Lightning Strike Ignites Charleston Romance

1777, June 8. 

 The Philadelphia-built frigate Randolph spent two months being refitted at Hobcaw shipyard in Charlestown. As the ship was being launched into the harbor a lightning bolt struck the mast and splintered it. The ship had to be pulled back into the shipyard for repairs.

Captain Nicholas Biddle of the Randolph, spent several extra weeks in Charlestown. Me met a young lady, Elizabeth Baker of Archdale Hall on the Ashley River, and began to court her. They became engaged by the end of the summer. So, thanks to a fortuitous lightning bolt, romance blossomed. 

Unfortunately, in March 1778, Randolph engaged the 64-gun British warship HMS Yarmouth and Capt. Biddle was wounded in the engagement. While he was being treated by the ship’s surgeon when Randolph’s magazine exploded, killing the entire crew, save four men. 

“I have courage. No one has dared to impeach it yet. If any should, I will not leave them a moment of doubt.” — Capt. Nicholas Biddle, 1776. 



USS Randolph (Courtesy of Hilda Straight)



The USS Randolph was a 32-gun frigate, named for Peyton Randolph.

The frigate, designed by Joshua Humphreys, was launched on July 10, 1776, by Wharton and Humphreys at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Captain Nicholas Biddle was appointed commander of the Randolph the next day.

Charleston Embraces “Porgy & Bess” … 81 Years Later

Stephen Sondheim in Invisible Giants: Fifty Americans Who Shaped the Nation But Missed the History Books, wrote:

DuBose Heyward has gone largely unrecognized as the author of the finest set of lyrics in the history of the American musical theater – namely, those of Porgy and Bess. There are two reasons for this, and they are connected. First, he was primarily a poet and novelist, and his only song lyrics were those that he wrote for Porgy. Second, some of them were written in collaboration with Ira Gershwin, a full-time lyricist, whose reputation in the musical theater was firmly established before the opera was written. But most of the lyrics in Porgy – and all of the distinguished ones – are by Heyward. I admire his theater songs for their deeply felt poetic style and their insight into character. It’s a pity he didn’t write any others. His work is sung, but he is unsung.

In 1922 a petition was sent to Charleston City Council, signed by thirty-seven white residents of Church Street and St. Michael’s Alley, which called for the immediate eviction of all the black residents of Cabbage Row. The petition detailed their unsavory behavior which included fornication between of black women and white sailors, knife and gun fights, unsanitary conditions and “the most vile, filthy and offensive language.”

During the spring of 1924, DuBose Heyward, founding member of the Poetry Society of South Carolina, began to work on “a novel of contemporary Charleston.” Heyward was the descendant of Thomas Heyward Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was part of Charleston’s aristocratic heritage where family bloodlines were more important than bank accounts.

During the early 1920s DuBose Heyward gained a reputation in American literary circles as a talented, serious poet. Charleston society was rightly proud of his success and reputation. The perception at Charleston tea parties was that his forthcoming novel of “contemporary Charleston” would, of course, be a drawing room drama, or a comedy of manners. Everyone was anxious to read it, assuming it would be about “them.” They could have never imagined what Heyward actually wrote, a lyrical folk novel about the Gullahs of Charleston.

For many white Charlestonians, the ubiquitous presence of Gullahs was as common as the humidity, present but rarely acknowledged. Heyward lived on Church Street, a dignified colonial-era neighborhood that had become quite ungentrified after Emancipation. Whites descended from the elite families of Charleston society now lived in close quarters, side-by-side, with descendants of their former slaves. The once pristine houses and gardens were now covered in shabbiness, the result of decades of dwindling fortunes and cultural depression.

Heyward became fascinated by the odd story of Samuel Smalls. The Charleston News and Courier featured a small item on the police blotter:

Samuel Smalls, who is a cripple and is familiar to King Street, with his goat and cart, was held for the June term of Court of Sessions on an aggravated assault charge. It is alleged that on Saturday night he attempted to shoot Maggie Barnes at number four Romney Street. His shots went wide of the mark. Smalls was up on a similar charge some months ago and was given a suspended sentence. Smalls had attempted to escape in his wagon and was run down and captured by the police guard.

Heyward finished the first draft of a novel based on Smalls’s life. He gave the manuscript to his friend John Bennett to read. Bennett was astonished by the story. “There had never been anything like it,” he said.

The story was set in a location Heyward called “Catfish Row,” two run-down tenement buildings one block from his home on Church Street. Nestled between the two tenements was 87 Church Street, a classic brick Georgian double house that had been the home of his ancestor, Thomas Heyward, Jr. As previously noted, by the turn of the 20th century both tenements were notorious as dens of crime and violence.

83-91 church street

85-91 Church Street, circa 1910. These pre-Revolutionary structures had deteriorated into slums by the turn of the 20th century. (L-R) Cabbage Row; Thomas Heyward House; Catfish Row. Courtesy of the Library of Congress 

DuBose Heyward’s novel, published in September 1925, was titled Porgy. It was the story of a crippled beggar on the streets of Charleston. During a dice game, Porgy witnesses a murder committed by a rough, sadistic black man named Crown, who runs away from the police. During the next weeks, Porgy shelters the murderer’s woman, the haunted Bess, in the rear courtyard of Catfish Row, a rundown tenement on the Charleston waterfront. Porgy and Bess fall in love. However, when Crown arrives to take Bess back Porgy kills him. He is taken in by police for questioning. After ten days he is released, because the police do not believe a crippled beggar could have killed the powerful Crown. When Porgy returns to the Row, he discovers that Bess had fallen under the spell of the drug dealer Sportin’ Life and his “happy dus’.” She has followed Sportin’ Life to a new future in Savannah and Porgy is left alone, brokenhearted.

The novel became a national best-seller, and received rave reviews. DuBose Heyward was praised for portraying “Negro life more colorful and spirited and vital than that of the white community” and for creating a character that is “a real Negro, not a black-faced white man,” who “thinks as a Negro, feels as a Negro, lives as a Negro.”

In Charleston, the reaction was polite but less positive. Some acknowledged the truth: it was a powerful book. Others claimed “the paper was wasted on which it was writ.” Most people were disappointed and shocked, when they discovered Porgy’s main characters were black, not white. The white characters were little more than poorly drawn caricatures. 

Lost amidst the initial praise and criticism, that, at its heart, Porgy, is a reminiscence of the old way of life in Charleston. Blacks are second class citizens, living lives of limited freedom and still expected to be subservient to whites. Porgy, however, examines this world from a black viewpoint. Portrayed with realism, these Charleston blacks were far removed from the “new Negro,” who could be seen daily on the streets of Harlem, and appearing in the literature of New York writers. In Charleston blacks and whites suffered from the same malaise.


In 1924 George Gershwin’s musical, Lady Be Good! ran for 330 performances on Broadway, establishing him as one of the most popular songwriters in America. While his second hit show, Tip-Toes, was on Broadway, Gershwin read Porgy in one sitting. He immediately wrote to Heyward proposing the two men collaborate together on an opera based on the story.

Heyward was astonished, and then excited. Gershwin was one of the most powerful, successful and talented artists in the New York musical world. He contacted Gershwin and was told that, although the composer wanted to create an opera his work schedule was booked solid for the next several years. Heyward decided to go ahead and write a nonmusical stage version of Porgy.

DuBose Heyward’s wife, Dorothy, was an award-winning playwright. The two had met in 1922 at the MacDowell Colony, an artist retreat in New Hampshire, and Heyward was immediately smitten. In 1923 they married in New York where Dorothy’s play, Nancy Ann, won Harvard’s Belmont Prize, beating out Thomas Wolfe’s Welcome to My City. First prize was $500 and a Broadway production of the play. Meanwhile, MacMillan Publishing had accepted a volume of Heyward’s poetry for publication.  The young couple spent the first months of their marriage living apart, Dorothy in New York working on the play production and Heyward on a speaking tour across the South.

Heyward’s decision to go ahead with a dramatic stage version of Porgy, instead of waiting for Gershwin, was an important one. After all, he already had the perfect collaborator living under the same roof. Together the Heywards turned the novel into a stage play. Gershwin was fully supportive of the effort. He told Heyward that a stage script of the story could more easily be transformed into a libretto for the proposed opera.

Dorothy wrote most of the dialogue for the play, smoothing the Gullah dialect from the novel into more recognizable English. By the summer of 1926 the play was written and submitted to three professional production companies in New York. One week later, it was accepted by the Theatre Guild, but the Heywards were pessimistic that the play would ever be produced. They had one unshakable demand, which could easily have been the death knell of the production; they wanted black actors to play the black roles, not white actors in blackface, still common at the time. The original director resigned due to their demands and the play was set aside.

In early 1927 a young Armenian director named Rouben Mamoulian decided he would direct Porgy, with a black cast. Trained as a lawyer, Mamoulian and his sister had fled Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution, moved to London and began working in West End theaters. Mamoulian arrived in America at the invitation of George Eastman (of Eastman-Kodak) to work for the American Opera Company. It was there that he attracted the attention of the Theatre Guild, who asked him to stage Porgy.

Over the next thirty years, Mamoulian came to be known as “the mad Armenian” due to his frenetic energy. He directed more than twenty Hollywood movies and several successful Broadway plays, including the original Oklahoma (1943) and Carousel (1945). Porgy, however, was to be his first opportunity in charge of a Broadway production.


Rouben Mamoulian

 To prepare, Mamoulian traveled to Charleston to soak up the atmosphere and learn about the Gullah culture. On his second day in Charleston, he was taken to the Jenkins Orphanage for an after-dinner private concert. Several women sang spirituals and then members of the Jenkins Band performed. Mamoulian was amazed by the band’s “melodious discordance” and the “infinitesimally small darkey boy who led the band.” Before leaving Charleston the next day, he persuaded Rev. Daniel Jenkins to allow the band to appear in the Porgy production.

Opening night for Porgy was October 10, 1927. At the beginning of the second act, when the cast travels to Kittawah Island for the picnic, they were led onstage by the Jenkins Band playing “Sons and Daughters Repent Ye Saith the Lord.”

Within a week, Porgy was playing to standing-room-only audiences. When it closed after 367 performances it was viewed as an overwhelming success, with a higher box office than its main competitor, Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings. During its run Porgy employed more than sixty black performers in a serious drama, unheard of on Broadway at that time.

Five years later, George Gershwin’s heavy work schedule finally lightened enough to allow him to devote his energies to the opera. In late February 1934 he reported to Heyward that “I have begun composing music for the first act, and I am starting with the songs and spirituals first.” He then asked Heyward to join him in New York so the work could be expedited. Over the next two months, while living in a guest suite at Gershwin’s famous fourteen-room house at 132 East Seventy-second Street, Heyward wrote the lyrics for almost a dozen Gershwin compositions, including “Summertime,” “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing,” “Buzzard Song,” “It Take A Long Pull to Get There,” “My Man’s Gone,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’.” The opera was beginning to take shape.

In June 1934, George Gershwin arrived by train in Charleston with his cousin, artist Henry Botkin. They drove out to Folly Beach, where Heyward had rented a cottage at 708 West Arctic Avenue.

Folly Beach was a remote, sparsely developed barrier island ten miles from Charleston. It was a vastly different world from Gershwin’s New York neighborhood, in the middle of rollicking night life and luxurious accommodations. Life at Folly Beach was at best simple and at worst primitive. The surrounding marshes were filled with gators and other wild, exotic creatures. Crabs and snakes entered houses freely. Heat and humidity often reached equatorial proportions. In his letters Gershwin complained that the heat “brought out the flys, and knats, and mosquitos,” leaving “nothing to do but scratch.” Two weeks later, the Herald-Journal (Spartanburg, S.C.) filed this story:

Charleston, June 30.

Bare and black above the waist, an inch of hair bristling from his face, and with a pair of tattered knickers furnishing a sole connected link with civilization, George Gershwin, composer of jazz music, had gone native. He is staying at the Charles T. Tamsberg cottage at Folly Beach, South Carolina.

“I have become acclimated,” he said yesterday as he ran his hand experimentally through a crop of dark, matted hair which had not had the benefit of being combed for many, many days. “You know, it’s so pleasant here that it’s really a shame to work.”

Two weeks at Folly have made a different Gershwin from the almost sleek creator of “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Concerto in F” who arrived from New York City on June 16. Naturally brown, he is now black. Naturally sturdy, he is now sturdier. Gershwin, it would seem intends to play the part of Crown, the tremendous buck in “Porgy” who lunges a knife into the throat of a friend too lucky at craps and who makes women love him by placing huge black hands about their throats and tensing their muscles.

The opera “Porgy” which Gershwin is writing from the book and play by DuBose Heyward, is to be a serious musical work to be presented by the Guild Theater early next year, is an interpretation in sound of the life in Charleston’ “Catfish Row”; an impressionistic dissertation on the philosophy of negro life and the relationship between the negro and the white. Mr. Heyward, who is staying at Lester Karow’s cottage at the beach, spends every afternoon with the composer, cutting the score, rewriting and whipping the now-completed first act into final form.

“We are attempting to have an opera that is serious and dramatic,” Mr. Gershwin said.  “The whites will speak their lines, but the negroes will sing throughout. I hope the audience will get the idea. With the colored people there is always a song, see? They always find something to sing about somewhere. The whites are dull and drab.”

It is the crap game scene and subsequent murder by Crown which may make the first act the most dramatic of the production. A strange rhythm and an acid, biting quality in the music create the sensation of conflict and strife between men and strife caused by the rolling bones of luck.

“You won’t hear the dice click and roll,” he said. “It is impressionism, not realism. When you want to get a great painting of nature you don’t take a camera with you.”

Jazz will rear its hotcha head at intervals through the more serious music. Sporting Life, the negro who peddles “joy powder” or dope, to the residents of Catfish Row, will be represented by ragtime.

“Even though we are cutting as much as possible, it is going to be a very long opera,” Mr. Gershwin said. “It takes three times as long to sing a line as it does to say it. In the first act, scene one is 94 pages of music long and scene two is 74.”

There is only one thing about Charleston and Folly that Mr. Gershwin does not like. “Your amateur composers bring me their pieces for me to play. I am very busy and most of them are very bad – very, very bad,” he said.

Heyward took Gershwin on forays to neighboring James Island, which had a large Gullah population. They visited schools and especially churches. Gershwin was particularly fascinated by a dance technique called “shouting,” which entailed beating out a complicated rhythm with the feet and hands to accompany the spiritual singing. Heyward wrote:

The most interesting discovery to me, as we sat listening to their spirituals …was that to George it was more like a homecoming than an exploration. The quality in him which had produced the “Rhapsody in Blue” in the most sophisticated city in America, found its counterpart in the impulse behind the music and bodily rhythms of the simple Negro peasant of the South.

I shall never forget the night when at a Negro meeting on a remote sea-island George started ‘shouting’ with them. And eventually to their huge delight stole the show from their champion ‘shouter.’ I think he is probably the only white man in America who could have done it.

The first version of the opera ran four hours, with two intermissions, and was performed privately in a concert version at Carnegie Hall in 1935. The world premiere took place at the Colonial Theatre in Boston on September 30, 1935, the traditional out-of-town performance for any show headed for Broadway. The New York opening took place at the Alvin Theatre on October 10, 1935 and ran for 124 performances, impressive for an opera but woefully short for a musical. The reviews were decidedly mixed.

Brooks Atkinson wrote in the New York Times, October 9, 1935:

After eight years of savory memories, Porgy has acquired a score, a band, a choir of singers and a new title, Porgy and Bess, which the Theatre Guild put on at the Alvin last evening … Although Mr. Heyward is the author of the libretto and shares with Ira Gershwin the credit for the lyrics, and although Mr. Mamoulian has again mounted the director’s box, the evening is unmistakably George Gershwin’s personal holiday … Let it be said at once that Mr. Gershwin has contributed something glorious to the spirit of the Heywards’ community legend.

It was called “crooked folklore and halfway opera” by Virgil Thomson. Whereas, Lawrence Levine stated: “Porgy and Bess reflects the odyssey of the African American in American culture.” Most critics complained about the form of the show – was it opera or musical?

Gershwin himself anticipated those reactions. In the New York Times in 1935 he said:

Because Porgy and Bess deals with Negro Life in America it brings to the operatic form elements that have never before appeared in the opera and I have adapted my method to utilize the drama, the humor, the superstition, the religious fervor, the dancing and the irrepressible high spirits of the race. If doing this, I have created a new form, which combines opera with theater, this new form has come quite naturally out of the material.

The argument still rages.

heywardand gershwin

George Gershwin and Dubose Heyward on Chalmers Street, Charleston.

People in Charleston, however, wasted little time in taking advantage of Porgy and Bess for profit. As the first American folk opera, composed by one of America’s greatest composers and based on a story written by a native son, the opera was a boon for Charleston marketing. Loutrel Briggs, landscape architect, who had moved to Charleston, became the driving force behind a movement to clean up Cabbage Row. He wanted to save the Row. He wrote:

DuBose Heyward, with an artistry to which my unskilled pen cannot do justice, has preserved for posterity the picturesque life of “Catfish Row,” and I have attempted to reclaim, with as little external change as possible, this building and restore it to something of its original state in revolutionary time.

The Chamber of Commerce paid for the placement of historical markers on structures throughout the city. The 1929 opening of the Cooper River Bridge had given motorists direct access to the city via Route 40 and the Atlantic Coast Highway. There was already an increase of tourists visiting in the city.  

The Chicago Tribune wrote:

In a world of change, Charleston changes less than anything …. Serene and aloof, and above all permanent, it remains a wistful reminder of a civilization that elsewhere has vanished from earth.

With the Great Depression gripping America, Charleston was in no financial position to turn away money. The pre-Revolutionary residential area of Heyward’s former neighborhood – Church and Tradd Streets – became a haven for tourist shops, catering to the much-disdained but much-needed Yankee dollar. Ladies of “quality” from Charleston’s “first families” opened coffee houses and tea shops and served as “lady guides” on walking tours down the cobblestone streets and back alleys. Their version of Charleston was completely focused on the glory days of the past, discussing “servants” not slaves, architecture not secession, George Washington not Jim Crow. They were trying to preserve, or more realistically, resurrect what Rhett Butler described in Gone With The Wind: “the calm dignity life can have when it’s lived by gentle folks, the genial grace of days that are gone.”

Led by two community-boosting-mayors John P. Grace and Thomas Stoney, this refocusing of history transformed Charleston in the 20st century. The 1930s preservation and tourism campaign solidified Charleston’s image as “America’s Most Historic City,” making it the darling of upscale tourists. In 2012, readers of the international travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler voted Charleston the #1 Tourism City in the World.

17b. porgy and bess (loc) blank pg. 170

Broadway production of Porgy & Bess. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Kendra Hamilton wrote:

The ironies of the situation are compelling. Charleston becomes daily more segregated, the chasm between rich and poor ever deeper and wider, as in the salad days before the war. The tourist-minded city fathers become daily more ingenious at smoothing down the ugly truths of the city’s history so as to increase its appeal to people whose impressions of the South owe more to Scarlett O’Hara than Shelby Foote. And yet, the city’s most readily identifiable cultural emblems – from Porgy to “the Charleston” – have African-American roots.

During the 1930s and ‘40s, DuBose Heyward’s former home at 76 Church Street became the Porgy Shop. This store sold antiques, china curios and other fine furnishings that had nothing to do with the opera, the play or the novel. It certainly had nothing in common with its namesake, a poor, violent, black beggar turned folk hero.

porgy house (loc)

Porgy House. Dubose Heyward’s home on Church Street where he wrote the novel Porgy, was turned into a gift shop.

In another ironic twist, the “first families” of Charleston, who made money from this skewed, picturesque version of history, did not even allow a version of their most famous commodity to be performed in its home setting until 1970, thirty-four years after its debut. Indeed, Charleston often goes out of its way to soften its African history. In the 1991 video, Charleston, S.C.: A Magical History Tour, Mrs. Betty Hamilton, daughter of artist Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, discusses her mother’s 1920s-era paintings as capturing “the Gullah South Carolina niggra with their simplicity and their sweetness.”

In 1952 a new international production of Porgy and Bess was mounted, featuring twenty-four year old newcomer Leontyne Price as Bess and the veteran Cotton Club song-and-dance man Cab Calloway as Sportin’ Life.  This production was a theatrical triumph in Vienna, Berlin and London and also a hit when it returned to New York’s Ziegfeld Theater. The black press, however, launched a furious attack on the opera. James Hicks, a reporter with the Baltimore Afro-American, called the opera:

the most insulting, the most libelous, the most degrading act that could possibly be perpetrated against colored Americans of modern times.

Critic William Warfield noted:

In 1952 the black community wasn’t listening to anything about plenty of nothing being good enough for me. Blacks began talking about being black and proud.

In 1954 there was an effort to produce Porgy in Charleston, but it ran into trouble. South Carolina law at the time forbade the “mixing of the two races in places of amusement” for “historic reasons of incompatibility.” Local black performers refused to perform in front of a segregated audience and the show was canceled. It wasn’t until 1970, during South Carolina’s tri-centennial festivities that an amateur production of Porgy and Bess was approved and subsequently performed in Charleston before an integrated audience. It was the first amateur production of the opera allowed by the Gershwin estate, but by that time, the opera had acquired a problematic legacy.

During the 1960s the Civil Rights and black power movements transformed America. Porgy and Bess became an embarrassment to many black activists. Harold Cruse wrote that:

Porgy and Bess belongs in a museum and no self-respecting African American should want to see it, or be seen in it.

Such is the love-hate relationship associated with Porgy and Bess, and the ebb-and-flow of cultural acceptance that endures to this day. However, in 2011 the story was reborn for Broadway. Titled The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess and starring four-time, Tony-award winner Audra MacDonald, the new show was not without its own controversy. The producers changed some of the story and music to make it more appealing to modern audiences. The operatic-styled recitatives were replaced by spoken dialogue.

Nonetheless, the production was a runaway hit. It received ten nominations at the 2012 Tony Awards, winning Best Revival of a Musical and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical for McDonald. It played for 322 performances, seventeen more than the 1953 revival, making it the longest-running production of Porgy and Bess on Broadway.


This year, 2016, Porgy & Bess  is being performed during the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, and is accompanied by an all-out effusive campaign that encompasses the entire city and every media outlet – 81 years later. 

Black History Month: Freddie Green – “Mr. Rhythm.”

Frederick “Freddie” William Green (guitar, banjo, vocals,) 1911-1987

“Rhythm guitar is like vanilla extract in cake. You can’t taste it when it’s there, but you know when it’s left out.” – Irving Ashby

Freddie Green had the longest job in jazz history – guitar player in the Count Basie band from 1937 until his death fifty years later. In a Downbeat article in 1939 Billie Holiday was asked about marriage and she said:

I’ve loved three men. One was a Marion Scott, when I was a kid. He works for the post office now. The other was Freddie Green, Basie’s guitar man. But Freddie’s first wife is dead and he has two children and somehow it didn’t work out. The third was Sonny White, the pianist, but like me, he lives with his mother and our plans for marriage didn’t jell. That’s all.


Freddie Green, cover of Jazz Podium

Freddie was born Charleston, South Carolina in 1911. He lived at 7 Dalts Court near Rutledge Avenue. Freddie’s first musical memories were at home. His father played the pump organ and his mother sang in the AME Church choir. He played the ukulele and sang baritone in barbershop quartets as a kid. They performed Irish songs on the street corners of Charleston for nickels and dimes. He was also a good dancer. That’s how he first ran into the Jenkins Orphanage Band. Green recalled: 

They used to come into my neighborhood. The minute I heard that brass I used to stop whatever I was doing and follow them all over the city … There was a group called the Nighthawks in Charleston and the trumpet player’s father was one of the teachers at the Jenkins Orphanage. His son was Samuel Walker. He was a terrific trumpet player so he had this group. I think it was trumpet, drums, saxophone, and piano … Most of the bands back in those days had banjos.

Freddie Green’s father died and at the age of twelve Freddie moved to New York City to live with his maternal aunt. They had an apartment in Harlem, on 141st Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, close to The Rhythm Club. That was where Freddie heard Jelly Roll Morton for the first time.  He attended PS-5l, located near 141st Street and Edgecombe Avenue, but left school at age sixteen. He remembered:

My aunt used to give house rent parties in Harlem. And she used to hire a guy to come in and play the piano. His name was Rock. He was a stride piano player. I really enjoyed the way he played. My aunt would keep drinks on the piano for him.

I made a friend with one of the guys in the neighborhood who was supposedly the baddest guy in the neighborhood. I think we had a fight one day. And after a while, I think I kind of knocked him down. And everybody was amazed that I did that to the bad guy. So then he and I were real close friends. And he was the leader of the gang on the block. We used to go around on different corners, that’s when the Charleston was out and I could always dance.  So he had a ukulele and we used to go on corners and dance.

Freddie Green returned home to Charleston for his mother’s funeral. His former neighbor from Dalts Court, Leotha Elmo, met him at the train station. She became Freddie’s girlfriend and later, his wife. He recalled how he became a professional musician:

There was a professor of brass instruments at Jenkins. Professor Blake was his name. We became good friends. I used to go to his house. He was a graduate of Howard University. He was a tuba player. On Sundays we would go through his library where his music books would be, and he’d help me. We would use a blackboard. We would go through the routine of scales, and what not.

My father-in-law was a contractor [in Charleston] and I used to help him quite a bit doing odd jobs and what-not … I tried all kinds of jobs and I was never pleased with whatever I did until music came.

We had our first kid. Then I left Charleston. The Jenkins [Orphanage] group had a show. They were going to tour the state of Maine. I left with them [as a non-resident of the orphanage and a grown man] and went up to Maine with this show they had. Went on the road with them with my banjo. We toured the state of Maine playing in Grange Halls, whatever they had up there in order to accommodate this traveling show. It was something! I don’t think we got paid. We played for contributions and the like.

The band had two alto saxes, one tenor sax, two trumpets, two trombones, one tuba, one banjo [Freddie] and drums. We used to have to get up around noon and play all through the streets … a parade, you  know. We were in the small towns of Maine. And we had dress uniforms that we wore.


Freddie Green, 1940s

The Jenkins Band stopped in New York and Freddie decided to stay. He sent for Leotha and their son to join him.

During the early 1930s Freddie had two jobs in New York, working at a factory upholstering chairs during the daytime, and playing in a dance trio at night.

I was working in a club called the Yeah Man Club. I knew how to play the ukulele. And the banjo, well, I could tune it, you know what I mean (laughs). Then I got a few books on banjo chords. As soon as I picked up the banjo, the guitar came in (laughs).

At the Yeah Man I was playing banjo. And the manager of the club said “Well, everybody’s playing guitar now. You have to get a guitar, okay?” I got one from a music store on 47th Street. King’s Music Store. I bought it on time.

In 1937 Freddie was hired at the Black Cat Club in Greenwich Village for eleven dollars a week. Record producer and talent scout, John Hammond was a regular customer at the Black Cat. Hammond later achieved mythical status for his keen eye of spotting talent. Through the years he was given credit for “discovering” Billie Holiday, Pete Seeger, Count Basie, Aretha Franklin, George Benson, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughn. In his autobiography John Hammond on Record he discussed his first impressions of Green:

One of my favorite clubs was the Black Cat, a mob-owned joint. The band included two cousins, the drummer Kenny Clarke and the bass player Frank Clarke, but it was the guitarist that interested me the most. His name was Freddie Green, and I thought he was the greatest I had ever heard. He had unusually long fingers, a steady stroke, and unobtrusively held the whole rhythm section together. He was the antithesis of the sort of stiff, chugging guitarist Benny Goodman liked. Freddie was closer to the incomparable Eddie Lang than any guitar player I’d ever heard. He was perhaps not the soloist that Lang was, but he had a beat.

john hammond, 1939

John Hammond, 1939

Hammond had brought the Basie Band from Kansas City to New York and he thought a good rhythm guitar was the missing piece for the band’s sound. Green auditioned in Basie’s dressing room at Roseland. When the Basie Band left for Pittsburgh the next day, Freddie Green was on the bus and he stayed on it for the next five decades.

In 1938 the Count Basie Orchestra became one of the leading dance bands in America, due in part to what has been called “the All-American Rhythm Section”: Count Basie, piano; Jo Jones, drums; Walter Page, bass and Freddie Green, guitar.


The All-American Rhythm Section, (L-R): Freddie Green, Jo Jones, Walter Page, Count Basie.

As the years passed, Freddie Green’s importance to the Count Basie Band increased. The numerous nicknames he acquired are good illustration of his musical stature: “Esquire” – because he was such a cool gentleman; “Pepper” or just “Pep” short for “Pepperhead”, because his head was shaped like a pepper; “The Fourth Wheel”, short for “the fourth wheel on the Basie band wagon”, “Quiet Fire” and “Mr. Rhythm.” Count Basie called Freddie Green “my left hand.”

Buck Clayton, trumpet player with Basie explained, “Basie never did play much with his left hand, so Freddie substituted for it.” Basie’s adopted son, Aaron Woodward III said, “… everyone knew Freddie’s position was of equal importance to Dad’s.”

Quincy Jones, who arranged for Basie as a young man before becoming more famous as Michael Jackson’s musical mentor and producer, said about Freddie:

That man is a sort of spirit. He doesn’t talk loud and he doesn’t play loud. But man! You sure know he’s there.

The brass and reeds can be up there shouting away, but there’s Freddie, coming right through it all, steady as a rock and clear as a bell. He’s something special. What he represents is the only one of its kind in existence.

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Freddie Green’s 1955 solo swing classic LP. Author’s collection

Saxophonist Paul Quinichette once observed of Green:

He’s got it right there, in his wrist. What he has is the key to a musical era, an unmatched mastery of big band rhythms.

Green did not live the stereotypical life of jazz musicians. He ate smartly, rarely drank or smoked. Even while on the road with the Basie band, he rose at 7 or 8 a.m. each morning to take a long walk or play golf. Singer Joe Williams, recalling his own philandering youth, says:

At a critical time, Freddie took me aside and advised, “Take some and leave some. Don’t try to get it all. You’ll enjoy it more and you’ll last much longer, no matter what it is.” Since it came from Freddie Green, who doesn’t say that much, he only had to say it once, and I’ve never forgotten it.

When Charlie Christian introduced the electric guitar with the Benny Goodman in 1939, the jazz world changed dramatically. Freddie, however, continued to use his acoustic guitar on stage. Harry Edison recalls:

Charlie Christian and he [Freddie] were very close friends, and Christian gave him an amplifier. But whenever Freddie would lay out of the band to take his solo, the whole rhythm section used to fall apart. It got to the point where we had to do something about it. So one night I would remove the plug from Freddie’s amplifier wire and it wouldn’t work. Next night Herschel Evans would break a wire in it so it wouldn’t play, and Freddie would have it fixed … So finally we took all the guts out of the amplifier. Freddie got ready to play one night and there was nothing but a box. Naturally he got furious but nobody paid him any attention. So he reached a point where he said, “Well, to hell with it. I won’t play anymore solos.” So that’s the reason he’s not a soloist today. He probably could have been one of the best at that time, but we had to sacrifice him for the good of the band.

One of the greatest Freddie Green stories was how Freddie re-hired himself to play with Basie in 1950. After World War II most of the big bands were struggling to make money. So, Basie, like other top bands, was forced to downsize. He put together a small group that included Clark Terry, Buddy DeFranco, Bob Graf, Jimmy Lewis, and Gus Johnson. They worked a month at the Brass Rail in Chicago. Everyone in the audience was surprised that Freddie Green was not with the group.

When the sextet met in New York for their next gig, Green was sitting on the bandstand with his guitar. Clark Terry recalled the dialogue between Basie and Green:

Basie: “Say, Pep, you’re not on this gig, are you?”

Green: “You’re workin’, aren’t you? After I gave you the best years of my life, you think you’re going to leave me now?”

basie, chairman board

So the sextet became a septet and Freddie Green remained the anchor of the rhythm section until his death. During his career Freddie Green performed worldwide, made over 1,000 recordings with the Basie band, and appeared as a sideman on over 700 recordings by other jazz artists.  The list of artists he recorded with are a Who’s Who of the 20th century: Mildred Bailey, Emmett Berry, Ruby Braff, Kenny Burrell, Benny Carter, Buck Clayton, Al Cohn, Harry Edison, Duke Ellington, Herb Ellis, Karl George, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman, Billie Holiday, Illinois Jacquet, Jo Jones, Joe Newman,  Paul Quinichette, Jimmy Rushing, Pee Wee Russell, John Sellers, Sonny Stitt, Joe Sullivan, Jack Teagarden, Joe Turner, Earl Warren, Dicky Wells, Teddy Wilson, and Lester Young.

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Duke Ellington, Freddie Green, Count Basie

Through the years Freddie Green also became the gauge of quality. Byron Stripling, trumpet player with Basie said, “If an arranger comes in and his work is jive, Freddie just shakes his head and it’s all over.”

According to Dennis Wilson (trombone), all new Basie Band members had to deal with:

… the intimidation of Freddie Green. You never know if Freddie likes you. It worries you until that mystical, magical day when he finally says a couple of words to you. Then you know you’re okay, and you realize he hasn’t been testing you; he’s been allowing you to test yourself.

When Count Basie died in 1984 almost every publication in the world offered a eulogy. Freddie Green simply said: “I’ve been with the band since 1937, what am I to do now?”

Thad Jones, the popular trumpeter and Basie sideman, was chosen to take up the reins of the Basie Band after the Count’s death. He commented:

I don’t think it’s possible to speak of the Basie band without Freddie Green. He’s the link that keeps the tradition alive. He’s the dean, the guy we look to for that spiritual thing.

In the May 1983 issue of Guitar Player, Jim Hall wrote:

If you pruned the tree of jazz, Freddie Green would be the only person left. If you have to listen to only one guitarist, study the way he plays rhythm with Count Basie.

One of the longest and quietest careers in musical history came to a conclusion on March 1, 1987.  Freddie Green died of a heart attack after playing a Basie show in Las Vegas. Tributes and obituaries poured in from all over the world. Several days later, what was intended to be a surprise tribute to Green in Los Angeles organized by jazz critic Leonard Feather was turned into a memorial featuring the Basie band, vocalist Sarah Vaughan, and guitarist Kenny Burrell. Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley declared March 19 Freddie Green Day.


Freddie Green, “Mr.Rhythm”

Sonny Cohn said, “The most important part of your body is your heart. It keeps everything else going. That’s what Freddie does.”

Dennis Wilson, a trombonist and composer-arranger with Count Basie said, “It’s as if in the Bible they said, ‘Let there be time’, and Freddie started playing.”

Freddie’s son, Al Green, eulogized his father:

Dad had a quiet dignity about him, with a demeanor of an elder statesman, unassuming, diplomatic, and fair. I spent three days with Dad to celebrate his Grammy nomination as a member of The Swing Reunion album. As we got dressed for the affair that evening, he asked if I would help him with his bow tie, a kind of reversal of roles that we both acknowledged warmly. After the Grammys when we were departing, we kissed and embraced, (not knowing that it would be for the last time), he said, “I really enjoyed this time we got to spend together. It was special.”

You’ve lost Mr. Rhythm. We’ve lost our Dad. I’ve lost my hero.

Freddie once discussed about his role in the Basie band:

The main thing is the Basie band. I get a joy out of keeping the band together and supplying the soloists with a foundation. That’s more soloing to me than soloing. I’ve played rhythm so long that it’s just the same as playing solos as far as I’m concerned. The rhythm guitar is very important. A performance has what I call a “rhythm wave”, and the rhythm guitar can help to keep that wave smooth and accurate. I have to concentrate on the beat, listening for how smooth it is. If the band is moving smoothly, then I can play whatever comes to mind, but that doesn’t happen too often.

      I feel responsible for keeping my part in the structure going, as from the original band. I do what I do. That’s enough.  It’s given me a whole lot of joy, pleasure, good feeling. And some bad feeling which goes with everything – you’ve got to take the bitter with the sweet. I’m part of it, and I’m doing a job, and that’s it. I realize that the public likes the band. And I appreciate it. And I think that’s what keeps us going. I go along. After all, you have to live.

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The rhythm section at work. 


Selected Count Basie Recordings:

  • The Complete Decca Recordings, 1937-39. Verve, 1992
  • Count Basie Live – 1938 At The Famous Door, NYC. Jazz Hour Records, 1997
  • April In Paris. Polygram Records, 1956
  • The Complete Atomic Basie. Blue Note Records, 1958
  • Chairman of the Board. Blue Note Records, 1958

Other Recommended Recordings:

  • Rhythm – Freddie Green. Fresh Sound Records.

These are the only recording sessions available with Green as band leader. As one would expect, its filled with sharp, tight arrangements of swinging songs, all propelled by Freddie’s steady rhythm guitar playing.

  • Billie Holiday – The Legacy. AMG, 1991.

This three-boxed set offers more than 50 songs that cover Lady Day’s career. Twenty-three of the songs feature Freddie’s very audible guitar strumming.

From the book Doin’ the Charleston (2013)

1. doin book cover (create space) official - front

The Irrepressible Daisy Breaux

In 1864 a young girl was born in Philadelphia. She was christened Margaret Rose Anthony Julia Josephine Catherine Cornelia Donovan O’Donovan. Her friends called her “Daisy.” Her father, Cornelius McCarthy Moore Donavon O’Donavon, died when she was three, and her mother moved to New Orleans and married Gustave Breaux, a wealthy member of an aristocratic French family. 

daisy breaux - Copy

From New York Public Library – Public Domain. Author’s Collection.

Daisy was brought up in wealth and high southern society. She became known for her smart alecky sense of humor and attitude. When schoolmates would make fun of her – “Why do you have a French name and look so Irish?”- she usually responded with a slap in the face. However, once she started turning the heads of boys, Daisy became a popular girl. So much so that her mother sent Daisy off to the Georgetown Visitation convent school in Washington, D.C.

After her schooling was finished Daisy returned to New Orleans and fielded dozens of offers of marriage. In 1885 she married a wealthy Charleston banker, Andrew Simonds, who had lavished her with gifts like a diamond necklace and diamond pendant. She wore both at the altar.  

In Charleston, Daisy immediately turned heads. The couple was given a new house on the Battery as a wedding present and Daisy was told her to “decorate it anyway you wish.” She erected scaffolding in the drawing room and personally painted clouds with roses on the ceiling … all while receiving formal guests. Daisy was also fond of giving her guests unflattering nicknames, which she then proceeded to use in public. There was one grand old Charleston dame who always wore a tiara whom Daisy called “the Comb.” Another woman with unfortunately prominent teeth became known as “the Piano.” 

However, the most shocking event may have been when Daisy ordered her wedding present destroyed and a new mansion was built in its place at 4 South Battery.  It was an Italian Renaissance villa with four Corinthian columns along the front, designed by Frederick P. Dinkelberg who later became famous as the designer of the Flatiron Building in New York.    

In 1905, Simonds’s premature death left Daisy and their 5-year-old daughter, Margaret, in a precarious financial position. Ever the practical woman, Daisy turned her Charleston home into a luxury hotel. She named it after herself: the Villa Margherita — “margherita” being Italian for “daisy.”

south battery - villa margarite - postcard

The “Villa Margherita” (to the left) at 4 South Battery, Charleston, SC. Author’s Collection. 

Daisy invented the hotel’s motto out of fractured Latin: “Sic tibi pecunia non intrare non licet est.” Daisy translated it as: “If you ain’t got no money you needn’t come around.” She leased the property to Miss Ina Liese Dawson, who operated the Villa Margherita, serving wealthy northerners on their winter excursions to South Carolina for hunting expeditions, including Henry Ford and Alexander Graham Bell.

Daisy met her second husband, Barker Gummere Jr., when they both happened to be aboard the same yacht during a congressional junket to the Panama Canal. Gummere was a banker whose political influence earned him the nickname the “Kingmaker of New Jersey.” Their 1907 wedding took place in Charleston at the Villa. 

daisy portrait - from receipes of a

Daisy Gummere. Courtesy Library of Congress

Daisy then designed another house — a mansion called Rosedale on 57 acres that Gummere owned near Princeton. Again, tragedy cut the marriage short when he died of pneumonia in 1914. Daisy hired nine teachers and transformed Rosedale into a private academy for girls, enrolling her daughter as the first student.

Four years later, she married her third husband, Capt. Clarence Crittenden Calhoun. He was a Kentucky lawyer and Spanish-American War veteran with a lucrative law practice in Washington. Daisy became one of the most renowned hostesses in Washington, charming Edward VIII, Prince of Wales and future King of England.  

In the summer of 1920, the Calhouns traveled to San Francisco for the Democratic National Convention. The 19th Amendment was about to give women the right to vote, and politicians were eagerly courting this new constituency. Daisy noticed that female conventiongoers were being treated with an amazing amount of deference. Daisy recalled: 

While I had always believed in woman’s political power behind the throne, I came away from the Convention a thorough convert to her new place in the world, not only for equal rights in politics and business, but as a public speaker.

Back in Washington, D.C. Daisy had decided to harness what her husband had dubbed “dynamic woman power.” She founded the Woman’s National Foundation, and chief among its bylaws was the promise to educate:

women in their civil rights and duties as citizens, by giving and receiving instruction in history, civics and statescraft and all other branches helpful to good citizenship . . .

daisy calhoun loc

Daisy Calhoun. Courtesy Library of Congress

She raised funds from wealthy donors, in 1921 purchased 10 acres of prime land at Connecticut and Florida avenues NW for $80,000. Known as the Dean estate, the property included a mansion that became the foundation’s headquarters and was the setting for a hectic schedule of civics lessons, socials and inspirational pageants.

Daisy Calhoun, however, discovered that women had a less praiseworthy trait – jealous, sniping harpies. She wrote in her memoir, The Autobiography of a Chameleon:

Many women are so constituted that they cannot bear to see one of their sisters, who has been on a par with them, suddenly elevated to a position of authority over them.

Calhoun’s daughter, Margaret, eloped when she was about 18. Her secret suitor was a wealthy young Washingtonian named Arthur Drury, whom Calhoun described as “feckless and not suited to business.” The marriage didn’t last long, and Margaret later married Charles Waring, a Charleston lawyer. Margaret had children by both men.

daisy - recipes, philiosphy

Clarence Calhoun died in 1938 and Daisy Calhoun promised to publish a second memoir that recounted how she had been “prey for many of the scoundrels and racketeers that infest Washington.” She never did, though her cookbook, Favorite Recipes of a Famous Hostess, became popular.

She moved back to Charleston in 1948 and died there the following year at age 85. She was buried at Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston. 

Such was the life of Margaret Rose Anthony Julia Josephine Catherine Cornelia Donovan O’Donovan Breaux Simonds Gummere Calhoun.

magnolia, daisy breaux

Daisy’s headstone in Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston. Photo by Mark R. Jones





Some 1886 Charleston Earthquake History

eq - book coverThe following pages are taken from A Descriptive Narrative of the Earthquake of August 31, 1886 by Carl McKinley for the Charleston City Year Book 1887. 

Specifically, these pages report the effects of the earthquake around the state of south Carolina. The epicenter was 20 miles north of Charleston, but the quake was felt across the east coast north to Chicago and south to Miami.

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People fleeing the earthquake’s destruction on the night of Aug. 31, 1886. Image from Harper’s Week

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Church Street damage: Dock Street Theater (left); St. Philip’s Church (center); French Huguenot Church (right)

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Broad Street … 27 Broad Street with crumbled facade

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Hayne Street (looking east from Meeting Street)

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St. Michael’s Church and City Guard House

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Food lines, from Harper’s Weekly

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Washington Square became a refugee camp for hundreds of residents whose home were destroyed. 



Charleston’s Connection To “Amazing Grace”

newton, john

Bruce & Caitlyn Jenner … Charleston Yawns … Been There Done That … 50 Years Ago

With all the media furor over Bruce Jenner becoming Caitlyn, I thought this would be a good time to remind everyone that fifty years ago Charleston had one America’s most (in)famous transgender persons as part of our community  – Gordon Langley Hall who became Dawn Langley Hall.

Bruce Jenner / Caitlyn Jenner

Bruce Jenner / Caitlyn Jenner

This story is taken from my 2006 book, Wicked Charleston, Vol. 2: Prostitutes, Politics & Prohibition.

“Charleston is a city with Gothic tales, and what they don’t know, they make up.”  – Dawn Langley Hall

Charleston has always been a city that worships its past and is blindly proud of its Southern heritage. During the turbulent 1960s, Charleston was a city completely out of step with the times. Most people had yet to install air conditioning, in a city where today living without it is unfathomable for the tens of thousands of newly arrived residents. There were still a few black servants working for rich whites in their moldy mansions, while their not-so-well-to-do neighbors kept pigs and chickens in the yard behind their mansions. 

Gordon Langley Hall and dogs.

In September 1962, a young English writer named Gordon Hall arrived in Charleston by chauffeured limousine. Gordon was accompanied by his parrot Marilyn, and his two pedigreed Chihuahuas – Nellie and Annabel-Eliza. Although Charleston was not known for its cold temperatures, Gordon had taken no chances and brought with him an electrically heated kennel for the dogs.

Gordon moved to arts-oriented Charleston with money to burn and a plan to take the city by storm. He had written several books, including biographies of Princess Margaret, Jacqueline Kennedy, and a critically acclaimed volume on Mary Todd Lincoln. Gordon soon became part of the social elite in Charleston, throwing lavish parties and attending most of the exclusive social occasions in the city. He claimed friendship with Hollywood legends Bette Davis, Helen Hayes, Joan Crawford, writer Pearl S. Buck and boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. His godmother was famed British actress Dame Margaret Rutherford, who lavished motherly affection on him.

   However, in the life story of Gordon Hall nothing is as it seems.

Gordon Hall

In one of his autobiographies (yes, he wrote more than one), Gordon claimed he was born on October 16th, 1937 (although the gravestone says 1922) in Heathfield, England. Gordon was the illegitimate child of fifteen-year-old Margie Hall Ticehurst and nineteen year old Jack Copper, who had accomplished the notorious feat of having three women pregnant at the same time. Gordon claimed in one of his autobiographies that his mother was so shunned by her family she:

“locked herself in a darkened room for most of the nine months. One close and sadistic relative saw fit to kick her in the stomach.”

Sissinghurst Castle and Gardens

Sissinghurst Castle and Gardens

Gordon’s father, Jack, was the chauffeur of noted English poetess Vita Sackville-West who lived at Sissinghurst Castle, and his mother worked as a maid on the estate. From the earliest years, Gordon knew he was different. He was weak and had no interest in boyish pursuits.

“I hated sport, and I remember always having to miss gym; I couldn’t do the exercises.”

Whenever he was asked “Why don’t you like girls?” Gordon would answer that he was too busy with his writing. Gordon’s refuge from the world was writing. His first poem was published at age four and by age nine Gordon had a regular column in the Sussex Express.

Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Wolfe

Virginia Woolfe & Vita Sackville-West

Vita Sackville-West grew up in the largest house in England, Knole House, with 356 rooms and fifty-two staircases. In 1913, Vita married a young diplomat, Harold Nicolson, moved into Sissinghurst and the two began an unusual marriage. After giving birth to two children, Vita had several affairs with women, and Harold carried on with several men. The young Gordon was exposed to this wealthy, arts-oriented, sexually-open, eccentric household for most of his childhood. By the mid-1920s Vita had met the love of her life, the famous writer Virginia Woolf. Vita and Woolf personally encouraged Gordon, the son of their maid, to continue his writing. 

orlando coverOne of Virginia Woolf’s most famous books was Orlando. The story follows the 300-year life of a young man who romances his way through the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries until finally during the1800s he suddenly changes into a beautiful woman and continues to have romances (this time with men), and eventually gives birth. The young Gordon Hall was mesmerized by the book, and also by Woolfe and Vita and their wealthy, unconventional lifestyle. 

   At age sixteen Gordon decided to leave England. He took a job for a year as a teacher on an Ojibwa Indian reservation in Ontario. He also got a job as the obituary writer for the Winnepeg Free Press. In 1955, he moved to the United States and worked as society editor for the Nevada, Missouri Daily Mail. He remembered:

“They played it up that I was the first male society editor in the state of Missouri.”

One year later Gordon was living in New York City where his modern morality play, Saraband for a Saint, received congratulations from actresses Joan Crawford and Helen Hayes and prompted an invitation from the Archbishop of Canterbury.

gordon reading

Gordon at Isabel Whitney’s New York home.

While in Greenwich Village, Gordon stumbled into an art gallery where Isabel Whitney, a distant cousin, was having a show. Gordon and Isabel chatted and soon the 60-year old artist was so charmed by the young, frail Englishman that she invited him to her house for tea. “Visiting Isabel’s home was like entering some Tiffany cathedral,” Gordon later wrote. Within a few weeks Gordon moved into the forty-room Whitney mansion at 12 West Tenth Street, taking over most of the top floor.

Isabel Whitney was a descendant of Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin, and her father had been one of the founders of the Paterson Silk Industry in New Jersey. She also claimed kinship with William Penn and Getrude Vanderbilt Whitney, one of the founders of the New York Museum of Modern Art. One of Isabel’s childhood playmates had been the young Franklin D. Roosevelt. Through Isabel’s patronage, Gordon was introduced to the elite of New York Society, including English actress Dame Margaret Rutherford, who had recently won an Oscar as best supporting actress for the film The V.I.P.s.

Gordon Hall & Margaret Rutherford

Gordon Hall & Dame Margaret Rutherford

Like Isabel, Rutherford and her husband, Stringer Davis, were childless, and soon Gordon was calling them Mother Rutherford and Father Stringer. It was from the encouragement of these women that Gordon wrote his humorous memoir about his days on the Ojibwa reservation, Me Papoose Sitter. The book sold well and was optioned for the Broadway stage. Gordon soon became quite a personality in New York art and social circles.

In 1959, Isabel was diagnosed with leukemia and for the next three years her condition worsened. Finally, in 1961, Gordon went looking for a house in the south with the intention of moving Isabel to the warmer climate to enjoy her final days. Gordon purchased a dilapidated mansion at 56 Society Street in Charleston. Two weeks later, February 2, 1962, Isabel Whitney died in her bed in New York. When her will was read, Gordon had inherited the New York mansion on West Tenth Street, art, jewelry, furniture and stock in Edison, General Electric, Standard Oil, and Sears. All told it was more than $2 million. “I was surprised to have been left so much,” he commented.

Gordon took the money, moved to Charleston by chauffeured limousine and restored the Society Street house in Ansonborough. He filled it with Chippendale furniture from the Whitney House. Other pieces included mirrors once owned by George Washington and bed steps belonging to Robert E. Lee. Quite a coup for the bastard son of a fifteen year old English maid and a nineteen year old wayward chauffeur.


Today Ansonborough is one of the city’s most prestigious communities, but when Gordon moved in, it was just shaking off a century of neglect. From its antebellum heyday, Ansonborough had taken a steady downward spiral so that by the 1960s, many of its mansions had been converted into tenements, flophouses, and shabby apartments. There were small corner groceries and tobacco shops. The neighborhood was a mixture of blacks, blue collar whites and a significant population of gay Charleston men – florists, hair stylists, decorators and restaurateurs.

54 & 56 Society Street, Ansonborough neighborhood, Charleston, 1960s

54 & 56 Society Street, Ansonborough neighborhood, Charleston, 1960s

One of Gordon’s neighbors, Billy Camden, lived in Ansonborough in the 1960s. Camden was the owner of the gay bar, Camden’s Tavern, in the center of the city. He claims that:

The gay couples really restored Ansonborough. I was on the Board of Directors for the Ansonborough Historic Foundation – it was made of 80 percent gay men! There was a gay couple or person in almost every home. They should have called it ‘Queensborough’ instead . . . 

 During the antebellum days, Charleston’s gay aristocracy lived within the social customs of the time. Gay sons were expected to move away from the city so exposure of their sex habits would not embarrass their family. If they remained in Charleston, they must be completely discreet. During the 1960s most of the discreet men lived in Ansonborough. Even though the sexual revolution was in full flower throughout America, on the surface Charleston remained a very repressed sexual society. It was a curious fact that during that time many gay Charleston men were married with children. Gordon explained the custom this way,

“So many of the men in Charleston, especially the married men, walk two roads. They marry a rich society matron that might not be good looking, and try to find somebody on the side.”

Well before the Clinton Administration instituted the policy, Charleston society had a “don’t tell-don’t ask” rule of sexual behavior. If it could be ignored, most people didn’t care. Another of Gordon’s ‘Queensborough’ neighbors named Nicky, described 1960s gay life in Charleston.

We lived as ‘out’ as possible for that time period. We were socially active – visiting other gay couples for dinner, going to one of the town’s bars. We were also active in the larger Charleston community. Now, did other people know we were ‘gay’? Sure. Did we ever declare ourselves gay? No.

Gordon Hall with his dogs.

Gordon Hall with his pets.

Ansonborough’s reputation didn’t rest only on the presence of a large gay population. There also were several houses of prostitution in the neighborhood. The first night in his new home Gordon was awakened at midnight by a group of drunken sailors. Seeing the lights from the chandeliers in the front room, the sailors had mistaken the newly restored home for a just-opened bordello.

Five doors to the west of Gordon’s 56 Society Street address was the infamous Homo Hilton, home to drag queens, street people, drug dealers and sex hustlers of all types. Less than a block away was the Coffee Cup, a twenty-four hour lunch counter where most customers showed up after 3:00 a.m. It was the favorite place for breakfast for the denizens of the Homo Hilton, their last stop before dawn. 

Other social clubs included the Ratskellars on Court House Square. The Anchor was a mixed bar (gay and straight). The 49 Club was gay up front, mixed in the back, and gambling on the second floor. For the single gay man (not in a committed relationship) there was always ample opportunity to pick up men, particularly Navy and Air Force men. The Battery and the Meeting Street bus stop, across the street from Citadel Square Baptist Church were popular places to pick up cruising men.

Within a month Gordon had settled in his home. Gordon claims that

The invitations from would-be matchmakers kept pouring in . . . leading hostesses gave suppers that I really dreaded. Always some poor husbandless girl was purposely placed beside me at the table. When I showed no particular interest in the feminine sex, there were those who decided that I must be homosexual.

1966 paperback version

1966 paperback version

Gordon followed the local custom of rich whites by hiring a black cook and butler. He also continued to write. He produced a biography of Princess Margaret which was followed by Golden Boats from Burma, a book written about a relative of Isabel Whitney – Ann Judson – supposedly the first American woman to visit Burma. Next, Gordon wrote Vinne Ream: The Story of the Girl Who Sculptured Lincoln, a juvenile biography about the sculptor who created the stature of Lincoln that stands in the U.S. Capital rotunda. This was followed by a book about Jackie Kennedy, and Mr. Jefferson’s Ladies, a portrait of the wife and daughters of Thomas Jefferson. Gordon later wrote Lady Bird and Her Daughters.

All of Gordon’s books were inspirational stories about women in the midst of self-discovery. It doesn’t take an over-educated psychotherapist to conclude that Gordon identified and empathized with these women, but that empathy didn’t keep him from picking up men on the streets of Ansonborough at night for sexual liaisons.

Billy Camden described his impressions of Gordon:

When he first came, everyone accepted him. He was small-framed, very effeminate guy with a thick English accent. At the beginning, the people connected with historic Ansonborough included him. But as soon as it got out what was going on – with all the blacks he entertained – that was the end of it! He would always be with a group of black, screaming queens. Charleston people would have nothing to do with him. He was an insult to the gay community; we were never friends.

Nicky, another Ansonborough man claimed that Gordon

“patrolled Meeting Street at night. He loved black men almost as much as he liked old ladies with money.”

According to John Zeigler, long time owner of the Book Basement in Charleston, Gordon would pick up:

“anybody who would have anal sex on him. He found men walking the streets, a lot of them on Meeting Street, in the area in front of Citadel Square Baptist Church. That was the cruising zone.”

Julian Hayes claimed to have a one-night stand with Gordon in 1963. They met at the local Greyhound bus station, in the bathroom there. Hayes followed Gordon home, less than three blocks from the bus station, to Society Street. When Hayes was asked about Gordon’s penis he commented:

“I was very much impressed. You see, he was built much bigger than the average man. He had a penis that was enviable.”

John-Paul Simmons
John Paul Simmons

John-Paul Simmons

According to one account, Gordon met John-Paul Simmons in the late spring of 1967. John-Paul had a date with one of Gordon’s young female black cooks. John-Paul arrived late, and the cook had already left. Gordon answered the door instead. “He was a little smiling man,” Gordon wrote. ”He never once asked for the cook.”  John-Paul returned the next day with an armful of flowers, and the secret affair began. 

Secret because this was Charleston – the capital of slavery, the city that organized the Confederate States of America, the city that fired the first shot of the War Between the States. Because in the Charleston of 1967, blacks and whites did not engage in romantic sexual affairs, particularly a homosexual affair.

John Paul & Gordon

John-Paul & Gordon

For several months the two carried on their furtive courtship. John-Paul was poor, black and uneducated, a brutish, bulldog of a man. Gordon was rich, white, cultured and elite. He was frail, with fine features, gentle and quiet. An odder couple could hardly be found.

The Dawn of a New Life 

On December 11, 1967, Gordon Hall arrived at John Hopkins, in Baltimore. During the five days he spent at the Gender Identity Clinic he met with seven doctors. By the end of the week Gordon was placed on estrogen tablets and told to dress as a woman immediately, in preparation for sexual reassignment surgery. He returned to Charleston and while in the house he began to dress the part of a woman. He also underwent electrolysis to eliminate body hair.

Gordon began to tell everyone that he was really a woman, had always been a woman. He claimed that as a result of the kick-in-the-belly his mother had endured during pregnancy he was born with a swollen clitoris which was misdiagnosed at birth as a penis by a poorly trained midwife.

Gordon claimed that his abnormally large clitoris and hidden vagina had been identified as a penis by the midwife, and for years he had lived with the physical agony of cramps and blocked menstruation. Gordon claimed that one morning his housekeeper arrived for work and discovered him lying in a pool of blood. He claimed he was rushed to the hospital and while the doctor was flushing out the blood he commented, “I can’t understand why this is not fresh blood.” Gordon claimed it was old menstrual blood that had been blocked for years.   

Dawn Langley Hall

Dawn Langley Hall

Gordon’s first public appearance as a woman was sitting in a car at a drive-in restaurant. Next, he went shopping at the Piggly Wiggly on Broad Street. Soon, he was making daily trips around the city in dresses and heels. However, there was a legal issue to deal with. Charleston had a city ordinance that prohibited one gender as going out in public dressed as the other. Gordon was afraid there would be an incident and he would be arrested. Gordon hired a lawyer to alert the authorities that he was going though the process of having sex change surgery so he would not be arrested.  

John-Paul began calling Gordon “Dawn” – to signal the dawn of their new life.    

On September 23, 1968, after successful surgery, Gordon woke from anesthesia in room B-403 of John Hopkins Hospital as a woman – Dawn Pepita Langley Hall. Pepita was the nickname of Vita’s grandmother, making the link between Vita, Virginia Woolf and Orlando public. The link between Gordon and Orlando was becoming more complete. Dawn said:

“Gordon was no more as far as I was concerned. I destroyed every photograph, burnt all Gordon’s clothes and had his name taken off my grandmother’s gravestone.”

 Interviewed years later about the sex change surgery he performed in Gordon, Dr. Milton Edgerton commented about Gordon’s clitoris and vagina claim. “We saw no evidence of that,” Dr. Edgerton said. When asked if Gordon had a uterus and ovaries he said, “No, there was no suggestion of that.”

Nevertheless, the transformation from Gordon to Dawn shocked most of genteel Charleston society. Biographer Jack Hitt remembered her as:

“small and thin, Dawn favored knee length skirts, a pillbox hat, and a Dippity-Do hairstyle — a dowdy doppelganger of Jackie Kennedy.”

dawn - change sex0002 - Copy

Dawn was welcomed back by many in Charleston society who tried to understand and be sympathetic. After all, she still had a lot of money and good family background. There were persistent rumors of her affairs with several prominent Charleston men. The dinner invitations now included seating arrangements next to eligible bachelors.

But not everyone was so accommodating. Many who had welcomed Gordon into their homes now shunned Dawn when they passed on the street or encountered her in the pews at St. Philip’s church. Even so, the dissenters were in the minority . . . until Dawn and John-Paul announced their engagement. 

John-Paul and Dawn

John-Paul and Dawn

At that time, the marriage of a black man and white woman was a crime in South Carolina. The state constitution prohibited the “marriage of a white person with a Negro or mulatto or a person who shall have one-eighth or more Negro blood.”

However, in 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled a similar Virginia law unconstitutional, so their marriage looked possible. Dawn hired a local African-American attorney named Benard Fielding to help obtain the license.  Charleston’s first interracial marriage of record was set for January 22, 1969.

First however, three elderly Charleston society ladies came to call on Dawn at her Society Street house. As is the Southern custom, they brought food: an apple pie for Dawn and a watermelon for John-Paul. They sat down with Dawn and asked her:

“Why can’t you be like other proper white ladies who fall in love with their butlers? We marry a proper white man, and keep the black man on the side. Miss Hall, if you insist on going through with this disastrous union you will end up on a cooling couch.”

 Jeremy Morrow, an Ansonborough resident stated that:

“back then, gay men did not date blacks, and we certainly didn’t ‘marry’ them. Sex between black and white was always behind closed doors.”

 Another Charleston woman traveled all the way to England to beg Mother Rutherford to stop the marriage. True to form as a proper English lady, Mother Rutherford invited the Charleston woman to tea, but she refused to intercede in Dawn’s marriage. Word leaked to the British press and on the following Sunday the London News of the World ran a story that stated: ROYAL BIOGRAPHER TO MARRY HER BUTLER.

dawn and john paul

Princess Margaret asked Mother Rutherford is the story was true. Mother replied:

“What would it matter, if he were a good butler?”

She was later asked by Time magazine if she approved of the impending nuptials of her adopted daughter and her response was:

 “Oh, I don’t mind Dawn marrying a black man but I do wish she wasn’t marrying a Baptist.” 

She also later told Dawn that “A man worth lying down with is worth standing up with.”


On January 23, 1969, the New York Times wrote:

British-born Dawn Pepita Langley Hall, who was writer Gordon Langley Hall before a sex change, was married tonight to John-Paul Simmons, her Negro steward. The bride, an adopted daughter of Dame Margaret Rutherford, the actress, has given her age as 31. The groom is 22.

The wedding was met with mixed reaction in Charleston. Dawn (and Gordon) had always attended St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Charleston, established in 1680, but a bomb threat to the church convinced Dawn to hold the ceremony in her home on Society Street. Leading up to the ceremony, John-Paul was hanged in effigy around the city. 

On the day of the ceremony, the local radio stations alerted listeners that Charleston’s wedding of the year (or any year) was to take place. Liz Smith, gossip columnist for The Daily News, called to find out if Dawn was going to be wearing the pearls that Mother Rutherford had given her. Joan Crawford sent a bouquet of yellow rose buds and commented, “The heart knows why.” Actress Helen Hayes wrote Dawn a letter of encouragement. “There is no racial or religious prejudice among people of the theatre.”

Mother Rutherford insisted, “No wedding march for you. I want ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’.” The ‘Battle Hymn’ was a Civil War anthem for Union troops, sung as they marched through the defeated South. Dawn chose the song purposely to show contempt for the Charleston white elite. 

Wedding ceremony at 56 Society Street

Wedding ceremony at 56 Society Street

 A crowd gathered on Society Street. Curious onlookers mixed on the street with dozens of reporters, everybody shouting, jeering and cheering. There was a heavy police presence, alert for any violence. Dawn recalled that “the street was packed, their bodies rippling like waves.” According to Joe Trott, the florist for the wedding:

“People were hanging out the windows . . . cameras were rolling. The police department was there, the fire department.  I was so scared I would get shot. I was trying to get on a solid wall in case anybody was a sniper from one of the rooms across the street.”

For the ceremony, Dawn wore a floor-length dress with appliquéd lace flowers. Two five-year old boys carried her ten-foot train. The dogs wore corsages. After the minister pronounced them “husband and wife”, the couple kissed for thirty-seven seconds. And then they stepped onto their piazza to wave to the cheering (and jeering) crowd.

Jet magazine ran a feature about Dawn and her African American husband. Newsweek ran a page-long story about the “anguished transsexual” and her “Negro garage mechanic.” The Charleston News & Courier announced the wedding on their obituary page. 

Wedding announcement on the obituary page, Charleston News & Courier

Wedding announcement on the obituary page, Charleston News & Courier, Jan. 23, 1969

The British tabloid The People ran a month long serial about Dawn’s life. The story began with this spectacular claim:

A remarkable FACT had now been established. At The People’s instigation Mrs. Simmons was examined by one of Britain’s most eminent gynecologists at his Harley Street surgery. He stated: “Mrs. Dawn Simmons was probably wrongly sexed at birth. She has the genital organs of a woman capable of normal sexual intercourse, and she is capable of having a baby.” On the evidence of the report it is not impossible that she could become pregnant.        

   The newspaper withheld the name of the “eminent gynecologist.”

When the couple returned from their London honeymoon, a crate of wedding gifts had been delivered to their front yard. During the night the crate was ransacked and all the wedding gifts were destroyed. The next morning the local police chief arrived to personally ticket them for “littering and having debris blocking the sidewalk.”

dawn - wedding photo0004

 The harassment continued. John-Paul was shot at three times on the street. Dawn was run down on Anson Street by an unknown driver, injuring her shoulder. The telephone rang incessantly with crank calls and death threats. Several callers delighted in telling Dawn they had seen John-Paul “consorting with other women”, which was true, since he did have several other girlfriends. Dawn’s Doberman pincher, Charley, was poisoned and the basset hound, Samantha, was killed by a hit-and-run driver.

John-Paul and Dawn in front of Charleston City Hall

John-Paul and Dawn in front of Charleston City Hall

Dawn had spent an incredible amount of money in a twelve month period. Two weddings, a trip to Europe, and the Ford Thunderbird she had purchased as John-Paul’s wedding gift. When he totaled that car, she bought him a second, and a year later, she purchased a third Thunderbird. Dawn refurbished her mother-in-law’s house. John-Paul also told Dawn he had decided he wanted to fish for a living, so she bought him a twenty-seven foot trawler, which he used for parties. The boat ended up abandoned in the marsh along the Cooper River.

 Dawn then began to tell everyone that she and John-Paul were hoping to have a baby.

   Terry Fox, former neighbor, remembers:                                

 I came to Charleston in the late 1960s and moved to number 52 Society Street . . . two doors down from Dawn. I was twenty-three and comparatively naive. At the time, part of me thought of Dawn as being a worldly, sophisticated person, who wouldn’t have anything to do with me. And then there was the freak-show part of her . . . But she was always very gracious and friendly.

 After one year of marriage, Dawn to decided to give herself a first anniversary party. Terry Fox remembered:

I walked in . . . and nobody was in sight. The place was stenchful, and overrun with dogs. Suddenly, Dawn descended the staircase, dressed in a full length, form-fitting red brocade dress, with long sleeves and wearing some kind of tiara.              

According to Fox, the dining room was set up with beautiful silver pieces, tarnished, and the table was laden with lunchmeat in plastic wrappers from Piggly Wiggly – Oscar Meyer bologna, Kraft American cheese slices, and pickle loaf salami. Less than a dozen people attended, included several of Dawn’s gay friends and John-Paul’s mother.

In the meantime, John-Paul was continually unfaithful and fathered an illegitimate son. He was diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia, which often caused delusions and hallucinations. John-Paul began to hear voices and having conversations with a three-eyed woman from Mars he called “Big Girl.” Like other sufferers John-Paul began to experience thought interruptions such as laughing at a sad moment or becoming completely disoriented to his surroundings.

Dawn’s extravagant life proved too much for Charleston’s closeted gay community. Her interracial marriage also sparked racism in the black community. As Jack Hitt wrote:

“Typically when one crosses forbidden lines: interracial marriage, announcing one is gay, taking a lover from another religion or class, or even changing one’s sex at least there is a community on the other side waiting for you. But Dawn charged across so many borders at once that she slipped into a country where she was the only inhabitant.”

John-Paul & Dawn on Broad Street, in front of Washington Park

John-Paul & Dawn on Broad Street, in front of Washington Park

There was more trouble. In April 1971, the bank foreclosed on 56 Society Street. Dawn claimed that due to a mail strike in England she was not receiving her royalty checks. A friend, Richia Atkinson Barloga, who lived south of Broad Street, offered the pay the mortgage in full, but according to Dawn, Richia disappeared, literally. Richia later claimed to have been drugged by a man and taken to a local motel. She resurfaced ten days later after the Society Street house had been sold at auction. Dawn and John-Paul moved into a rented house at 15 Thomas Street, a far cry from their upscale Ansonborough address. Dawn carried her precious antiques and art work into a house with twenty-seven broken windows. Many in Charleston were smug in their assessment, a satisfying “I told you so!” in their minds, if not on their lips.

Then Dawn an amazing announcement. She claimed she was pregnant with John-Paul’s baby.

Where’d That Baby Come From?

For several months during the spring and summer of 1971, Dawn walked the streets of Charleston wearing maternity clothes. Terry Fox, neighbor and guest at the first anniversary party, recalled seeing Dawn walking the streets in maternity clothes and flat shoes. But others didn’t believe it. Some claimed she would a big belly beneath her dress one day, and a flat stomach the next. Someone claimed to see a military surplus blanket stuffed beneath Dawn’s dress. “She became something of a laughing stock,” Fox recalled.

Anna Montgomery worked at a baby store on King Street and waited on Dawn. Anna claimed in the Charleston Chronicle that when Dawn walked into the store to make a purchase, the women laughed.  She looked like a pregnant woman, Anna said, but “he forgot to tie down the strings of a pillowcase stuffed with cotton.” 

 Dawn called those comments “wicked.” She claimed:

“I did used cotton wool pads. . . but because of the burning in the breasts.”

Dawn and Natasha

Dawn and Natasha

Dawn tried to interest newspaper and magazine editors in her pregnancy story, but no one cared. She was no longer an exotic story; more often she inspired pity. She was convinced that white Charleston wanted to kill her unborn half-black child. She claimed there were numerous threats against her, so she decided to move seven hundred miles north to Philadelphia to give birth at the University of Pennsylvania hospital – or maybe to better hide whatever deception she was trying to pull. John-Paul remained in Charleston, in the housing project home of his girlfriend and mother of his son.

According to a birth certificate on file at the Department of Health Vital Statistics in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, on October 17, 1971, Natasha Marginell Manugault Paul Simmons was born. Dawn herself gets the birth date of her ‘daughter’ wrong in her late autobiography, citing it was October 15. The first time John-Paul saw Natasha he commented, “Whoever saw a blue-eyed nigger?”

Natasha's birth certificate

Natasha’s birth certificate

After her return to Charleston, Dawn pushed Natasha up and down the streets in an old-fashioned British baby carrier just like the one the Queen had for Prince Charles. She kept the birth certificate handy to flash at all doubters. Many were not convinced, particularly men like Julian Hayes, who had once described Gordon’s penis as “enviable.” Even John-Paul wasn’t impressed. He knew exactly where Natasha came from – one of his girlfriends. He claimed:

“I’d been going with her for eight months –constantly had sex, sex, sex, all the time with this girl. She was about twenty-three. She got pregnant”.

John-Paul said that the girl’s daddy knew Dawn wanted a baby, and the daddy didn’t want his daughter to have an illegitimate daughter with a black man. When the girl went into labor, the girl checked into Roper Hospital as “Mrs. Simmons” at Dawn’s direction. Dawn gave the daddy one thousand dollars for the baby. Dawn flew to Philadelphia with the South Carolina birth certificate listing “Mrs. John-Paul Simmons” as mother of the child. Dawn showed up at the Pennsylvania vital statistics office with the infant in her arms and paperwork in her hand bearing her name.

Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In.

Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.

Dawn’s announcement of the birth of her daughter became the fodder for TV comedians Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, hosts of the wildly popular Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, a show with more than forty million viewers. The opening monologue contained the following exchange:

Dan Rowan: News flash: Charleston, South Carolina. Noted transsexual Dawn Simmons hast just given birth to a daughter. 

Dick Martin: We can only hope she grows up to be half the man her mother was.

   Dawn moved to upstate New York and rented a run-down, ten-room mansion in the Catskills. The New York Times published a story under the headline TRANSEXUAL STARTING NEW LIFE IN CATSKILLS. Less than year later, however, the Times filed a follow-up story that read:                                                          

Today, the house is an empty wreck. The owner has sued for $800 in rent. As of last week, the Simones[sic] were on welfare, living in a local hotel. Cash from the book that Mrs. Simmons was reported to be writing did not materialize. With no money for fuel, the family moved out ‘in the dead of winter’ . . . and the pipes froze and burst, flooding the premises.

Dawn’s writing career had been reduced to writing for The National Enquirer. John-Paul was in and out of mental health facilities, popping in-and-out of her life. Dawn said:

“I would never desert him. I always see that he has clothes, pocket money and everything he needs.”

dawn10 -  book cover

 In 1995, Dawn published her third memoir, Dawn: A Charleston Legend. Her first two, Man Into Woman and All For Love, had been published more than twenty years before. For several years she had been living in North Charleston in a federally subsidized housing project. She was also the devoted grandmother of Natasha’s three children. She published a novel, She-Crab Soup, which managed to sell seventeen copies in its first year publication.

Dawn Langley Hall Simmons, 1995

Dawn Langley Hall Simmons, 1995

 Dawn Pepita Langley Hall Simmons, the former Gordon Hall, died quietly on September 18th, 2000, of effects from Parkinson’s disease. The funeral took place at the chapel of the J. Henry Stuhr Funeral Home. Natasha placed a misleading announcement in the newspaper so that the funeral would not become a media circus. Her body was cremated and divided into three equal parts: one-third to a friend in New Hampshire, a third to England and the rest to Natasha.

It was the end of a real life Orlando. Virginia Woolf would have been proud.    

Today In Charleston History: March 25

1781 – British Occupation.

Lord Rawdon, British commander in the South after Cornwallis was posted to Virginia, decreed that all jobs in Charlestown were closed to any but Loyalists to the King.  Many men who were sympathetic to the rebel cause were forced to pledge British allegiance out of the necessity of feeding their family.

Francis Edward Rawdon-Hastings, 1st Marquess of Hastings

Francis Edward Rawdon-Hastings, 1st Marquess of Hastings

Today In Charleston History: March 24

March 24


Charles II granted the territory called Carolana to the “true and absolute Lords and Proprietors.” The eight men were:

  • John Berkeley, Baron Berkeley of Stratton – Berkeley fought on the Royalist side during the Rebellion, general of the Royal forces in Devon. He also became a Proprietor for the Colony of New Jersey.
  • Sir William Berkeley – During the Rebellion, William served as Governor of Virginia and was a consistent supporter of Royal rule.
  • Sir George Carteret – Served as lt. governor of Jersey, the largest of the channel islands, fifteen miles off the French coast, which became a refuge for Royalists during the Rebellion. Carteret ran an active privateering campaign against Parliament, who branded him a pirate. After the execution of Charles I, Carteret had Charles II declared King  in Jersey,  even though the action forced  him  into  exile  for nine years.  He also became a Proprietor  of New Jersey. 
  • Sir John Colleton, 1st Baronet – Served in the infantry during the Rebellion and made heavy financial contributions to the Royal cause. After Charles’s execution, Colleton fled to Barbados where he acquired an extensive estate.
  • William Craven, Earl of Craven – Contributed substantial financing for the Royal cause during the Rebellion. Known for his “bawdy language,” Craven was one of the few noblemen who did not flee London during the Great Plague of 1665. He remained in the city to help keep order and donated property for mass grave sites.
  • Anthony Ashley Cooper, Baron Ashley of Wimborne St. Giles – A political opportunist who started the Rebellion as a Loyalist, then became a supporter of Cromwell after the War, but then devoted much of his energy for the Restoration of Charles II, for which he was well rewarded, becoming one of the most politically powerful men in England.
  • Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon – Maternal grandfather of two monarchs, Queen Mary II and Queen Anne, Hyde was one of Charles’ closest advisors during the nine-year exile. His daughter, Anne, married Charles’s younger brother, James, Duke of York. Later in life he authored the acclaimed “History of the Rebellion.”
  • George Monck, Duke of Albemarle – A brilliant military leader for Charles during the Rebellion, Monck was arrested and spent two years in the Tower of London. Accepting a commission as Major General he fought with Cromwell in Ireland and Scotland. After being elected to Parliament in 1660, Monck campaigned for the Restoration of Charles II. He was rewarded as Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, the most prestigious honor in England.

Each Proprietor contributed £75 sterling to establish a fund for financing a colony in Carolina. They also agreed, if necessary, to contribute an additional £500 sterling each. The Proprietors, of course, hoped that no more money would be required. There was a strong consensus that the colony could be established by luring experienced settlers from established Caribbean colonies like Barbados and Bermuda, by offering large land grants in lieu of providing financing.

Six of the Lords Proprietors of the Carolina Colony

Six of the Lords Proprietors of the Carolina Colony


William Johnson of Charleston was appointed an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. He was the first of Thomas Jefferson’s three appointments to the court, and is considered to have been selected for sharing many of Jefferson’s beliefs about the Constitution. Johnson was the first member of the U.S. Supreme Court that was not a member of the Federalist Party.


William Johnson

Born in Charleston on December 27, 1771, Johnson was the second son of blacksmith William Johnson and his wife Sarah Nightingale. Graduated first in his class from the College of New Jersey (Princeton) in 1790, Johnson went on to read law under attorney Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, The following year, on March 16, Johnson married Sarah C. Bennett, sister of future governor Thomas Bennett.


 Samuel Smalls, a well-known disabled black street vegetable vendor, who traveled the city on Nan the Goat,  got into an argument with Maggie Barnes on 4 Romney Street over an allegedly stolen watch. He shot at her, and ended up at the City Jail on Magazine Street.  Judge Brown suspended his sentence on June 3, 1924 and Sammy returned home  to his mother on James Island until he died a few months later at about age 35.

Charleston writer, DuBose Heyward, read the story, and was familiar with Smalls. This incident inspired Heyward to write the novel “Porgy,” which was v e r y loosely based on this story. Sammy became “Porgy” and Maggie became “Bess.”  George Gershwin read the book, and saw the subsequent Broadway play based on the novel, and purchased the rights to the story. In 1935, Gershwin’s version of the story debuted on Broadway and as”Porgy and Bess,” 

Today In Charleston History: March 23


Sarah Chamberlain was found guilty of “the Murder of her Bastard Child.” She was sentenced to death.

1740 –Religion.

 While in Charlestown Rev. George Whitefield conducted public services – open air preaching –  that disregarded the Book of Common Prayer, an offense against the Church of England, of which he was a licensed minister. Rev. Alexander Garden called on him to explain his offense. Whitefield warned that God had been:

Contending with the people of South Carolina … for two years –  with disease, the Stono Rebellion … God has a quarrel with you, for your abuse of and cruelty to the poor negroes.

Rev. George Whitefield - open air preaching

Rev. George Whitefield – open air preaching