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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Diane Wood Middlebrook, a poet who also writes the occasional biography, had just seen the publication of her biography of Anne Sexton when she was approached by a woman named Kitty Tipton Oakes at a speaking engagement. Oakes was looking for a writer to put together a book about her late husband, Billy Tipton, mainly so that there'd be source material on paper if a movie based on Tipton's life story were ever made. This was fortuitous for Middlebrook, not only because she has written more than just a biography of a complex person, but because she has written a wonderful love letter to a century through the life of Billy Tipton.
Who was Tipton? At face value, Tipton was someone who biologically was a woman, but lived all but 18 of his 70-something years as a man. Middlebrook delves deep into the life surrounding the ultimate self-made man and, in the process, has sketched a century of Americana within the canvas of this fascinating life. Billy's life was less fascinating for what the gender-bending Billy did than for the century Billy inhabited and the forces around him that he was working against.
Middlebrook begins her unraveling before Billy was born, essentially at the birth of Oklahoma as a state in the late 1800s, in order to re-create the world that Billy entered in the early teens of the century as Dorothy Tipton. Dorothy's parents' relationship was complicated, and after their son, Bill, was born, divorce and custody battles reared their ugly heads. Dorothy and her little brother were often raised by their father's sisters, who provided a rich world for the two toexplore.Meanwhile Dorothy was learning music as she grew to adulthood, and this in Kansas City, which was then exploding with ragtime and jazz. By the time Dorothy was 18, she wore male drag, and was fairly quickly disowned by her father. Interestingly, to avoid confusion of names, biographer Middlebrook chooses to call Dorothy's father G. W. but he was known as Billie to almost anyone who knew him. Thus, when Dorothy began to play professional gigs, her persona took the name of both her then-distant father and her brother.
Billy Tipton came into being in the last years of the Jazz Age. Through the Depression and World War II, he got work in clubs, hobnobbing with the royalty of that style of music, as well as living an itinerant but rewarding life as a pianist and saxophonist for various bands. From this point on, the male persona of Billy was formed, and soon there would be no turning back. Through wives and the adoption of children, Billy became known as a man. As time went on, the subterfuge to keep his secret from most around him became a greater and greater burden.
A minor complaint I have with this biography is that Middlebrook doesn't quite seek to understand the inner workings of Billy Tipton. I always felt as if the biographer remained on the outside looking in, that the gender-defying friendships Billy had with women outside his marriages were considered a bit as oddities rather than perhaps a fully integrated world. This aside, however, Middlebrook's strength in this story is to capture, almost as if on film, the early century of this country, with Billy Tipton as something of an icon of the way times changed. Billy Tipton left no memoir, no notes about his reasons for leaving Dorothy behind and acquiring Billy. One assumes that part of the original masquerade was to keep working with jazz bands as "one of the guys," but of course, as Billy takes this persona beyond his days as a musician, it takes on a much deeper meaning than any mask or cover could. Billy Tipton was, in the end, a man, defying outward biology and instead responding to his own inward nature.
Middlebrook has written a rousing story of the 20th century as well as of the life of Billy Tipton. Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton is a bit misnamed, since it implies a bit of a ruse on Billy's part. I'd prefer to believe that Billy Tipton led a life that was true to himself. I highly recommend Suits Me, as a chronicle of Billy Tipton's, and the century's, life.
Douglas Clegg is the author of numerous horror and suspense novels including Dark of the Eye and The Children's Hour. His most recent short story, "O, Rare and Most Exquisite," can be found in the anthology The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Volume 10.