Dawn Langley Pepita Simmons (Oct. 15, 1937 – September 18, 2000) was an Intersex Transwoman woman born Gordon Langley Hall in Sussex as the illegitimate son of Vita Sackville-West's chauffeur and another servant. She was raised by her grandmother and then adopted by Margaret Rutherford and her husband Stringer Davis in 1962, when she was already 25 – among her later published works being a biography of Rutherford. Then, after having one of the first sex-change operations in America, she married a black chauffeur in Charleston, in one of the first interracial marriages in South Carolina.

Early life

Simmons' parents were servants at Sissinghurst Castle, the English estate of biographer Harold Nicolson and his novelist wife, Vita Sackville-West. Dawn was born illegitimately to Jack Copper, Vita Sackville-West's chauffeur, and another servant, Marjorie Hall Ticehurst. The couple subsequently married. As a boy, Simmons visited the castle and met Virginia Woolf, Sackville-West's lover. (Woolf made Sackville-West the subject of the novel Orlando: A Biography, which bears a striking resemblance to Simmons' own dramatic life story.)

Writing career

Simmons had exhibited an early talent for writing—her first poem was published at the age of four. At nine she wrote a column for the Sussex Express, and she once interviewed Mae West sitting in the visiting star's lap.

After her grandmother's death, she emigrated to Canada in 1953, aged 16. Crewcutting her hair, she became a teacher on the Ojibway native reservation on Lake Nipigon, experiences she translated into her best-selling Me Papoose Sitter (1955)—the first of many books that she would publish.

After spells as an editor for the Winnipeg Free Press and as society editor for the Nevada Daily Mail, Missouri, she moved to New York, producing Me Papoose Sitter and a series of biographies of Mrs Mary Todd Lincoln, Princess Margaret, Lady Bird Johnson and Jacqueline Kennedy.

In 1983, she published Margaret Rutherford's biography Margaret Rutherford: a blithe spirit.

Her works include:

  • Me Papoose Sitter (1955)
  • A rose for Mrs. Lincoln: A biography of Mary Todd Lincoln (1970)
  • Golden boats from Burma: [The life of Ann Hasseltine Judson, the first American woman in Burma]
  • Jacqueline Kennedy: A biography (1964)
  • Peter Jumping Horse (1961)
  • She-Crab Soup (1994)
  • Rosalynn Carter: Her Life Story (1979)
  • Vinnie Ream: The story of the girl who sculptured Lincoln (1963)
  • Mr. Jefferson's ladies (1966)
  • William, Father of The Netherlands (1969)
  • All for Love (1975)
  • Lady Bird and her daughters (1967)
  • Dear vagabonds: The story of Roy and Brownie Adams (1964)
  • The gypsy Condesa (1958)
  • Princess Margaret (1958)
  • The sawdust trail: The story of American evangelism (1964)
  • The two lives of Baby Doe (1962)
  • Saraband for a saint: A modern morality play in two acts (1954)
  • Golden Boats From Burma. The Life Of Ann Hasseltine Judson, The First American Woman In Burma (1961)
  • The Two Worlds of Pearl S. Buck (1992)
  • Dawn: A Charleston Legend (1995)
  • Osceola (1964)

Before Marriage

In New York in his 20s, Simmons met Margaret Rutherford, who became enchanted with her and, with Rutherford's husband, Stringer Davis, adopted her. Simmons also befriended the painter Isabel Whitney, who left her $2 million at her death in 1962.

She moved to Charleston, settling into a faded 1840 house on Society Street in the Ansonborough section, which had a large gay population. She became friendly with Charleston's grandes dames, restored her house and filled it with Chippendale furniture, mirrors said to belong to George Washington, and bed steps said to have been owned by Robert E. Lee.

Sex Change Surgery

In 1968 Dawn became ill after suffering regular bouts of internal bleeding, and it was discovered that her 'bloody urine' contained menstrual blood. Having felt all of her life that she was a misfit as a man, and identifying as a woman, she readily decided to transition. She sought the help of the newly established gender identity clinic at Johns Hopkins University, Simmons had corrective genital surgery, and was given extensive counseling.

It became clear that she had been incorrectly identified as male at birth. She received hormone replacement therapy to boost her weak ovaries' production of estrogens. Sex reassignment surgery reduced her already small penis to clitoral size while the fused labial folds were opened to reveal a normal vagina.


Returning to Charleston as Dawn Pepita Hall, she met John-Paul Simmons, then a young black motor mechanic with dreams of becoming a sculptor. Their marriage on January 21, 1969 was the first legal mixed union in the state of South Carolina, and the ceremony was carried out in their drawing room after threats to bomb the church. In Charleston, the crate containing their wedding gifts from England was firebombed. They were shot at from the street, arrested for merely walking together, and their dogs were poisoned.

A year later her daughter, Natasha Manigault Simmons, was born. When an intruder tried to murder her baby, he raped Simmons and threw her from a third-story window, leaving her with a permanently disfigured arm; the family fled to Catskill, New York.

Years later, John-Paul Simmons deserted them for "a woman who had shot and killed her first husband". He would later succumb to alcohol and drugs and was diagnosed as a chronic schizophrenic.

Their marriage ended in divorce in 1984.


Dawn died at her daughter's home on September 18, 2000, and was suffering from Parkinson's disease. Her daughter Natasha gave her three grandchildren.


  • Obituary of Dawn Langley Simmons - Independent Sept 28th 2000 [1]
  • Jeanette Winterson - Evening standard [2]
  • Matt and Andrej Komansky's page [3]
  • New York times - September 24th 2004 [4]
  • Peninsula of Lies: A True Story of Mysterious Birth and Taboo Love ISBN 978-0743235617

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