Fame eluded Gordon Langley Hall as a writer, even though he was a prolific scribbler of memoirs and novels. When he became one of the first people to undergo sex change surgery in America, Hall's local notoriety in Charleston, South Carolina, was unpleasantly mixed with malicious gossip. Edward Ball's new book, Peninsula of Lies: A True Story of Mysterious Birth and Taboo Love, may give Hall, now dead, the recognition that eluded him in life. Ball (author of the National Book Award winner Slaves in the Family) set out to settle two mysteries that have circled one of Charleston's most celebrated and outrageous personalities for decades. Was Hall, as he claimed, a hermaphrodite who was misidentified as a male at birth? And did Hall, as he also claimed, conceive and give birth to a daughter, Natasha? Ball's quest to resolve these burning issues takes him from Charleston to England where, as a child of the servant class, Hall had few opportunities for economic and social mobility. Then the biographer tracks his subject to New York where Hall became the protege and, at least in some sense, the lover of Isabel Whitney, an heir to the cotton gin fortune. His liaison with Whitney, perhaps more than his subsequent sex change, altered Hall's life forever. When she died, his mistress made him a millionaire. As a Charleston transplant, Hall charmed local society with his English accent. Charlestonians, Ball indicates, didn't pick up on the cockney overtones that would have made Ball's attempts to penetrate the upper classes a wash back in England. Then, perversely, Hall throws away his tenuous new foothold in the Charleston party circuit by changing his gender from male to female and re-emerging as "Dawn." As painted by Ball, Charleston's high society was far too prudish and inflexible to get over that one. Then, having forever trespassed on good taste, Hall takes his adventure one or two steps further. He marries an African-American man and appears to bear his new husband a child. Ball first gets a clue that Hall might be inventing fictions about himself when it turns out that Hall forged a document shaving 15 years off his age. From there, Ball is the relentless sleuth, separating fantasy from fact until he has the real story on Gordon Hall, alias Dawn Simmons. He interviews dozens of eccentric characters who knew Hall, and the tale of each informant is a story unto itself.
Echoing the formula of John Berendt's best-selling Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Ball's Peninsula of Lies is a must-read for people who enjoy well-crafted Southern storytelling. Lynn Hamilton is a writer in Tybee Island, Georgia.