Dawn Dixon was looking over New York City from one of its best vantage points: the top of the Empire State Building.
As she surveyed the skyline from the 86th floor, snow flurries circling around her, Dawn tried to focus on the spectacular view. But her heart was beating quickly: what if something happened and he didn’t make it?
That’s when Paul White made his way from the elevator onto the viewing platform and spotted Dawn.
“I came out and put my arms around her and said ‘Hi,'” Paul recalls to CNN Travel today. “And that’s how we met.”
It was November 1996. Dawn and Paul, both in their mid-thirties, had connected online three months prior.
This was the early days of the internet. Email was just taking off, and Dawn, based in Atlanta in the US, and Paul, from London in the UK, had both been looking for email pen pals.
At the time, Dawn and Paul were married to other people. Neither was very happy, but neither was consciously searching for romance elsewhere. They both simply liked the idea of a pen friend on a different continent.
On July 30, 1996, Dawn sent her first email to Paul. She introduced herself as a 36-year-old married woman living in Atlanta: “Write back and we’ll chat some more,” she wrote at the end, and hit send.
It was a simple email that she never expected would change her life forever.
“And from that, here we are 25 years later,” says Paul today.
Dawn and Paul’s first few notes to one another were polite, friendly and brief as they introduced themselves and sketched out details about their lives.
There was nothing at first that distinguished their correspondence, but as time went on, these dispatches grew longer, and became more personal.
“We both had loads of pen pals that summer, but something just clicked between us,” says Dawn. “And one thing led to another, we started becoming more open and honest with each other, and just sharing our lives.”
Their emails soon had an easy, unexpected intimacy.
“Because we hadn’t had the intention to meet physically, basically you could get all your skeletons out the cupboard, it didn’t matter,” says Paul. “You get to know the real person as a consequence.”
Each day, Dawn and Paul would fire up their slow dial-up internet connections and wait for their computers to load and check their inboxes, hoping a new message had winged its way across the Atlantic.
“As time went on and we started exchanging emails more and more frequently, getting to know each other, it became like a drug,” recalls Dawn. “We were desperate to write each other all the time and very worried if we didn’t hear something.”
“After a couple of months, we realized that our interests, our goals, our dreams were very similar,” says Paul. “And because neither one of us was truly happy, we realized that it was dragging us together.”
The two gradually began to acknowledge the connection they felt went beyond a pen pal friendship.
And with that acknowledgment came guilt. Neither of them had intended this to happen.
Feeling conflicted, Dawn recalls trying to be even more honest about herself, flaws and all, in her emails, hoping it might put Paul off and put an end to the connection.
But that didn’t work. The more candid she was, the more candid Paul was in return, and rather than this driving them apart, they grew closer.
“Finally, it was just like, we had to admit that something’s here, there’s a connection here that we just can’t ignore,” says Dawn. “It was an overwhelming feeling.”
And with that, they both decided to end their marriages. Dawn and Paul say their email connection made them realize what their present relationships were lacking.
Plus, the two wanted to meet, and neither was comfortable doing so while they were married to other people.
This wasn’t a straightforward situation. While Paul had been unhappy in his marriage for a long time, he’d been with his wife for many years, he had two children and two step-children. He’d been planning to stay in his marriage until his kids were older.
Connecting with Dawn upended these plans. It wasn’t an easy separation, but Paul felt ending the relationship was the right thing for the family in the long run.
Dawn, who didn’t have any children, says her situation was a little easier. But it was still a big decision. She temporarily moved back in with her mother, and vividly remembers the moment she told her that she suspected she’d fallen in love, via email, with a man on the other side of the world.
“Ma, I cannot explain it,” she told her mother. “I feel like we were meant to be together and that we might have even known each other in a previous life or something. It’s that bizarre. It’s like fate pulling us together.”
Dawn’s mother was somewhat concerned about her daughter meeting a stranger from the internet, but there was no deterring Dawn or Paul. The two started speaking on the phone, and on one of their transatlantic calls, they set a date.
Three months to the day after Dawn had sent her first email, the two would meet for the first time in New York City.
Paul had always felt a connection to New York. He’d visited once before on his own and fallen in love with the city. In particular, he’d loved the Empire State Building, the Art Deco tower that’s as much a cultural icon as it is a building.
“There was just something about New York and the Empire State Building that once you’ve been there, and you see what it is, it’s like a magnet — or that’s how it was to me,” he says.
Then, in the early 1990s, Paul had seen the Nora Ephron movie “Sleepless in Seattle.”
In the climactic scene, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, two strangers from opposite ends of the US, finally meet on the viewing platform, ready for their happy ever after.
Paul, a self-confessed “hopeless romantic” loved the film and the swoony Empire State Building denouement.
“I’d watched it countless times,” he says. “It basically struck a chord with me.”
Once he and Dawn had decided to meet in person, for Paul, their meeting place was a no-brainer: the top of the Empire State Building.
“Sleepless in Seattle” is inspired by the 1957 film “An Affair to Remember,” in which Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr play lovers involved with other people whose plan to meet at the top of the Empire State Building forms the film’s denouement.
Except in “An Affair to Remember” plans go awry when Kerr’s character gets hit by a cab that morning and she unwittingly leaves Grant waiting on the viewing platform.
In the lead up to Paul and Dawn’s New York meeting, Dawn spent sleepless nights worrying something unexpected would prevent her meeting Paul.
“I was so afraid that I was going to get in a car accident or something was going to prevent us from being together,” she says.
“And that was what scared me the most. It was never that he wasn’t going to show or anything like that — nothing like that — it was more that something was going to prevent us from getting together.”
On the morning of November 1, 1996, Paul flew from London to New York. At JFK, he jumped in a cab and went straight to Midtown.
“We didn’t have mobile phones back then, so no way to contact each other,” recalls Dawn. “We basically knew what time our respective flights were due to land, but that’s it. The planes could have been delayed or anything and we wouldn’t have known about it.”
But everything went smoothly, Paul made it to 350 Fifth Avenue and there was the Art Deco spire towering above him. He headed into the building, into the elevator and went straight to the top of the tower.
On the viewing platform, he approached Dawn. They hugged, and Paul told her he loved her. They stood there for a while, their arms around one another.
Dawn says the moment felt like “somebody wrapping a nice, warm blanket around you to say, ‘You’re safe. You’re here. We’re together. This is it. This is really happening. And life is good.'”
That evening, the two ate dinner at Tavern on the Green on the Upper West Side, a New York institution that cameoed in the movie “Ghostbusters” and was reportedly once frequented by famous faces like Grace Kelly and John Lennon.
“It felt like there were diamonds in the sky, where they had all the lights hanging across the ceiling,” says Paul.
The following night they dined at Harbour Lights, a since-closed seafood restaurant on the Hudson River looking across towards the Brooklyn Bridge.
It was the New York weekend of Paul’s dreams, but he was focused more on Dawn than the surroundings. The two were thrilled to realize the connection they’d felt over email was just as strong in person.
“When I was in Dawn’s company, I did not have to prove anything, and I think that was instantaneous,” says Paul. “We started a relationship that was built on trust and truth and honesty,”
When the weekend came to a close, the two traveled together back to London. Dawn moved into Paul’s apartment. Neither of them looked back.
Dawn and Paul married in Hackney Town Hall, in London, on May 1, 1997, exactly six months after they’d met in New York. Dawn took Paul’s name, becoming Dawn White.
The day after their wedding, Dawn and Paul watched Paul’s daughter win a soccer club final, and then they flew out to Paris for their Honeymoon.
It was a magical time, recall Dawn and Paul, but their union wasn’t without its difficulties.
While Dawn and her husband had separated quite amicably, Paul’s breakup became increasingly acrimonious.
Both Dawn and Paul felt very guilty about the situation, which was complex. The couple say this guilt is something they still deal with.
“You have to take responsibility when you make decisions that hurt other people,” says Paul.
Dawn and Paul lived together in London for almost three years, before moving together to the US in 1999.
While living in Florida in the early noughties, they started an embroidery company which they built into a successful business and then sold when they returned to England in 2006.
They lived for a period in Hertfordshire, north of London. More recently, they relocated to the region of Cornwall in the south of England, where they opened a successful plant-based cafe called The Cornish Vegan.
In 2011, on the 15 year anniversary of their meeting, Dawn and Paul returned to the Empire State Building together.
The two, both big music fans, consider The Eagles’ track “Love Will Keep Us Alive” their song.
As they stepped into the elevator to head to the top of the Empire State Building on that anniversary trip, that song started playing over the overhead speaker.
Dawn and Paul turned to one another, amazed, each assuming the other had asked a building official to make that happen.
Neither had, it was just a coincidence.
“It was just unbelievable,” says Dawn. The two saw the moment as a sign that their romance was meant to be.
In 2020, Dawn and Paul sold The Cornish Vegan. Over the past couple of years, they’ve been enjoying having more time to explore the beautiful landscape surrounding their home.
“We don’t need to go out and eat in fancy restaurants or go to the cinema or anything, we’ll be happy to sit down and read a book or watch a film together, or I’ll cook and we’ll have a meal together,” says Paul. “Both of us like traveling, we’d like to be able to travel again. But if we don’t, we have each other.”
As well as “Sleepless in Seattle” Paul and Dawn also feel an affinity to that other great Nora Ephron-helmed, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan-starring romantic comedy, “You’ve Got Mail.”
That movie came out a couple of years after Dawn and Paul got together, and also charts an unexpected relationship that begins over email.
Dawn and Paul say they love how romantic comedies are fueled by hope and optimism, and celebrate love — often in all of its forms — and how it can arrive unexpectedly, and arise from tough situations.
“That’s why we love these movies, whether it be ‘You’ve Got Mail’ or whether it be ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ or whether it’s ‘Love Actually,’ they’re all the same story. And it’s just different people and different aspects of it,” says Paul.
Last year, Dawn and Paul celebrated 25 years since they met on the top of the Empire State Building and this May marks their 25th wedding anniversary.
Early on in their relationship, Paul decided to give Dawn a greeting card on the first day of every month. Inside, he’d write a message explaining how he felt about her, and how grateful he was to have met her.
Almost three decades later, this tradition is still going strong, and Dawn’s kept all the cards.
“Receiving a card from Paul every month still feels as special now as it did in the beginning,” she says. “It is such a romantic gesture and means everything to both of us, as he always reminds me in the card of how much I mean to him.”
They’ve also got Dawn’s first email to Paul engraved on a brass plaque. It hangs in pride of place in their home in Cornwall.
“Our relationship is as strong as ever,” says Dawn. “We are best friends as well as spouses.”
“We knew that when we met for the very first time on top of the Empire State Building it was meant to be,” says Paul. “We didn’t have any second doubts. We didn’t think, ‘Well what if it doesn’t work out?’ It never crossed our minds. And it’s never crossed our minds since.”
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