Film

A Queer Alliance: Dame Margaret Rutherford and Dawn Langley Simmons

Margaret Rutherford (L) Dawn Langley Simmons (R)

Rutherford, an actor famous for playing spinsters and quirky aunts. Simmons, an author infamous for changing sex and marrying outside her race.

Dawn Langley Simmons (1922-2000)


Dawn Langley Simmons began life as Gordon Langley Hall, born out of wedlock and raised by a grandmother in Sussex, England. Gordon's parents did marry, eventually, and over summers he visited them at the Sissinghurst Castle in Kent where they were employed as servants.

To this day, Sissinghurst remains as famous for its exquisite gardens as it is for its original gardeners: authors Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson. They designed the gardens, wrote many books in their respective towers, and enjoyed an open marriage that allowed for same-sex pursuits, most noteworthy being Sackville-West's affair with Virginia Woolf. Simmons' posthumous biography, by Edward Ball, refers to Sissinghurst as a "childhood playground" for Gordon, where the wealthy and the famous "strode around like giants". Simmons' own autobiography describes it as "the Tudor castle where eccentricities and strange unnatural loves seemed perfectly normal."

Sissinghurst constitutes Simmons' origin story on two levels, foremost being gender identity. Sackville-West, androgynous and six feet tall, seemed godlike to effeminate, sprite-like Gordon, nicknamed Dinky by the Nicholson children. Sackville-West may have seemed magical too, given how the title character in Woolf's Orlando (1928), who changes from male to female, was modeled after her. The novel, available at the library for Gordon to attempt reading, gave him "a strange, new courage" according to Simmons' autobiography; years later the novel served as a guiding star during Gordon's transition to Dawn, who deemed herself a real-life Orlando.

Woolf and Sackville-West also figure into Simmons' origin as a writer. Indeed, her autobiography opens with young Gordon meeting Woolf on the castle grounds and being asked what he wants to be when he grows up. His unhesitating answer is "A writer." Sackville-West and Nicholson both encourage Gordon toward writing, emphasizing the value of research. As with Gordon's comprehension of Orlando, the writer-as-lifelong-calling narrative seems not unlikely but a touch too dramatically perfect. The more vital point, nevertheless, is how these narratives serve Simmons on her path to becoming a woman and to becoming a writer, specifically a transwoman biographer of famous women including Princess Margaret, five First Ladies (e.g., Mary Todd Lincoln), and Dame Margaret Rutherford.

As heroes, as allies, as patrons, and as book subjects too, women informed Gordon's life in substance and direction. He sainted his grandmother who died in 1941, when he was 19, after which he was taken in by a local dowager. Upon immigrating to Canada in 1946, to teach on an Ojibway reservation, he befriended one of the tribe's quirkier grandmothers and, in time, transformed the adventure into his debut book Me Papoose Sitter, a comic memoir. Gordon had moved to New York City by the time it was published in 1955, working as an editor until taken under the wing of spinster heiress Isabel Whitney, descendant of the cotton gin's Eli Whitney and in her own right an esteemed painter. She invited him to share her 40-room mansion off Fifth Avenue, upgrading his life overnight.

Meanwhile in England, Rutherford so admired Me Papoose Sitter that she decided to seek out the author during her next visit to New York. Rutherford bonded instantly with "the child", as she called 40-year-old Gordon; upon learning Isabel Whitney hadn't long to live, she and Stringer Davis adopted him "from the heart" if not legally.

Gordon Langley Hall inherited two million dollars from Isabel Whitney and, in 1962, moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where he restored a three-story house on Society Street, loading it with antiques, artworks, and too many animals. Finding himself alone in a humid bubble of wealth, nurturing a fantasy of his own Sissinghurst in the tall-tale South, he namedropped his way into the dowager-powered high society while testing the discretion of the city's so-called gay aristocracy. Within a few years, however, Dawn emerged and, as a Newsweek article proclaimed, she shook the very cradle of the Confederacy. This resulted in Charleston's backlash and, two and a half decades later, justified the title of Simmons' autobiography Dawn: A Charleston Legend.

Legend is the right word, too, meaning both a long-acknowledged person of note and a story that's likely to be part myth. Edward Ball's biography from 2004 exposed Simmons' autobiography from 1995 as a web of truth, denial, and fantasy. Of course her experience is no less legitimate because, as a coping mechanism, she embroidered idealistic narratives around it; there's truth to be found in her lies, sense to be made of her contradictions, and bravery to be seen in her downfall.

For starters Simmons, in her autobiography, tells the story not of a transsexual but an intersexual, claiming to have been born with anomalous genitalia and mistakenly identified as male. According to a Johns Hopkins surgeon who participated in her sex reassignment, however, Simmons was born a "physically normal male". So Simmons, in anticipation of the transition, narratively retrofitted her entire youth with a physical deformity (including "irregular bleedings") that had been kept hidden all those years. Given how effeminacy registers bodily, how gender dysphoria and internalized homophobia are felt viscerally, Simmons' revision is not the stretch it may sound to many cisgender people. True and yet Simmons often cannot tell a story without compounding the drama. In this case, Gordon found by his maid one morning, semi-conscious in a pool of hemorrhaged menstrual blood, makes for a turning-point tableau. A gynecologist tells Gordon of an obstructed vagina and that he will die without surgery, or so the story continues, rhetorically inducing a biological imperative.

It's vital to remember that no "sex change" had been performed in the US until 1965, after a decade of backlash against Christine Jorgenson who underwent procedures in Denmark. The Gender Identity Clinic at Johns Hopkins, where Gordon underwent reassignment, was not formed until 1966. So Gordon had no established narrative for coming out as trans; not even the lesbian-gay "coming out" narrative would begin to take form until the late '60s (one of the first literary manifestations being Rubyfruit Jungle in 1973). Jorgenson headlines had provoked such flippant contempt that her narrative, summed up by the New York Daily News as "Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty", may not have seemed viable. Dawn's best shot at being socially accepted was to seem passive to her fate, the public less likely to condemn her if thinking God meant her to be female from the start.

Cynics contend that Gordon became Dawn to appease a heterosexual beau. Motivating the transition and wholly inspiring it are not the same, however, and Edward Ball discovered that Dawn went through with the surgery against her beau's will. Far more than the sex change, to which locals adapted begrudgingly, what truly rocked Charleston was her subsequent marriage to said beau John-Paul Simmons, an African-American mechanic whom news stories misreported as Dawn's butler. Dawn claiming pregnancy and producing a biracial newborn were like aftershocks, leaving her a town pariah with dashed fantasies of being a Southern belle.

Dawn Langley Simmons and John Paul Simmons at their wedding thrown by Margaret Rutherford in England (1969)

Her pregnancy was doubted in Charleston but no one knew that she'd paid $1,000 for the infant, or that Natasha was actually John-Paul's baby with another woman. Dawn formed an archetypal bond with Natasha that grew more real and deeper every year, particularly as amiable John-Paul proved to be not only an absent father and womanizer, but also a sporadically violent schizophrenic who'd spend decades in and out of mental health facilities.

On its own, setting aside the untruth, controversy, and turmoil, Simmons' transition can be seen as a basic success, never regretted. Prior to the women's rights movement, alas, successfully being a woman meant being successful in only gender-appropriate ways. Strong and unconventional women had inspired Simmons, yet she was still susceptible to gender norms, rejecting slacks for a conservative First Lady look. Journalist and native Charlestonian Jack Hitt, in a GQ article, remembers her as "a dowdy doppelganger of Jackie Kennedy" in her "pillbox hat and Dippity-Do hairstyle".

Simmons' biography of Kennedy (published 1964) is revealing in how it admires the gender-normative parent-child dynamics that defined Jackie's respectable youth, encouraging Jackie as an adult to deem "happiness and husband synonymous". Simmons' revised backstory allowed her to seem essentially female, which she warped into claims of feminine respectability: it was John-Paul who pursued her, she lied, and he pursued her only after transition, and prior to vaginal sex with her husband she'd led a sexless life. She could not idealize John-Paul's behavior after their marriage; people knew he beat her and squandered her money. She clung to her longsuffering wife role, no matter. Edward Ball describes her as a female masochist who "kept up her marital vows like a stockade" while simultaneously having to protect child Natasha.

During and after the "pregnancy", Simmons found herself a target of laughter and violence, alienated by all of white Charleston. With her money tapped as of 1971, and her Society Street house foreclosed, she re-homed her housetrained pig and moved with Natasha into a series of rundown rentals. She and Natasha were accepted into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest AME church in the South, which provided them community. For the rest of her life, Dawn served as a mother and grandmother above all else. She was living in Charleston, a short distance from Natasha's apartment, when she died at age 77.

Simmons never became a successful author, out of touch with the times as Edward Ball suggests, but she continued to write. She wrote her life five times, no less: three autobiographies (1970, 1975, and 1995), a thinly veiled novel titled She-Crab Soup (1993), and a children's book laying claim to Sissinghurst (1997). In the novel, which is good and campy, John-Paul's character Big Shot dies a hero early on, prior to ever wreaking havoc, and the British expatriate protagonist, named Miss Gwendolyn, is a woman all along, never having to transition.

Journalist and storyteller Jack Hitt, who featured a story about Simmons on This American Life, opened his one-person show from 2012, Making Up the Truth, with childhood recollections of Charleston during Simmons' most controversial years. Hitt credits Simmons with helping him to realize that a narrative is not static but an improvisation toward a central truth.

The Intersecting Story: A Queer Alliance

Lives so brimming with eccentricity, queerness, and willpower must be few. That Rutherford and Simmons found each other is pretty amazing. What did their alliance mean, though, the nature of their bond and the specific impact each had on the other?

Simmons' own mother never wanted to be called mother, but "Mother Rutherford" did not mind. After all she liked to call Simmons "child". Stringer Davis played "Father" avuncularly and advised John-Paul on being a "background husband". Still, at first, I couldn't help but hear "Mother Rutherford" as pretentious. Simmons' author bios refer to her as Rutherford's adopted daughter, which seems conspicuous, and in her title for an article about John-Paul's mental illness she refers to herself as "Actress's Daughter", which seems beside the point. Then I ask myself why shouldn't she, as a writer, make use of connections to gain a wider readership, especially with her career unstable, her topics not so profitable, and her publishers increasingly small.

Rutherford played a more direct role in Simmons' transition and marriage, drawing positive attention to the unfolding saga as it played out in headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. According to Simmons' autobiography, Rutherford told Simmons, post-reassignment, that she'd always wanted a daughter. Andy Merriman's biography of Rutherford quotes a more complex reply: "Stringer and I are utterly baffled by your letter. Our main instinct is to congratulate you upon having come through your great ordeal." They empathize with Dawn's suffering and end: "Our love for you could never change; be assured of this." There's no corroborating evidence that Father Stringer privately asked Dawn never to look down on Gordon, "who over the years was very brave", but it is a most tender moment in an autobiography that readily bends nonfiction into idealism or fantasy.

When Rutherford heard that Dawn and John-Paul could not marry in a Charleston church due to bomb threats, marrying instead at the house on Society Street, she arranged for a second ceremony at St. Clements Church in Sussex, England, where press filled the choir loft. Rutherford and Davis sent out invitations requesting "the honour of your presence at the blessing of the marriage of their adopted daughter." Though not the mature Sidney Poitier they'd imagined, they embraced John-Paul -- 26 years younger than Dawn and uneducated -- as a family member. That autumn day in 1969 satisfied Dawn's "greeting-card idea of a woman's finest hour", as Edward Ball writes: "By feeding this craving, the blessing of her marriage by the Church of England gave Dawn at least one day of happiness."

Rutherford died in spring of 1972. Simmons could not be present for the funeral, with Natasha only six-months-old, but she spent time with Father Davis that summer. He confided to her about the Rutherford family secret, which had tormented his wife throughout her life. Rutherford's father, experiencing a psychotic break, crushed his own father's skull with a Staffordshire chamber pot and then attempted suicide by cutting his throat, thereafter committed to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Years later, Rutherford's mother hung herself from a tree in the garden. Records proved all of this and Simmons positioned it as chapter one of her Rutherford biography, published in 1983 with Rutherford's epitaph as its title: A Blithe Spirit.

Andy Merriman in his biography of Rutherford is harsh on Simmons, asserting that her biography of Rutherford is "self-serving" and "based on a major deceit". Self-serving may ring true, but he never explains what he means by major deceit. He cites her biography several times throughout his, in only one case qualifying a Simmons anecdote as fanciful. By deceit, Merriman could mean her lies about being intersexual and pregnant. More likely he means Simmons exposing the Rutherford family shame. But is it deceit, since both Rutherford and Davis had been dead a decade when the biography was published? The sordid details did shock the world, but they'd have been unearthed in time and Rutherford's father would still be listed, as it is now, on the Wikipedia page for Broadmoor under "Notable Patients" (along with the Chocolate Cream Poisoner, gangster Ronald Kray, and OED-contributor W.C. Minor who cut off his own penis). At least Simmons' account of the family history is compassionate, and society has become less stigmatizing of mental illness -- for the privileged anyway.

Rutherford as an icon seems rounder and more relatable with the truth out. Can the same be said about Simmons?

In death, an irony linking Rutherford and Simmons is how each took a secret to her grave that was posthumously revealed. These were secrets that their times demanded they keep, but those times have passed. Now we can know their full stories and marvel at their determination to live the lives they envisioned for themselves, determination stoked by knowing each other.

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