Friday Book: It ain't necessarily so

Suits Me: The Double Life Of Billy Tipton By Diane Wood Middlebrook, Virago, pounds 20
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IN 1989, the publication of my book on historical cases of women who cross-dressed as men coincided with the death of the American jazz musician Billy Tipton. I was often asked to comment on how Tipton "got away with" duping fellow musicians, his four wives and the boys who knew him as Dad, into believing "she" was a he. I was equally astonished, since I had assumed that gender reassignment had ended a centuries-old phenomenon.

Like the women whose lives I studied, Billy Tipton left no definitive record of his experiences nor an explanation of his behaviour. Despite this, biographer Diane Middlebrook West has written a wonderfully detailed, lively and deeply sympathetic portrait. She argues that Tipton's identity simply swung between the poles of masculine and feminine.

A decade after his death, that is a concept more easily understood - especially in America, where a transgender movement has flourished among those who feel they exist somewhere along the continuum of gender identities. As the clean divide between the sexes becomes blurred, stories such as Tipton's become more understandable.

Billy was born Dorothy in Oklahoma City on 29 December 1914, the eldest child of Reggie and G W Tipton, a young couple "who got married in a fever". Dorothy's introduction to show business came early as she watched her father, a stunt man, walk along the wing of an airplane. There were other lessons about performance, too. A photo of Dorothy at three shows a chubby girl, carefully composed in a lace dress and cap, with ankles neatly crossed.

But neither her budding femininity nor the family's prosperity were to last. In 1927, the fever had run its course and the Tiptons divorced, with Reggie taking custody of the children. During the 1930s Reggie, unable to support Dorothy and her brother Billy, sent them to live with their Aunt Bess in Kansas City.

Despite straitened circumstances, Aunt Bess encouraged Dorothy's ambition to become a professional musician. There is another illuminating photograph of Dorothy, aged 15, ill at ease now in a ruffled dress, sporting a garland on her ham-sized wrist. Her obvious discomfort speaks volumes of her decision to leave the middle-class security of Aunt Bess's home and head back to Oklahoma City where, by 1935, she had become Billy.

Without the luxury of a memoir or letters to explain the leap over the gender divide, Middlebrook falls back on speculation. This is a biographer's prerogative and, in Tipton's case, the author teases out a convincing scenario of a musician driven as much by a desire to escape from poverty as a compulsion to express a masculine identity.

Billy gradually shed his female identity with the help of a girlfriend, Non Earl, who herself caused a sensation in Oklahoma City by wearing trousers. With brilliantined hair and obvious talent, Billy began landing jobs, first at a local club and later in a series of swing bands. As Tipton's cousin Eilene recalled, "she was talented and good-looking and had a great personality and once the ball started rolling, I don't think there was any turning back for her." But Billy's security was always wafer-thin, and this cheated him of success. At the height of his career in the 1950s, with the release of his second album and offers of lucrative contracts in Las Vegas, he opted to become an agent in Spokane.

Fame would have made him vulnerable to exposure. Even with his four "wives", Billy felt unable to divulge his secret. Middlebrook points out that his marriages, except the last to former stripper Kitty Kelly, all lasted seven years, and may have frayed under the strain. But, astonishingly, with Kitty he had the confidence to raise a family of three adopted sons and one foster son, who knew him only as Dad. Just as Billy had constructed an identity that suited him/her, he built a family and, for several years, settled into suburban bliss.

But the effects of living on the margins of society without a social insurance number, medical benefits or a pension caught up with Billy in old age. His performance had taken over long ago and, as Tipton once told a fledgling musician, "You've got to live the part, you've got to wear it." He spent his life strutting and fretting upon the stage and then paid the ultimate price for his inability to share it - even with those most intimate to him.