Friday, December 10, 2010

An Unusual Family

(Or, how many eccentric people can I fit into one blog post?)

I own a book, a sort of Who's Who, which lists a large number of movie stars and their spouses and children.  (It lives in my bathroom.)  I was flipping through it one day and came across the entry for Dame Margaret Rutherford.  It said that she and her husband adopted several adult children, one of whom later turned out to be transsexual.  This naturally interested me and I wanted to know more.

According to Wikipedia, Rutherford's father was mentally ill.  He spent a number of years in an insane asylum.  While on vacation from the asylum, he killed his father and was recommitted.  Later he was released and started a family, with the woman he got married to before his first mental breakdown.  When Rutherford was only three, her mother committed suicide.  About ten years later her father went back into an asylum and seemingly remained there for the rest of his life.

With this background of violence and tragedy, it is not entirely surprising that Rutherford became a comedienne, playing such parts as Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest.  She married a fellow actor whom Wikipedia describes as "openly bisexual" and as mentioned above, they adopted four adults.  Why, I do not know.  One of them was the writer and transwoman Dawn Langley Hall.

Dawn was born to an unmarried teenager in England in 1922.  Later her mother married and her parents became servants at Sissinghurst Castle, owned by Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson.  Thereby hangs a tale.  The Sackville-Wests were scandalous aristocrats.  Vita's mother was the illegitimate child of the second Lord Sackville and a Spanish dancer called Pepita.  Somebody on the Internet claims that Dawn and Vita bear a strong resemblance to each other and speculates that Dawn was Vita's child.  This is implausible.  Vita had no reason to conceal a pregnancy and more importantly, aside from her husband she preferred women.  But there were other Sackville-Wests around and Dawn did feel a connection to the family.

In 1968 Dawn changed her name to Dawn Pepita Langley Hall, got sex reassignment surgery and began presenting herself as female.  "Pepita" obviously harks back to the Sackville-Wests.  Either Dawn believed herself to be related to them or she wanted to invoke their history of illegitimacy.  (Pepita herself was once believed to be illegitimate but apparently this was not the case.)  The fact that Vita's mother and her four siblings were illegitimate was widely known, for reasons which I won't go into here.  But if you haven't read Portrait of a Marriage, Vita's memoir which was edited by her son, Nigel Nicolson, then you really should.

In 1928, Virginia Woolf fell in love with Vita Sackville-West and wrote a book for her called Orlando, about a boy who turns into a woman.  We are told that Dawn later saw herself in the story of Orlando, but I have to mention that Vita was well aware of her own androgyny (as was Woolf) and she was the original Orlando.

Well.  Dawn roamed around England, Canada and America and had various adventures.  She spent a year teaching on a Canadian Ojibwe Indian reservation and wrote a book about it with the completely politically incorrect title of Me Papoose Sitter.  In 1969 she was living in South Carolina and married a black man, John-Paul Simmons.  This was the first interracial marriage ever performed in that state and naturally it caused a lot of uproar.

In 1971 she gave birth to a daughter.  Or at least, she said she did.  In reality, no transwoman has ever been able to conceive and bear a child.  (Medical science hasn't advanced that far.)  In her first autobiography Dawn said she was intersexed and had both male and female genitalia.  I don't know if someone with that condition can conceive a child or not. It does seem more likely that the baby was her husband's child by another woman.

It was not a happy marriage, unfortunately.  Simmons was physically abusive and was eventually committed to a mental institution (like Margaret Rutherford's father.)  Dawn died in 2000.  She wrote three autobiographies, none of which I have read.

Illegitimacy.  Mental illness.  Sexual transgression.  Gender transgression.  Dawn was doubly illegitimate:  once for the circumstances of her birth and once for her transsexuality.  One gathers that she told a lot of stories about herself which were not true.  She had to create her own reality, because the "reality" society had assigned her to was unacceptable.

Illegitimacy has lost much of its stigma these days.  "Bastard" is now a minor insult.  It's okay to use the word on television.  And if I call someone a bastard I don't literally mean that their parents were not married to each other.  (I wonder how many people are unaware of what "bastard" really means?)  Maybe someday the stigma of transgender will be diminished as well.  And what we now think of as "reality" will be gone.

References:  This post here about Dawn Langley Simmons.  I'll let you look her up on Wikipedia yourself.


  1. This is fascinating, and I have to say, this Vita's mother was the illegitimate child of the second Lord Sackville and a Spanish dancer called Pepita is one of the best sentences I may have ever read.


    And here's to a new reality.

  2. Hi Emily - thanks for dropping by! As they say, truth is much stranger than fiction.

  3. Oh, I drop by a lot! I just don't comment as much as I should. Often what I want to say on other people's blogs amounts to "This!". And I try to at least limit that.... (Though I believe that's essentially what I said up above!)

  4. Sounds as if I need a Like button.