Suits Me: The Double Life Of Billy Tipton
Only on the morning in January 1991, when he summoned paramedics to their trailer, did William Alan Tipton learn that his adopted father, an all but forgotten jazz musician who had settled in Spokane, Washington, was a woman.
Happily, Tipton’s last wife and many of his relatives largely ducked the ensuing tabloid coverage, placing the long and curious life story of Dorothy Tipton in the hands of an extremely able, careful, and sensitive biographer. Diane Wood Middlebrook went to high school in Spokane and has written a number of books, including Walt Whitman And Wallace Stevens and Anne Sexton: A Biography.
Telling Tipton’s story invites Middlebrook to explore the social milieu from which he (he…it’s simply easier to honor Tipton’s lifetime performance with the male pronoun) emerged. And so early chapters take us through Tipton’s chaotic family life from the roaring twenties to the Depresson, across the Southwest, through the speakeasys and other dubious enterprises that gave aid and succor to struggling young musicians, and, ultimately, as jazz evolved and times changed, out West to semi-retirement as a booking agent.
Early on Tipton, by all accounts a fine musician (principally a pianist) and entertainer, found that getting work while wearing a dress was nearly impossible, unless one wished to be an ornamental singer, or worse. And Tipton wanted, perhaps above all else, to be a serious musician. So it was, slowly at first, that Dorothy became Billy, and Billy went from sideman to leader, from Oklahoma to Oregon, from the Elk’s Club to a Los Angeles studio and two modestly successful LPs in the 1950s.
Simply on those terms, as a record of the life of a better than ordinary jazz player (and one who, of necessity, brushed around the edges of the western swing world), Suits Me is a deeply rewarding study. And that really is Middlebrook’s principal focus. However, complicated gender issues are also at work here, and a series of ex-wives (and three adopted sons) to be accounted for. Here, Middlebrook is at her best. There’s no getting around the questions — how can you live with somebody for years in an intimate, sexual relationship and not know he was a she? — so Middlebrook goes ahead and asks, contemplates answers, and moves on. Only Tipton’s final ex-wife, an ex-stripper who claimed not to have had a sexual relationship with her husband, doubts the claims of ignorance offered by his previous wives (these were showbiz marriages unsanctioned, for obvious reasons, by law or clergy).
And yet. And yet viewed through modern lenses there is a kind of purity to those relationships, for the ex-wives speak lovingly, tenderly of Billy even after his posthumous disclosure. (In the end, his body was the only explanation he offered.) And, though they all seem resolutely heterosexual, deeply confused by the implications of Billy’s gender, none will repudiate their life and love for Billy. Love, as they say, is blind, if confusing.
In the end, perhaps Billy Tipton proved one of the finest performers of his age. Imagine carrying off that role day in and day out, in the close quarters of a touring ensemble, your body always bound against the alleged pains of an old auto accident, compelled to hide the monthly rush of blood, then menopause, unable to collect Social Security, much less visit a doctor.
Such a price, and yet Billy Tipton is often pictured smiling.