Review

Peninsula of Lies: A True Story of Mysterious Birth and Taboo Love

by Edward Ball



Fly on a passenger plane over the mid-Atlantic states and more
likely than not you will hear the pilot and/or the flight
attendants refer to "Char-North" and "Char-South." The former
refers to Charlotte, North Carolina, the latter to Charleston,
South Carolina. Char-South is the primary setting for Edward Ball's
PENINSULA OF LIES, an examination of the life and allegations of
Gordon Langley Hall, who spent the latter portion of his life in
notoriety as Dawn Langley Hall.

Hall, the son of a servant girl at Sissinghurst Castle in England,
made his way to America and ultimately to New York City in his
twenties. He became a biographical author of some renown and
befriended a number of dowagers, one of whom left him a small, very
comfortable fortune. Hall's windfall permitted him to buy and
furnish a mansion in Charleston, South Carolina. As Ball notes near
the end of this extremely well written work, Hall reinvented
himself a number of times throughout his life, and his move to
Charleston at the age of 40 in 1962 permitted him to slip into the
role of the Southern gentleman and author.

Hall's world changed irrevocably, however, when in 1968 he
underwent sex reassignment surgery and presented him/herself to
Charleston, no longer as Gordon, but as Dawn Hall. It was Hall's
contention, one that she put forth until her death in 2000, that
the surgery had been corrective: she had been misidentified as a
boy at birth. Hall's dramatic catharsis would have been enough at
that place and time to give her a permanent notoriety. But she
broke new ground when three months later and with much fanfare, she
married a young black mechanic, decades her junior, subsequently
presented herself as pregnant, and brought her daughter Natasha
into the world. These circumstances heralded the beginning of the
end of her fame and fortune and resulted in a slow but inevitable
slide into notoriety.

The catalyst for PENINSULA OF LIES occurred when Ball was contacted
by Hall in 1999 concerning a piece of antique furniture she had
owned that had previously passed from Ball's family. Ball answered
the letter and intended to follow up on the matter but failed to do
so before Hall's passing. Ball was of course aware of who Hall was,
but his missed opportunity to meet with her led him to wonder if,
perhaps, Hall had an ulterior motive for contacting him, if she had
perhaps wanted yet another sounding board for her story. Ball
accordingly commenced the research of Hall's life.

That research, as much as what Ball discovered, forms the basis for
PENINSULA OF LIES. His search for the truth, obscured not only by
time but also by Hall's exaggerations, half-truths and outright
misrepresentations, led him throughout Charleston, to London,
California and back again. The result is an intriguing examination
of a life lived half in daylight, half in twilight. Ball is an
extremely interesting character in his own right, and his
occasional, wonderfully snotty commentary concerning Charleston is
not to be missed, even if one finds oneself wholly in disagreement
with it.

Comparisons with MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL are
inevitable but ultimately erroneous. Both books concern events in
Southern cities making painful social transitions, and both deal
with aspects of sexuality the discussion of which is normally
confined to impolitic syndicated and cable television programs.
While MIDNIGHT ultimately concerned a murder, however, no crime is
committed in PENINSULA OF LIES, at least from the perspective of a
statutory offense. The tale is, however, awash in deceit. Ball's
work, in any event, stands boldly on its own without need for
comparison or contrast with the earlier MIDNIGHT. My personal
marker for Ball's abilities is the fact that I have absolutely no
interest in the subject of transsexuality or gender reassignment,
yet I found myself unable to stop reading PENINSULA OF LIES once I
picked it up. Ball's subtle obsession becomes the reader's.

While the indelicate subject matter of PENINSULA OF LIES may
somewhat limit its audience, it is worth reading for its deep
research and its ability to capture and preserve a time and a place
that is rapidly disappearing, as well as its resolution of a
mystery that, however briefly, enjoyed some passing
notoriety.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011

Peninsula of Lies: A True Story of Mysterious Birth and Taboo Love
by Edward Ball

  • Publication Date: March 2, 2004
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 0743235606
  • ISBN-13: 9780743235600