As scandals go, Dawn Langley Simmons' story is breathtaking.

Born an illegitimate Sussex country boy, he took on the mantle of wealthy socialite, moved to America where he had a sex change and became a Southern Belle.

If that was not enough to stun the Sixties' Deep South, more shocks were in store.

After her sex change, Dawn married a penniless black man at the height of segregation.

Then, when the residents of South Carolina thought they had seen it all, Dawn left them choking on their mint juleps by producing a baby girl she claimed was her own, naturally-conceived child.

Along the way, Dawn's path crossed with the rich and famous including Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf, and Joan Crawford.

Her story is worthy of a Hollywood script and, like a Tinseltown production, not all of it is exactly as it seems.

Writer Edward Ball, who grew up in Charleston, decided to sift fact from fiction, retracing her steps and talking to those close to her. The result is a book, Peninsula Of Lies.

Gordon Langley Hall was born out of wedlock in 1922 to two servants at Sissinghurst, Kent, home of author Vita Sackville-West and politician Harold Nicholson. Hall spent hours there and absorbed a love of literature and art.

He wrote poems and articles for local newspapers.

He also took theatre classes and, when he was deemed "unfit" for the Army at the onset of the Second World War, found himself performing in vaudeville for US troops.

In 1952, he moved to New York where he met elderly spinster and silk heiress Isabel Whitney who was charmed by the amusing Englishman.

She introduced him to her social circle which included luminaries like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Margaret Rutherford. During this time, Hall penned books on Jackie Onassis and Princess Margaret.

When Isabel died in 1962, she left Hall more than one million dollars and her Charleston mansion. Hall spent money like water and threw lavish parties.

All that changed in 1968 when he had what he called gender reassignment surgery and emerged as "Dawn". He claimed he was born a girl but due to a genital anomaly, was misidentified as a boy. The surgery was merely to correct his sex, not change it.

Charleston was the queen city of confederacy where men and women were two separate species who only met in church. Hall, a sexual enigma, caused bewilderment and fear.

While residents were still whispering about the sex change, Dawn announced she was to marry a young black man, John-Paul Simmons.

Even those who had stuck by her through the sex change now ignored her.

Two years later, Dawn showed the world her baby Natasha and insisted the child was her own.

Now her marriage was falling apart. John-Paul was a drinker who became violent. Dawn had to sell her home and move to dilapidated addresses in New York state. Eventually she returned to Charleston where she died in 2000.

In his search for the truth, award-winning author Edward Ball spoke to the doctor who operated on Dawn. He said she was not hermaphrodite and it was a routine sex change.

Natasha fervently believed Dawn was her mother but Mr Ball's meeting with John-Paul proved otherwise. He said the baby was from a relationship with another woman.

Mr Ball said: "Dawn was a performer and began to believe her own performance. But she was not a malicious person or conniving. By all accounts she was gentle and companionable.

"She chose the most unlikely place to make a transition and became an outcast. When she married she entered black society which was unheard of."

Mr Ball said Dawn had now been adopted by Charleston as part of its eccentric folklore.

Peninsula Of Lies in published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson price £20.