Vita Sackville-West, Died in 1962

#DiedToday. June 2, 1962

Vita Sackville-West, writer, died on June 2, 1962 at 70. She was known for her exuberant aristocratic life, her passionate affair with the novelist Virginia Woolf, and Sissinghurst Castle Garden, which she and her husband, Sir Harold Nicolson, created at their estate. She was involved in several same-sex affairs in her life, while her husband also conducted same-sex affair, and also shared lovers. She also has a Charleston connection. 


Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Wolfe

One of Sackville-West’s house servants gave birth to a boy named Gordon Langley Hall, who grew up surrounded by opulence, intellectual and sexual liberalism. Gordon moved to Charleston in the 1960s, had several homosexual affairs, and in 1968 had successful sexual reassigment surgery, and changed his name to Dawn Langley Hall.

Dawn then became engaged to John-Paul Simmons, a young black motor mechanic with dreams of becoming a sculptor. Their marriage on January 21, 1969 was the first legal interracial marriage in South Carolina, and the ceremony was carried out in their drawing room reportedly after threats to bomb the church. After a second ceremony in England, the crate containing their wedding gifts was firebombed in Charleston, and Simmons received a ticket the next day when the charred remains were obstructing a sidewalk.

However, that is only the tip of the iceberg for this outlandish story.

The entire story of Gordon / Dawn’s life can be read in Edward Ball’s Peninsula of Lies. There is also a chapter about Gordon / Dawn in my book, Wicked Charleston, Vol. II. 

LEFT: John Paul Simmons & Gordon Hall. RIGHT: Newspaper announcements of the changes in Dawn’s life.  

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.

Sarah Bernhard Appears in Charleston

bernhardt-sarah-1880Sarah Bernhardt appeared at the Academy of Music in “La Tosca” on January 21, 1892. Her appearance was treated like that of royalty. A local reviewer for the “News and Courier”, who referred to Bernhardt as “the divine Sarah,” also wrote that the theater “had rarely held as brilliant and cultivated an audience who were spellbound through love, hate, scorn, revenge, and disgust, all of which had full sway in the role.”


The two lower floors of the Academy sold out for Bernhardt’s performance within forty-eight hours. The day before, the “News and Courier” warned the audience about the “bonnet boycott” if they were attending.


(From “The News and Courier, Jan. 20, 1892)
Bonnets and Bernhardt do not go together. We do not mean … that the Divine Sarah has discarded the use of bonnets; on the contrary her headgear is said to be perfectly lovely; and we wish to convey the idea to the ladies of Charleston that bonnets will be entirely out of place at the Bernhardt performance … It is suggested that all ladies leave their bonnets at home unless indeed they are small enough not to interfere with the view.

“A Sufferer” goes so far as to suggest that it would be entirely proper for the Reporters of the News and Courier to take down for publication the names of all the ladies who go to the Academy wearing any particularly offensive hats or bonnets. Another correspondent “who paid three dollars to see Bernhardt, and not to gaze at ‘Miss Brown’s bonnet’” suggests that the new Chief of Police might distinguish the beginning of his administration by posting a strong force of men at the Academy to keep all the high hats out of the house!

It is true that some ladies have to wear hats as a protection, but the ladies of Charleston never look so sweet and charming as when they display their queenly heads unencumbered by the frippery of the milliner’s art. There is no reason why any lady in Charleston should keep her head covered at the Bernhardt performance tomorrow night.


Academy of Music photo: from “Memories of the Professional and Social Life of John E. Owens, By His Wife.” 1892.
Sarah Bernhardt photo: from Library of Congress

Charleston Almanac update

The Charleston Almanac manuscript has been indexed (3 weeks of fun!). Proofs will be ready by the first of February. Another step forward.

This is the finalized cover.


Richard Adams … R.I.P.


While everyone is mourning Carrie Fisher and George Michael, we lost another (mostly) overlooked icon over Christmas, Richard Adams. His influence on me cannot be overstated.


Richard Adams

WATERSHIP DOWN was published in 1972 and I read it the next year when I was thirteen. THIS was the book that jumpstarted my love for imaginative fiction and epic fantasy. It was also (and still is) one of the most emotional experiences of my life. The last page of the novel was one of the most heartbreaking moments I have ever encountered while reading fiction, yet, at the same time, it opened up an avenue of hope and paved the path for an expanding view of death and afterlife. 

If you have not read Watership Down, I can think of no better way to close out 2016 by introducing yourself to Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, Dandelion, Blackberry, Pipkin and Silver. Don’t wait for the BBC mini-series next year. Read it NOW!



Some of my best friends during my teenage years … the rabbits of Watership Down.


watership-downA simple story about rabbits looking for a new place to live and defending their way of life doesn’t sound like the foundation of an epic that rivals any of the more splashy epic fantasies that I read due to Watership Down. (Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Thomas Covenant, Dragonriders, Mistborn, etc … ). However, in the gentle hands of Richard Adams, this simple story has so many political overtones and spiritual undercurrents that even my 13-year old mind and soul understood I was reading something more than “just a story.”   

Through the years, Adams has written several other notable novels, The Plague Dogs and Traveller, an ingenious story about Robert E. Lee during the Civil War, written from the perspective of his faithful horse, Traveller. As much as I enjoyed those books, and highly recommend them to any reader, it is Watership Down which is what Adams will forever be known.

SPOILER ALERT!!! SPOILER ALERT!!!  The following quote from the last page of Watership Down may still be one of the powerful sentences I have ever read and serves as a fitting eulogy of Mr. Adams.   


It seemed to Hazel that he would not need his body anymore,  so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch the rabbits and tried to get used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses. –from Watership Down  

Thank you, Mr. Adams. Hope you and Hazel are walking the fields among the primroses.


plague-dogs  traveller-final


Today In Charleston History – October 28, Ladd-Issacs Duel

OCTOBER 28 – Ladd- Issacs Duel

  Dr. Joseph Brown Ladd met Ralph Issacs in a duel on Philadelphia Alley at dawn, approximately 6:30 a.m.


Philadelphia Alley, Charleston, SC. Photo by author

In the spring of 1784  nineteen-year-old Dr. Joseph Brown Ladd arrived in Charleston from Rhode Island to establish a medical practice. He was fleeing vicious rumors about his character spread by the relatives of a woman, Amanda, he wished to marry. Amanda, an orphan, was from a wealthy family, but her fortune was held in a trust controlled by her uncle, who would lose access to the fortune if she married.

However, none of that scandal was known to the residents of Charleston and Ladd quickly became a popular man about town. Over the next two years,  he published over seventy poems in the American Museum, one of the most influential magazines in America, with a subscription list that included Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington. 

Ladd also became part of Charleston’s intellectual and social community. On July 4, 1785, at the invitation of Governor William Moultrie, he delivered a patriotic address before the Sons of Cincinnati of South Carolina.

On October 12, 1786, Dr. Ladd responded to a public smear campaign by Ralph Issacs in the Charleston Morning Post. Issacs was jealous of Ladd’s success in Charleston society and publicly called Ladd a “social climber that cared only for money … a quack.”

Ladd responded in the paper by writing, “I account it one of the misfortunes of my life that I ever became friends with such a man.”

Four days later, Ralph Issacs responded to Dr. Ladd:

I dare affirm that the event of a little time will convince the world that the self-created doctor is as blasted a scoundrel as ever disgraced humanity.

Issacs then challenged to settle the affair “with honor” – a duel. 

At dawn on October 28, Ladd met Ralph Issacs in a duel on Philadelphia Alley. There was a fog hanging on the narrow alley next to St. Philip’s Church graveyard. Dr. Ladd had the honor of the first shot and fired into the air.

Issacs, not able to clearly see Ladd due to the fog, hollered out, “Hah! You missed!” Then he fired at the vague outline of Dr. Ladd standing in the mist. Ladd was struck in the right knee, shattering bone and Ladd fell to the ground screaming in agony. He was carried to his boarding house at 59 Church Street. 



59 Church Street, Charleston, SC. Photo by author.


On November 2,  Dr. Joseph Brown Ladd died from his injuries.

For more complete details of the story, read this entry from the book Charleston Ghosts: Hauntings in the Holy City, by James Caskey, the most historically accurate book about Charleston hauntings and paranormal activity.  


Today In Charleston History – August 30

1706 – Queen Anne’s War

At daybreak, Captain Cantey and 100 militia from Charles Town attacked the French, driving them back across Shem Creek. Several French drowned and fifty-eight French prisoners were taken. One Charles Town militia was killed. 

1778 – Duel

Gen. Robert Howe

The duel between General Robert Howe and Vice President Christopher Gadsden took place. Howe demanded satisfaction from Gadsden, due to the unflattering letter that Gadsden had written about Howe’s military ability.  Col. Charles Pinckney served as Howe’s second, while Col. Bernard Elliot served that role for Gadsden.

Howe missed his first shot at eight paces, grazing Gadsden’s ear. Gadsden then intentionally fired into the air and demanded Howe fire a second time. Howe refused. The two men shook hands and parted.