Ron Davis’s fascinating documentary on Dawn Langley Simmons plays out like a hard-to-believe fictional story surrounded by an air of utter sadness. Although we get a distinct impression that although Dawn herself may have agreed her life was tough, she would with an air of bravado and fortitude definitely describe it as being happy.
Much of her life was played out in the tabloid press from her early life when she was still Gordan Langley Hunt. Born in England in 1922, her parents worked as servants at Sissinghurst Castle, the English estate of biographer Harold Nicolson and his novelist wife, Vita Sackville-West. Maybe this fact would influence parts of Gordon’s life as he would also turn out to be a very successful novelist, and would also take a same-sex lover like Sackville-West did with Virginia Wolfe.
Gordon’s life however didn’t take off until he emigrated …..first to Canada, and then to the US in the mid-1940s. His career started as a newspaper writer, then a society page editor, and by the time he arrived in New York he was established as a successful author of a series of biographies of personalities such as Princess Margaret (Jacqueline Kennedy Lady Bird Johnson , and Mary Todd Lincoln. It was however meeting the artist and elderly heiress Isabel Whitney, and beginning a friendship that would last until Whitney’s death in 1962 that would change his life for ever
Just before she died Whitney had purchased a rather grand mansion in Charleston in South Carolina which Gordon inherited and moved into and quickly established himself as a part of the local grand society. As a British wealthy Batchelor, he was soon courted by so many matrons looking to marry off their eligible daughters, but that was all at the same time Gordon was finally coming to terms with his gender dysphoria.
As ‘he’ transitioned into Dawn we soon discover that she uses her talent at telling stories to cover part of her own life story. Some facts are undisputable …..like the fact she met, fell in love, and eventually marry John-Paul Simmons a Black motor mechanic 14 years her junior, but others were very definite pieces of fiction. This sadly was the start of her undoing in Charleston society and it was probably the fact it was the very first mixed marriage in the area, but also that she was transgender. Soon the local Bank and Insurance Company made her life financially untenable, and as no publishers would touch her work, she and her husband had to move from the splendor of her mansion it a near-derelict house in the Projects
One of the wonderful pieces of archival footage in the documentary is a British television interview she gave with Alan Whicker. Dawn sits there with her hair coiffured high and looking every inch an aristocratic lady. and in her very plummy voice is putting a spin on all the nasty tabloid gossip. There isn’t an ounce of regret or denial or apology. She had become what she had always felt inside : a woman, a wife and a mother. It makes us fall in love with her …….more than just a little.
She still claimed that her daughter Natasha was her own natural-born daughter a fact that is impossible to prove. However her daughter now an adult seems none the worse for this and is proud to report that when she had children of her own, Dawn became a doting grandmother.
But before then there is still worse to come with Jean-Paul becoming totally unhinged and is committed to a Mental institution for the rest of his life.
Being English I was very aware of the time in Dawn’s life when she was ‘adopted’ by the much-loved Dame Margaret Rutherford a legendary eccentric British actress. However, Davis for some unknown reason doesn’t mention this odd arrangement. But then I think there are a lot of facts and also rumors that didn’t make the final cut.
Like every transgender pioneer who became ‘celebrities’ in the middle of the last century (Christeen Jorgensen and April Ashley), Dawn deserves our admiration and our thanks. I am overwhelmed by their sheer strength and courage and how in her own way, helped smooth the path for all us who followed.
P.S. DAWN: A Charleston Legend is being screened at OUTONFILM Atlanta's LGBTQ Film Festival Follow https://www.facebook.com/DocutainmentFilms for future screenings
Review : Roger Walker-Dack
Editor in Chief : Queerguru Member of G.A.L.E.C.A. (Gay & Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association) and NLGJA The Association of LGBT Journalists. and The Online Film Critics Society. Ex Contributung Editor The Gay Uk & Contributor Edge Media Former CEO and Menswear Designer of Roger Dack Ltd in the UK one of the hardest-working journalists in the business' Michael Goff of Towleroad
Labels: 2022, Dawn A Charleston Legend, Dawn Langley Simmons, documentary, Ron Davis, trans