Eighteen years after her death, Natasha Simmons explores the eccentric and mysterious life story of her transgender mother, Dawn Langley Simmons. Born Gordon Langley Hall and raised on the English estate of writer Virginia Wolfe’s lover, Vita Sackville-West, the enigmatic Hall moved to the United States and in 1968 underwent one of the first sex change operations in the country at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Gordon emerged as Dawn Pepita Langley Hall. Her subsequent interracial marriage to John-Paul Simmons and the mysterious birth of their bi-racial daughter Natasha in the deep south during the violent 1970’s stirred deep fear and hatred in her adopted home of Charleston, SC.
Dawn’s story was one in which mystery and legend swirled, even to this day. She was the author of more than 20 books. She was the adopted daughter of famed actress, Dame Margaret Rutherford and designated heir to the fortune of painter Isabel Whitney. She lived in a grand mansion filled with antiques and a hidden garden, but ultimately lost it all. It was said she even had a coming-out party for her two Chihuahuas who were displayed on velvet cushions, dressed in chenille, long gloves and pearls. In her later years, Dawn fell in love and became engaged to Lemuel Smith, one of the most dangerous death-row serial killers in US history.
Dawn’s life seems to have been lifted from the pages of one of Virginia Woolf’s greatest novels, Orlando: A Biography, inspired by her lover Sackville-West. The book describes the adventures of a wealthy poet who changes sex from man to woman and lives an adventurous and artistic transgender life. Dawn recreated this life for herself in the most unlikely of places; the center of the 1968 civil rights movement in South Carolina.
The David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University is home to the 78-box Dawn Langley Simmons Collection; a vast archive of audio and video recordings of Dawn, personal papers, diaries, manuscripts and photos of her life. Natasha’s exploration of her mother’s life will take her to visit this archive for the first time in her life in the hopes of unlocking the secrets of Dawn’s brave and dangerous journey to becoming a wife, mother, and grandmother in a time and place where such dreams were unimaginable.
The source material for the film will also include three of Dawn’s published autobiographies, All for Love, From Man to Woman and Dawn, as well as additional unpublished journals.