PENINSULA OF LIES: A True Story of Mysterious Birth and Taboo Love

Edward Ball, Author . Simon & Schuster $24 (288p) ISBN 978-0-7432-3560-0

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; 100,000 first printing; 10-city author tour. (Mar.)

Reviewed on: 12/01/2003
Release date: 03/01/2004
Genre: Nonfiction
Open Ebook - 288 pages - 978-1-4516-0371-2
Paperback - 288 pages - 978-0-7432-3561-7
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