Changing his tune

 

Since jazz musician Billy Tipton died nearly 10 years ago, academics and psychologists have battled over his career, and a musical about him was briefly staged last year. But now, with the first book-length biography, the fame that eluded Billy has come in death - but perhaps not in the way she would have wished.

Pronouns get a little mixed up when talking about Billy, for she posed successfully as a man for 54 years and for 37 of them was married. In fact there was a succession of four wives.

Always dressed in natty suits and ties, with his hair Brylcreemed back, Billy wisecracked his way through the decades at his piano in a thousand third-rate nightspots and halls in smalltown mid-America. He was an accomplished pianist and could almost have joined the jazz establishment, if only he had been a man. Which he almost was.

The full story of Billy's almost unbelievable trip as a journeyman across the sexual divide now appears in Diane Wood Middlebrook's book Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton (Houghton Mifflin, $25, available on order from US), recently published in the US to high critical praise but occasional boos from transsexuals and other militants in America's sex wars.

They object to Middlebrook's suggestions of "deception" and "masquerade" - but how else to describe a woman who wore a "prosthesis" under a jockstrap and brought up three adopted sons as their "father"?

Middlebrook points out a moral aspect to Billy's subterfuge. By the 1950s, when he was in his 40s, he had woven a "tangled web of deceit" that contained dreadful risks for those closest to him. He was a son-in-law and brother-in-law as well as husband, but chose partners with a "shrewdness" that diminished his moral stature, Middlebrook argues. All Billy's wives were trustful and dependent, but the entire edifice could have collapsed at any time - and often came near to it.

Billy was born Dorothy Lucille Tipton in Oklahoma in 1914, daughter of a mechanic and aviation pioneer and loving mother Reggie (sexually ambiguous names are a leitmotiv of Tipton's life). Most of the family was musical, especially Reggie, and from early childhood Dorothy displayed remarkable talent.

At 19 she longed to enter the jazz world that had burst upon Oklahoma City and Kansas City where she was brought up. But bands were men-only territory and musicians refused to regard women as professional colleagues. After failing to find work, Dorothy suited up - and immediately landed a saxophone gig, though piano was her strength.

A cousin recalled: "Dorothy took a piece of old sheet and wrapped it around her chest and we pinned it real tight. Some way she had picked up some clothes. Dressed as a boy she got this job and left with the band." It was 1934 and the Depression was destroying millions of lives, but Billy was working.

She took the name from her father, who spelt it Billie but who was to cut her off after her "passing" (acting as someone of the opposite sex) became permanent. Her voice descended to a high tenor - she sang on stage to great applause - and her manner went from ladyish to laddish.

In 1935 she sent her mother a photograph. Billy had hidden her breasts beneath a double-breasted blazer and wore white flannels with two-toned shoes, the fashion of the time. A boutonniere sprouted jauntily from a lapel.

Billy made a man of herself for the next 30 years on the road with the boys in various bands. Despite the enforced proximity of being together in buses and motels, very few of her colleagues knew the truth. Those who did were mostly from the very early days.

Her success came at the cost of nerve-racking vigilance. Billy always had to find an excuse to visit the lavatory before or after the men went. She shaved ostentatiously but always locked the bathroom door, especially at home. Menstruation was a dread.

Only five foot five inches, Billy modelled himself as a man's man. He smoked and drank and mastered such masculine attributes as mending car engines (her father's gift). He larked about and had a store of dubious jokes, specialising in those mocking `'`queers". But he always avoided conflict, especially anything that risked fisticuffs.

It is difficult to believe, in these knowing times, that this was sufficient cover. But Billy lived in a period of strict sexual reticence. When Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich wore men's clothes on screen in the 1930s, the ambiguous sexual message disappeared under the audience's jolly response to what to them was just a charming bit of fun. Intimate secrets of sexuality remained unpursued, even among family members. And homosexuals stayed inside closets that were barred and bolted.

The most amazing part of Billy's career as a self-made man was his succession of "wives". The first, Non (sic) Earl Harrell, was older than Billy and presumably bisexual, as she knew of Billy's origins but later married a man. After nine years came June, a pretty but slight figure of whom little is known.

Next, from 1946 to 1954, was the gorgeous Betty Cox, who was said to resemble Sophia Loren. Betty told Middlebrook that Billy was the "fantastic love" of her life.

"He was neat, clean and he didn't use foul language with me. He was a lovely human being with twinkling blue eyes and such soft skin. I thought he was cute as a bug! Such a nice smile. If I had to list the five or six things that made us compatible, right at the top would be his sense of humour. Then, gentleness. Very seldom angry - well, not that he didn't lose his temper. But he was considerate of other people. Bend over backwards to do whatever he thought would make you happy."

In bed, Billy was adept at making women happy. But he permitted no hands on his body. His excuse for the wrappings around his chest was a car accident that left him with unhealed ribs. They did have sexual intercourse but it was always in the dark. His excuse for this was also the accident, which had given him an unspecified genital disfigurement. That also explained his sterility.

His next wife, Maryann Cattanach, the "classy" call-girl he met in 1954, lasted until 1962. She recalled: "He was a doll. Real wavy hair. The first time we danced, I noticed he seemed to have a permanent hard-on. I just thought, "Lucky me!" And he will always be "he" to me.

"He never explained that he had a prosthesis. And I never knew. I don't know how he got his kicks. I've often wondered about that since. So I never knew because he had it - the prosthesis - on all the time."

Billy's final mate was a bosomy stripper, Kitty Kelly, "the Irish Venus" whose real name was Stella Marie Flaherty. The marriage lasted 18 years and they adopted three boys. It was Flaherty, now Oakes, who persuaded Middlebrook to do the biography and who provided access to Billy's papers.

The family has split over how much anyone knew, with Kitty claiming never to have had sex with Billy. Raped as a teenager, she maintained a lifelong aversion to sex.

However, Billy's letters suggest some busy bedtimes. He wrote of "Percy" and "Hortense" and evoked his longings while she was away on the strip circuit: "We have to do everything the hard way. Speaking of hard ways, Percy sure misses Hortense. Will you please bring her home . . . Percy should be able to really give her a going over!"

She says these were just fictitious characters of no sexual consequence.

If his "wives" knew nothing, his public should have - Tipton tipped them off often enough. To enliven his act he wrote jokes that were often ambiguous. Straight man: "When did you first begin to like girls?" Billy: "When I found out they weren't boys." Billy: "I used to teach drums at the YWCA." Straight man: "How did you get into the YWCA?" Billy: "I lied about my age." He did lie about his age, subtracting five years to explain his boyish appearance. He also lied about his career and success, but that was a showbiz standard then.

He recorded only two LPs but was once praised by Ella Fitzgerald, and the legendary pianist Norma Teagarden (late sister of jazz great Jack) said later, when listening to his tapes: "she was a much better pianist than I thought she'd be".

As Billy sat at the piano night after night amid the swirling tobacco smoke in his immaculate tuxedo and butterfly tie, a gold and diamond ring on his wedding finger, he must have enjoyed the sly equivocations of his favourite numbers. The evergreens conjured a dreamy magic for his workaday audience but they had a specially ironic meaning for Billy: Exactly Like You, The Way You Look Tonight, I May Be Wrong, The Man I Love, But Not For Me and It's Only A Paper Moon, with its line that "it wouldn't be make-believe if you believe in me".

Yet Billy backed out just when his breakthrough came. Invited to lead a resident trio at a new casino-hotel in booming Reno, with the chance to work with top artists, he declined - to the grief of his two sidemen. Instead he moved with Kitty to dreary Spokane, Washington, and started a family.

Although he had always craved recognition for his jazz, he feared a different recognition. The more prominent he became, the more likely his secret would come out. In those days disclosure meant ruin, and in some states it was illegal to "pass".

Middlebrook suggests Billy devoted his life to his astonishing impersonation for art's sake. Yet it is certain Billy was a lesbian, as Middlebrook acknowledges. Only his death in January 1989 revealed his secret. A post mortem described him, then 74, as a "normal biological female past menopause". His shocked adopted son William, who saw the body, later said: "If my father had lived as a woman, she would have had big breasts."

It is difficult, especially with the publication of this enlightened and sensitive account of the life of a loved and respected person, and skilled musician, to understand why dissonance is heard off-stage.

Transsexuals have claimed Billy for their own, despite Middlebrook's evidence that he was playing a part he came to prefer and that, although he loved women, he also delighted in fooling them. His own description of himself at the end, to a trusted cousin who knew his secret, was: "Some people might think I'm a freak or a hermaphrodite. I'm not. I'm a normal person. This has been my choice."

But Jamison Green, president of a transsexual support group called FTM (female-to-male), says: "When I look at the pictures in the book I see female-to-male written all over them." Holly Devor, a sociology professor who has worked on a book on FTM, says the portrait of Billy as a knowing actor is false.

`Billy Tipton needed to be a man. He paid very dearly for that need, by dying at the end because he wouldn't go to a doctor and be found out." Jamison adds that deception is a "very sore point" for transsexuals, "who don't see themselves as fooling anyone. They're just trying to be who they authentically feel themselves to be".

Today, transsexuals oppose defrauding their intimates and object that the book might be thought to imply that they routinely do so. But it does not. "Now we have to defend ourselves and say we are not masquerading." Why? Tipton's life is a poignant story of its times. Who can say that Billy would not have enthusiastically "chased skirt" (as he would have put it) as an out-of-the-closet lesbian, if she could simultaneously have been accepted as the fine musician she was? That she could not was Billy's tragedy.

It seems true that Billy was a cunning psychologist and surrounded himself with the naive and unobservant. Homosexuals spotted him quickly, and this was a major reason for avoiding big cities where, unfortunately for him, success lay.

He created his own persona but it trapped him. He certainly committed fraud with his social security card as "Billy" and his phoney marriage and divorce documents. His lies about his past would have devastated his intimates, but he was a caring and thoughtful person who craved acceptance and peace.

And man, you should have caught his act . . . his deft hands stroking the keys, his enigmatic smile above the cute bow tie, softly singing: "Who cares to define/What chemistry this is?/Who cares with your lips on mine,/What ignorance bliss is."