a kindness toward his interview subjects, which, combined with his rich descriptions of 1960s Southern living, make Peninsula of Lies
a lively read. But it is the impression left by the enigmatic Dawn Langley Hall that is sure to linger after the book is over. --John Moe
From Publishers Weekly
Gordon Langley Hall (1922-2000), a biographer who underwent one of the most celebrated gender switches in the 1960s, is the focus of this meandering expose of Southern snobbery. English by birth, Langley Hall was the son of a maidservant at Sissinghurst Castle (made famous by Vita Sackville-West in the 1930s). Leaving England in the bleak postwar era, he eventually made his way to New York, where, after befriending an elderly heiress, he inherited enough of her money to start a new life in the "Peninsula of Lies," Charleston, SC. There Langley Hall started an antiques business and mixed with Anglophile society who ignored his quasi-Cockney accent and origins. At age 45, he met a teenage garage mechanic, John-Paul Simmons, and promptly made an appointment at the new Gender Identity Clinic at Johns Hopkins, the first U.S. hospital for sex change operations. Newly a woman, "Dawn Pepita Hall" married her mechanic in a lavish church ceremony, defying in one stroke gender expectations and the racial codes of the American South, for she was white, her husband black and the year 1969. Most perplexingly, she emerged two years later with a baby girl, Natasha, whom she said was her own. Edward Ball, who won the National Book Award in 1998 for Slaves in the Family, had enough material here for a longish Vanity Fair piece; through judicious padding and an unstoppable barrage of irony, he has made a murky, garrulous detective story. If there are easy ways to try to make transsexuals look silly, then in the machinations of his hero/heroine, he's got a whole barrel of fish to shoot dead. Unfortunately, Ball never lets us sees what might have motivated either Gordon or Dawn. In his evocation of a tawdry, snooty Charleston, populated with colorful coots, he keeps trying for that old John Berendt magic, and missing every time. Photos.
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