I admit - I wanted to read this book because I used to live near Charleston, South Carolina, where much of the action takes place, in the 1970s, when much of it was going on. Dawn Langley Simmons, who adored publicity, was the subject of several, for the times, rather lurid TV bios, as her excesses compounded and she became the pariah everyone loved to gossip about. She was Charleston's blue-eyed boy-girl and she lapped it up.
Born Gordon Langley Hall (the middle name is possibly one of his many inventions) in England, son of a braggart chauffeur and a dowdy missus who worked at Sissinghurst Castle, and known in childhood as Dinky, the boy who was to become Dawn was "a sprite" and notably intelligent. Because of his connection to the castle, Gordon met such famous dames as Vita Sackville-West and her lover, Virginia Wolfe, and Margaret Rutherford. Restless, undoubtedly feeling that his skin didn't fit him properly, unable to make much of a life for himself in England, Gordon peregrinated to the new world, being by turns a schoolteacher in the great northwest and a features reporter for a tiny Missouri newspaper. He honed his writing skills sufficiently, without formal higher education, to become a rather well-known author, mostly of rather purple tomes about highly illuminated women - Princess Margaret, Jackie Kennedy.
A diarist by habit, Gordon-Dawn gradually began reinventing her/himself, as his/her gender began to shift. Her story is that she was born a woman and incorrectly pronounced a male by ignorant attendants. Most people who knew Gordon (before) considered him to be an overtly feminine gay man, some would say quite sexually active, though Dawn (after) strove to emphasize her purity in that regard. Gordon lived in New York City and by chance encountered a wealthy patroness, Isabel Whitney, who left him and a favorite butler much of her great fortune, allowing Gordon-Dawn to carve out a new persona in the heart of Charleston, the grande dame of coastal cities.
There our hero/ine settled in Ansonhurst, at the time a run-down but historical section of the old city, a hang-out for the queer sons of aristocracy who were willing to save family face by living apart from the main. S/he bought and sold antiques, good ones, and gained a reputation as an eccentric of the first stripe with such antics as having a coming-out party for his/her chihuahuas. His/her backyard was a literal pet cemetery, and as s/he slipped more and more into the web of self-aggrandizing fantasy, s/he was distinguished unfavorably by the pet filth within the house.
The gender confusion mounted as Gordon became Dawn, surgically and socially, and rumors abounded as she married her black servant, a schizophrenic named John-Paul Simmons. Together they scandalized the town and made for spicy parlor palaver on the piazzas south of Broad. But that was as nothing, even in the segregated south, compared to what Dawn next had in store. Dawn had a baby! A pretty little girl named Natasha appeared in her arms after a protracted visit to Philadelphia, and Dawn brazened out the claim that she was the natural mother, had always had the equipment for child-rearing and was just carrying out her destiny to reproduce.
Factually, she was a good mother to Natasha, if a peripatetic wanderer whose rather hippy-like approach to life was not always the most comfortable for a child. And though Dawn adored her husband, Simmons developed an approach-avoidance tactic with his erstwhile spouse, and they rarely cohabited.
Writer Edward Ball became fascinated with Dawn/Gordon after attending her funeral, and unfolds the mystery of her bi-gender bi-racial trans-sexual transcontinental wanderings with a skeptic's eye and a gentleman's heart. He wants to believe Dawn, if he can. He uncovers her truths with a judicious journalistic kindness that leaves Gordon/Dawn with the dignity that this remarkable person, undoubtedly deeply tormented by the constricting mores of society, fully deserves.