Jesse Monteagudo's Book Nook
By Diane Wood Middlebrook
Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton by Diane Wood Middlebrook;
A Peter Davison Book, Houghton Mifflin Company; 326 pages; $25.00.
Billy Lee Tipton was born Dorothy Lucille Tipton, in Oklahoma City, on December 29, 1914. From a young age she displayed a musical talent, and was proficient in the piano and the saxophone.
Tipton's ambition was to play jazz. But since there were no roles for white women in jazz, other than vocalist, Tipton adopted male attire. One thing led to another and by the mid-thirties Tipton was living as a man, his female identity unknown to all except his mother and other close relatives.
Tipton worked with several bands in the Midwest and West before forming the Billy Tipton Trio in the fifties. However, when the Tipton Trio was offered the job of house band at the Holiday Hotel in Reno, Tipton refused. Too much fame, it seemed, would have blown Tipton's cover.
Looking at photos of Tipton with 20-20 hindsight, it seems clear to us that Tipton was a passing woman. But most people who surrounded Tipton from the mid-30's to his death were convinced that Tipton was a man. Among those who were sure of Tipton's masculinity were some of the women Tipton married; though the "marriages", like everything else about Tipton's latter life, were elaborate lies.
Tipton apparently got away with this masquerade by never removing his underwear; only making love in the dark; not allowing his wives to touch him; and, perhaps, using a sexual device (a strap-on dildo?) to impersonate a penis. Tipton's last wife, Kitty, was never intimate with Billy - due to her own poor health - and their three sons - Tipton's only "offspring" - were adopted.
All this makes a fascinating story, and Diane Wood Middlebrook (Anne Sexton) serves it in. Kitty Tipton Oakes, Tipton's last wife and executor, asked Middlebrook to write a book about the person Kitty married and divorced but still loved in her own way. Middlebrook also interviewed two other Tipton wives, Betty Cox and Maryann Catanach; his son William Alan Tipton; his estranged brother, W. T. Tipton; several cousins; and a battery of jazz musicians who performed with Tipton at various stages of his career.
Though most of the people Middlebrook interviewed were amazed by Tipton's camouflage, almost to a person they held Tipton in high regard, and indeed Tipton comes across as a lovable, if somewhat reserved, individual.
Was Billy Tipton a lesbian, a passing woman, a cross-dresser, a pre-op female-to-male transsexual, or all of the above? Probably the last, though at different stages of Tipton's life and with different people. Certainly Tipton's relationship with Non Earl Harrell, who became Tipton's first wife, started as a butch-femme lesbian relationship. Tipton continued to be attracted and attractive to women, treating them with a devotion they could not find in most men. With such devotion, genital sexuality is not so important.
Suits Me treats Tipton respectfully, calling Tipton "she" when living as Dorothy and "he" when living as Billy. Since Tipton did not leave a memoir or a diary, Middlebrook speculates a lot, inferring from the facts decisions and mindsets that may or may not have happened or existed.
As a musician, Billy Tipton was definitely second rate. He never achieved more than regional fame, with only a few recordings left to immortalize his talent. When Tipton's musical career declined, he became a talent agent in Spokane, Washington, with increasingly diminished returns.
Only in death did Tipton gain the world-wide fame that eluded him in life. Some people might view Tipton as an oddity, with no effect on the world save as a conversation piece. We would be more correct to see Billy Tipton as a person who lived an elaborate lie in order to be true to himself.
Improper Bostonians: Lesbian and Gay History from the Puritans to Playland, Compiled by The History Project, Foreword by Barney Frank; Beacon Press; 212 pages; $30.00.
Improper Bostonians is based on a Boston Public Library Exhibit - "Public Faces/Private Lives: Boston's Lesbian and Gay History" - presented by The History Project, "a volunteer group of archivists, historians, researchers, writers, designers, and activists committed to uncovering, preserving, and presenting the rich contributions of lesbians and gay men over three and a half centuries of Boston history."
This well-illustrated book uses newspaper accounts, private archives, advertisements and other sources to chronicle the men and women who dared to be themselves in the Capital of Puritanism. Here we read about 18th Century "dandies, fops, bachelors and beaux"; 19th Century "Boston Marriages" - women who lived together in long-term relationships; and 20th Century bars, speakeasies, restaurants, baths, hotels and theaters for queers of all genders.
We learn about Playland, Boston's oldest gay bar (est. 1938), and Sporters (1957-95), a bar made famous by John Reid's (Andrew Tobias), 1973 memoir, The Best Little Boy in the World. Boston's "urban renewal" of the sixties is rightly seen as an attempt to destroy gay bars and other havens for sexual nonconformists. We meet passing women and drag queens, Senator David Walsh and Sylvia Sidney (the drag, not the actress), Prescott Townsend and the Marines on the SS Baltimore.
Like Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area, Improper Bostonians chronicles the life of one of the USA's leading lesbian and gay communities. Some day a historian will write a more comprehensive history of queer Boston; certainly one that covers the post-Stonewall years, which Improper Bostonians does not do.
Meanwhile, we can enjoy the drawings and photos in this book, which take us back to a time when "Banned in Boston" was no figure of speech and when men and women often had to pay the price in order to be themselves.