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Billy Tipton's "Double Life."

Author Diane Wood Middlebrook has written "Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton." (Houghton Mifflin) It traces the life of jazz musician Billy Tipton who passed as a man most of her life. Middlebrooke also wrote "Anne Sexton: A Biography." She is a professor of english at Stanford University in California.


Other segments from the episode on June 1, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 1, 1998: Interview with Nicholas Papandreou; Interview with Diane Wood Middlebrook; Commentary on California's Proposition 227.


Date: JUNE 01, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 060101np.217
Head: A Crowded Heart
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.

Nicholas Papandreou is the third-generation son of one of the first families of Greece. His grandfather George Papandreou was a liberal politician who served as prime minister in the early '60s. At the beginning of his career, Nicholas' father Andreas was deputy minister in George Papandreou's administration.

As a child in Greece, Nicholas witnessed the turbulent political upheavals that marked his family's time in office. The Papandreou government was dismissed by King Constantine in 1965. After a right-wing military coup in 1967, Andreas Papandreou was imprisoned for eight months and lived in exile until '74, when the military dictatorship ended. Andreas went on to serve two separate terms as prime minister, from '81 to '89, then again from '93 to '96.

In his new novel, "A Crowded Heart," Nicholas Papandreou tells the story of a young boy named Alex whose family, like his own, leaves America for Greece where his father is preparing to become the next prime minister and is caught up in a wave of revolution, military dictatorship, and finally exile.

Terry Gross spoke with Nicholas Papandreou recently. She asked him to read a passage from his new novel, about the night in 1967 when his father was arrested in the wake of the military coup.

NICHOLAS PAPANDREOU, AUTHOR, "A CROWDED HEART": In April, 1967, the night of the coup, a fanatic came to arrest my father. At the age of nine, I had an irrepressible need to imitate sounds -- the "putt putt" of a kayiki (ph), the strangled cry of a donkey, the alarm clock and the sizzle of coffee spilling over the breecki (ph). I thought he was a thief and I imitated the siren of a police car to scare him. He was not deterred.

When he entered my bedroom, he looked at me with his invincible gaze. I felt that if I got too close to him, I would be sucked into an empty space. He must be alive, because I still see him in my dreams. That night weakened our family's centrifugal gravity, loosened the orbits. My sister turned inward and grew less talkative, while my older brother blamed himself for his father's arrest and hurled himself into politics like a Minoan dancer.

My youngest brother barricaded himself behind a deceptive smile and I had recurring dreams of being strangled by the fanatic officer. As for my parents, in the ensuing years they adjusted their love for the ultimate good and sacrificed it for the all-absorbing struggle of politics. Politics is an enemy to family -- an opposing force. At some point, love, no matter how strong, hides and cowers in the corner, while politics, hot, naked, and sweating, moves in like a minotaur.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: That was Nicholas Papandreou reading from his new novel A Crowded Heart.

You moved to Greece in around '64. When you got to Greece, did you get an immediately different sense of your father? You had seen him as the Berkeley professor when he was living in exile in the United States.


GROSS: And now in Greece, he was the political hero. Did he seem like a different man to you?

PAPANDREOU: Only in the sense that I didn't see very much of him. In Berkeley, I saw quite a bit of him. We even had picnics on Saturday. Once we arrived in Greece, all those family gatherings disappeared and he was out late at night and left very early in the morning, so basically he disappeared from the home.

GROSS: What did he represent in Greek politics when he returned?

PAPANDREOU: I think he represented youth, a new voice, and perhaps, paradoxically, an American voice of sort of the liberal dream about democracy, equality, and the struggle for the underdog. And that sort of language, coming straight out of Berkeley of the early '60s in Greece, was very explosive.

GROSS: And what did the king of the time, King Constantine, represent?

PAPANDREOU: King Constantine represented the past, really -- an old force -- and foreign control, since the king in Greece was imposed in the 1860s by Bavaria, basically. So it represented everything foreign.

GROSS: In your new novel, there's a lot of scenes of the boy watching his father speak before a huge and enthusiastic crowd. Were you in front of a lot of crowds as a boy? Did you start to understand the different personalities that crowds can have?

PAPANDREOU: Hmm, that's a very good question, and it's interesting that you yourself have noticed that. Yes, crowds have different personalities, and the crowds of that time were for me full of passion and perhaps because I'm older, seem sort of dream-like in their quest for a vision.

But I was -- I think I was afraid even from then what would happen if the crowd, instead of shouting our last name in support, would shout it in anger. So, I did I think already have a premonition of a future which may be much less optimistic and favorable to our family in Greece.

GROSS: Let's get back to the night of the military coup. The coup was I believe in part a response to your father's popularity. What was the motivation behind the coup, the way you understand it now as an adult?

PAPANDREOU: Well, there was an effort to change the existing order, which meant that the king should have less power; and basically to come out of a civil war and a McCarthyite era, where anybody center and left of center was under the gun. And through the democratic process, it seemed quite clear that both Papandreous, meaning my grandfather and father, were going to come to power and they came to power.

And then they were running again for elections, and using the fear of communism, which strangely enough was something neither of those two people supported, but they were certainly left of center, a group of military men that were steeped in the '30s and in the civil war and in that McCarthyite era took over the country, thinking they were protecting the country from some evil force.

And I think looking back that those people who took over were very small in their views of the world and very blind to progress and to a more democratic future. Sad -- sad cases, I would say, and they're serving out their time in prison now and some of them have died in prison.

GROSS: Who showed up at your house to arrest your father when the coup began?

PAPANDREOU: Well, there was a person that I really knew was a fanatic -- a fanatic officer, who was shouting my father's name repetitively like a mantra so many times, and spit was coming out of his mouth, that I just knew it was sheer hate. They had chosen a person who probably thought my father was the devil incarnate. He was followed by soldiers who were less fanatic, but that man was enough to, as I write in the book, to create quite a few nightmares for my future.

GROSS: Where was your father hiding?

PAPANDREOU: He was hiding on the roof of a three-floor home, and when a gun was pointed at my older brother's head and he heard it, he jumped and...

GROSS: When you father heard that the gun was pointed at your brother.

PAPANDREOU: Right, he heard -- well, he heard the officer say "tell us where you father is or I'll shoot." And at that point, my father wasn't willing to go through that process, of course, and sacrifice my older brother. He jumped and the expression of satisfaction on the officer's face 'cause I happened to be there in that same area, was incredible. And he -- and they, the soldiers lifted their rifle butts and started beating him in front of us.

GROSS: Beating your father?

PAPANDREOU: Yeah, while he had had, in the jump he had landed on glass, so there was quite a bit of blood coming out of his legs where he had stepped and pierced his skin. So, it's a strange thing to find your father, who is an image of power as you're growing up, so weak -- to see him so vulnerable. It shifts your viewpoint quite quickly.

GROSS: Were you crying when they dragged out your father?

PAPANDREOU: No, something was wrenched out of me, though. I felt I couldn't help him. It was a strange situation. And I saw him in the truck, but I had this sense, I guess from being very young, that he was invincible still and that they wouldn't kill him. It turns out historically they had a big meeting that night to decide whether to execute him or not. And they decided not to.

GROSS: Why not?

PAPANDREOU: They said in one of the memoirs I read of one of these people who took over, they didn't want to turn him into a martyr. And once they had him in their control, they didn't really know what to do with him. So, it was a chance circumstance that their own analysis of the situation said: "don't execute this man."

GROSS: What impact did that night have on your older brother -- the one who had the gun to his head -- the one to whom the fascists were saying...

PAPANDREOU: I'll shoot you.

GROSS: ... where's your father or I'll shoot you?

PAPANDREOU: Well, I think it had a huge impact. I think he felt guilty that it was his fault that my father gave himself up. Strange as that might sound, but you know, these things don't necessarily have a logical process. And I think that's why he went into politics. It was a way to make up for having supposedly allowed my father to be captured. And that was a way to make up for it.

GROSS: What position does he hold now, your brother?

PAPANDREOU: Now, he's alternate minister of foreign affairs. It means sort of number two in the State Department equivalent over here.


PAPANDREOU: Very great belief in multiculturalism -- many of the ideas that are quite popular here in the states are some of the things that he just talks about; and a great believer in continuing education, in adult education.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Nicholas Papandreou. And his father and grandfather were prime ministers of Greece. And he's written a new novel based on his own experiences as a boy in Greece called A Crowded Heart.

Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Nicholas Papandreou. His father and his grandfather were prime ministers of Greece. And now, Nicholas Papandreou has written a novel about what it was like to be a boy in Greece. And the novel is called A Crowded Heart.

When your father was arrested the night of the military coup, were you afraid that your father was in for a long period not only of arrest, but of torture?

PAPANDREOU: Yes. Not instantly afraid, because actually I didn't know about the existence of torture at that age. I was about nine years old. By one of those strange coincidences, I happened to be reading "1984" very shortly after that.

And through that book and through a visitor who came to our house who had been tortured, I'd seen him before and after, I came to believe that the future of the world was going to be torturous for many people and that my turn would soon be up as I got older; that adulthood perhaps meant being tortured if you really went out on a limb for your beliefs.

GROSS: What was your boyhood understanding of what torture was?

PAPANDREOU: I think it had to do sort of with that -- or really an idea that what's discovered is the thing that you're scared of most. And if you don't like spiders, they're going to put spiders on your face; if you don't like dentists, they're going to pull out your teeth. I had sort of a vague image, probably you don't really want to hear much about that at that age, and you don't want to read any gory descriptions. And there weren't many books available on that topic as there are now.

It wasn't something that was widely known. So I can't really recall all the images, but I think I carried them through my life; that something very painful, of course, and with people not respecting you at all; the way that I saw those soldiers and officer showed disrespect to my father, to a bodyguard there, to my sister and to many of the people in the family. They were sort of throwing everybody around and banging their heads on the walls.

GROSS: When your father was arrested at the start of the military coup, there were around, I think, 6,000 other people who were arrested too. There must have been this tremendous sense of national fear and repression. What did that feel like to you as a child?

PAPANDREOU: Well, what I was surprised was having seen these huge crowds, to find them suddenly disappear from the streets; these crowds, as you said, that have their own personality...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

PAPANDREOU: ... no longer there. And that was strange for me. It really taught me that what you see is not necessarily what you get; that there's a lot of passion, but that does not necessarily translate into some sort of resistance. And when, of course, the state is so strong and there is a history of a security state in Greece, so that one person is afraid of the other; a history of people going to the police and ratting on their neighbors during the McCarthyite era of the '50s.

The streets were empty. That's what I remember. I remember going to school and people looking at me very strange and suddenly the house was empty. People were no longer coming there. So yes, there was a change -- a very felt change.

GROSS: Were you worried that the police would come for you, too?

PAPANDREOU: Yes, I was. And they did -- I can't say come for me particularly, but they had no problem in physically giving us a hard time and twisting our arms and looking for things in the house and threatening us, even at our young age. They would -- the security people would come in on a weekly basis, supposedly looking for rebellious activity or guns or grenades or God knows what.

In fact, at one point, they had planted some grenades and guns in our backyard, and thank God for our two little dogs, Blackie (ph) and Jilda (ph) who sniffed out the weapons. We found them; got rid of them. The security people show up in the backyard; somehow they go to that very spot where it was hidden. They sort of kick around because they're not supposed to know where it is. They keep kicking on the dirt, try to dig a little deeper; and they find nothing. Small revenge.

GROSS: How did you father get out of prison?

PAPANDREOU: Well, President Johnson actually -- the historical record shows, said: "let that son of a beep out of prison" and the message was heard over to Greece, and they told him: "here's a passport and get out of here."

GROSS: So, you moved out of Greece with your family when your father was released?

PAPANDREOU: That's right. We went to Paris just in time for May, '68 -- brief stop in Sweden for a year; and then my high school years were in Canada.

GROSS: So you lived in those areas between 1968 and 1974.

PAPANDREOU: That's right. Quite right.

GROSS: And then the military dictatorship ended...


GROSS: ... in '74; your family moved back to Greece.

PAPANDREOU: I stayed in the states and continued my college education here.


PAPANDREOU: I didn't go back, in spite of the mythic quality of Greece, I stayed in the states and continued my undergraduate and graduate education, which took quite a few years; served in the Greek military as I'm a dual citizen -- Greek and American; and have been between both countries for most of my life. Sort of justice was done.

GROSS: I'm wondering if things got more emotionally complicated after your father was elected prime minister in 1981. I'm thinking, you know, before that, you thought there was such a, oh kind of clear-cut image of the man who stood for democracy; who stood for free speech and more equity in life. After he got elected and he had to actually run the government, over the years there were financial scandals that were alleged to have happened.

Late in his career, he left your mother for a much younger woman. And I think he became a much more ambiguous figure in Greek politics, as so many politicians end up becoming more ambiguous...



GROSS: ... once they're actually in power.

PAPANDREOU: You're probably pointing out a good point for many people who finally get into power after many years, but if I can speak a little bit metaphorically, maybe some of us know the poem by Kavafi (ph) called "Ithaca." And he says it's not Ithaca that you want to get to necessarily. It's the trip that counts.

And I think once you get to that pinnacle of where you've been striving, that whole energy and that whole belief and vision -- it's not clear what you do with that. Getting there is very important in shaping the situation. Once you're in power, all those things you talk about -- suddenly you have to implement. And that's not an easy thing to do.

And it's not clear that once you have to work out if you're going to have to fix the potholes in such a town; if you're going to have to make new highways or build a hospital -- that that is quite important for any country, but it's not really a vision anymore and it's not necessarily about justice; the actual implementation of programs.

And that would be my explanation -- that the trip is as important as the final destination.

GROSS: You are -- you have dual citizenship. You're a citizen of the United States and of Greece. You're living, I believe, full-time in Greece now. Tell me why you've chosen to live in Greece?

PAPANDREOU: That's a good question. As you get old, you feel that you need roots. And for someone like me whose been back and forth so much, I decided that it would be close to the family that had gone through so many things as we grew up together. And that that was important to me.

And a brief comparison -- Greece is a place where you feel like you're quite alive; the life is good there. The United States is a place where you can be very creative; maybe perhaps the quality of life every day and the pressures here are very high. And so, you have to make a tradeoff and I think I decided to put the emphasis on living.

And that might mean that some of my writing -- yes, my writing might not be as good as it could be if I was in this incredible country where people are writing and exploring and doing poetry bashes and we have radio shows like yours, which you can listen to in the morning and perhaps get inspired by -- for the rest of the day.

So yes, I had to choose to live the experience rather than to write about it.

GROSS: Your new novel, A Crowded Heart, is really autobiographical, or at least a semi-autobiographical novel. Why -- why did you choose to write about your experiences as a boy in Greece from the novelistic perspective instead of writing a memoir?

PAPANDREOU: Well, I don't think a memoir would be interesting to anybody. This book is structured in a way that each chapter is almost like a short story -- complete in and of itself -- which means it has to be fictional because life does not set itself out in complete chapters with small epiphanies at the ending of it, as Joyce wrote his "Dubliners."

I like to consider this book more in the tradition of a pure fictional world. It's just that the events are well-known, and so because some of the historical events in the book are real and people know about them, they assume that much else of the book is real. But I think when I do write -- if I ever write -- a true autobiography, it will not look like this book besides a few events.

So most of the things in there are a fictional creation, and literature is a way of dealing with some serious experiences. So in that sense, the book is real; that -- the sentiment about the world; the love for people; the passion for people that comes through the book is true. Now, the dialogues and the stories and many of the characters are invented.

GROSS: When you're in Greece, you are a part of the very well-known and very important Papandreou family -- father and grandfather were both prime ministers of the country. When you're in the United States, you know, maybe some people will really know about your family. They'll recognize your name. But I think for most people, it's not going to mean that much.

PAPANDREOU: Nobody knows.

GROSS: Right?


GROSS: So is -- is that -- does that bring a sense of relief to you sometimes to ...

PAPANDREOU: Yes, a great relief. It's very nice and sometimes I just say my name is Nick Pappas (ph) or Nick Knight (ph) -- any name that comes to my head. And I have no problem going anywhere and it's very nice. And you know, I don't necessarily always want to have that responsibility that I have to act a certain way and represent a certain political spectrum.

So yes, it's a great liberating sense to be in the United States and to play basketball and listen to the radio show and read books and walk on the streets and have nobody recognize you.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

PAPANDREOU: Thank you very much for having me.

BOGAEV: Nicholas Papandreou talking with Terry Gross. His new novel is A Crowded Heart.

I'm Barbara Bogaev and this is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Philadelphia
Guest: Nicholas Papandreou
High: Nicholas Papandreou is the son of former Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou. Nicholas as written the novel "A Crowded Heart." It is a fictional retelling of his own childhood in Greece. Born in Berkeley, California, he now lives in Athens, Greece.
Spec: Europe; Greece; History; Family: Politics; Government
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: A Crowded Heart
Date: JUNE 01, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 060102np.217
Head: Suits Me
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, sitting in for Terry Gross.

When jazz musician Billy Tipton died in 1989, the news made headlines all over he world. It wasn't his fame as a musician that attracted the attention, but the discovery that Billy Tipton was a woman.

Since the age of 19, Tipton -- born Dorothy Tipton of Oklahoma City -- had lived as a man; had had five common law wives, and raised several adopted children. Dorothy Tipton first began cross-dressing to get a foot in the male-dominated jazz world during the Depression. As Billy Tipton, she played in jazz bands all over the Midwest and formed the Billy Tipton Trio in the 1950s.

Billy Tipton retired from performing at the height of his career, perhaps to avoid the media exposure that might have blown his cover.

Diane Middlebrooke tells Tipton's story in her new biography "Suits Me." Diane Middlebrooke is professor of English at Stanford University. She's also the author of "Anne Sexton: A Biography."

Terry Gross spoke with her last week. Before we hear the interview, let's listen to this 1949 recording that features Billy Tipton.


ANNOUNCER: Right now, it's our turn to -- so pull the ear alongside -- Billy Tipton, the piano player in the George Mayer (ph) swing trio combination. Billy's going to sing "If I Knew Then What I Know Now."

What I know now
If I knew then
You'd be here now

I'd give the world and its gold
To have and to hold
The one thing in life

If I knew then
What I know now...

TERRY GROSS, HOST: How was it discovered that Billy Tipton really was a woman?

DIANE WOOD MIDDLEBROOKE, PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH, STANFORD UNIVERSITY, AUTHOR, "SUITS ME: THE DOUBLE LIFE OF BILLY TIPTON": It's a very touching story. Billy was quite ill; had been ill for about six weeks before he died. And his son, who was 18 years old, was taking care of him and had been very worried about him. But his father was resisting going to a doctor. And nobody could persuade Billy to do anything he didn't want to do.

So one morning, the son fixed breakfast for him; got his father out of bed; taken him to the bathroom and just observed how sick he was. And while his dad was in the bathroom, he called his mother and told her that he really didn't know what to do. She said: "well, call the paramedics and just have him taken to the hospital."

So the son did that and as he took his father out of the bathroom to take him to breakfast, his father became unconscious; just slumped against him, and was just dead weight. And he was terribly worried -- laid him on the floor.

The paramedics arrived right away; started working over his dad, and opened the pajama tops and exposed to his son's view the fact that, as he put it to me, if my father had lived as a woman, she would have had big breasts.

So all of a sudden, Billy was dead; this was a corpse now. And there was the body exposed to the view of the son and then pretty soon the world.

GROSS: Did his wives know? He was married -- or at least lived as if he were married to several women.

MIDDLEBROOKE: I found five altogether who were called "Mrs. Tipton." And in the first relationship, with a woman -- a very amusing woman named Nonearle (ph) who died in 1967 -- that was quite clearly a lesbian partnership, although that was not the name it had among the people that knew them. But from about 1940, with the second woman, who passed as Mrs. Tipton or was called Mrs. Tipton, Billy was passing as a man with everybody.

This was, of course, one of the fascinating dimensions of the story. I was not able to find that second wife, by the way, whose name is June, but I was able to find the third and fourth wives, who explained to me not only their -- described, or discussed I should say, their sexual practices, but also shared with me the kind of fascination with how in the world he had gotten away with it. We have a good deal of speculation about this in the book.

GROSS: Well, what can you pass on to us about what those two former wives told you about how he fooled them?

MIDDLEBROOKE: Well, I don't know how candid I can be, but I will tell you the best one-liner I got from any wife was that, for the fourth wife Mary Anne, she said to me after about the second day of our interviews, when we got to be quite comfortable with each other, she said: "honey, I can hardly wait to read your book. I thought it was a penis."


So you -- you know, so we began. She -- she said that she had gotten nurse's training after she and Billy split up. She said she thought she would go try to do a little research herself on what kind of equipment he might have gotten from a medical supply house.

I think you -- I think you have to think of Billy as a kind of a magician actually; somebody who has a way of controlling the circumstances so that your attention is focused only on the thing that he wants to fool you about. And the rest of it, he's just extremely practiced and very cool.

GROSS: Well, apparently he didn't parade around the house naked a whole lot.

MIDDLEBROOKE: He did not. Never, no, no. And his wives were actually quite grateful at what they regarded as his extremely courteous and thoughtful behavior. They said to me -- almost everybody found a way to say this to me: you know, if somebody has certain kinds of preferences about privacy and you love them, well you just permit them to, you know, be modest or lock doors behind them if they want to.

But with Billy, they also had the idea that he had been injured in a car accident that crushed his ribs and pelvis, so that it wasn't comfortable for him to be squeezed or touched. He always wore bindings around his chest and he wore a jock strap under his shorts, so there were always straps there. And the women did his laundry and didn't notice anything unusual about this.

But he -- now, we always made love in the dark and he never walked around the house nude.

GROSS: How did the women feel about being deceived when they discovered the truth after his death?

MIDDLEBROOKE: You know, I was quite astounded at how little resentment there was in them. I think because Billy actually loved them and they loved him. And their memories of him are of a man whom they loved deeply and felt, on reflection, you know, that he'd been generous and good to them and that they'd never had any -- they'd never had any embarrassment about it until after his death, of course, when both of them felt as if they really had to try to explain themselves, because I'm sorry to say that running through this entire story is a very profound homophobia.

That is, nobody wants to be thought of as a lesbian. And this is one of the reasons everybody wants to explain to me how they could have been taken in; that they were heterosexual women; what they thought were heterosexual relationships; and that Billy turned out to be female was just unbelievable to them.

And I have a feeling that maybe Billy shared that attitude, too -- that it wasn't a good thing to be a lesbian. I think that's why he decided that he would be a man.

GROSS: Did Billy Tipton try to pass as not only a man, but a family man? A kind of traditional family man?

MIDDLEBROOKE: He did. In fact, his last wife, Kitty Oakes (ph), speculated after she found out after his death about his sex, she said: "you know, I think Billy must have chosen me because I was incapable of having sex."

She was very phobic about sex because of early traumas and she also had had a hysterectomy so couldn't have children. But she'd always wanted to have just a normal family life. And when Billy asked her to marry him, she was really thrilled at the idea of just sort of settling down; becoming a suburban housewife; having been, by the way, a stripper for the past 15 years.

So, this was her ideal. She wanted to get out of the life, as she said. And Billy's approach to her was of -- that of two people, both of whom had been damaged sexually, but who might like to have a family. So together they adopted three children that were the unwelcome illegitimate children of other show people; and Kitty thought they were legally adopted; three boys; and raised this family -- taking them through the Boy Scouts, being very active in PTA; having truly a very conventional suburban family life.

GROSS: Well, you managed to get, as part of your research, an audio recording that Billy Tipton made -- a kind of Christmas greeting to his mother-in-law -- Kitty's mother -- and I thought we might hear some of that now. This was recorded in 1974. Would you like to say something about it before we hear it?

MIDDLEBROOKE: Yes, I was elated, Terry, to find that -- or to find -- to be given this tape by the estate, because there was so little information that came directly from Billy. This voice is, I think, just immensely instructive. You can hear the Oklahoma in it.

As a matter of fact, it sounds very much like the voice of Chet Baker (ph) in the voiceover from "Let's Get Lost" -- that documentary that was made about Chet Baker. It's quite eerie how that similarity of the pitch and the sound of the voice and so on.

The question is: is it a man or is it a woman? -- comes up right away and I think -- you know, challenge you to be able to tell the difference. But it also gives you a sense of Billy as a performer -- the timing and the pace and the drawl and the humor. So, it gave me just a little smack of what it might have been like to sit in a room with Billy and listen to him.

GROSS: Well let's hear Billy Tipton speaking in an audio postcard to his mother-in-law, Christmas 1974.


TIPTON: Merry Christmas, grandma. This is coming to you from the living room of your former home in Spokane, Washington. It's a mighty gloomy night out tonight. We've had some snow and it's kind of foggy out there and it's, oh, probably around 32 degrees, which isn't too bad for this time of the year.

We've been very lucky with the weather and we had some snow and some ice and some stuff, but it's all fairly mild now. In fact, it's good pneumonia weather, if that's any consolation to anybody. Also, pretty busy at the office...

GROSS: Billy Tipton, recorded in 1974. My guest Diane Middlebrooke has written a new biography of musician Billy Tipton, who was born a woman, but passed as a man for most of her professional life. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Diane Middlebrooke. She's written a biography of Billy Tipton, a musician who was a woman, but passed as a man for most of her professional life.

Why did Billy Tipton want to pass in the first place? I mean, the most -- there's two like obvious answers you could give. One is that, you know, he -- she was a woman who wanted to be a man; or a lesbian who didn't want to be a lesbian and therefore wanted to pose as a man.

Or the professional career answer might be: it was really hard for a woman of that generation to find work as jazz musicians; easier for men; therefore, you know, she became a he.

So you know, what -- what do you think figures into the equation?

MIDDLEBROOKE: Well the first -- the first thing that figures in is the period of Billy's deciding to try to get a job playing music as a man. This is really a Depression story. And that -- that is in the historical sense -- that Billy was a teenager, a late teenager and then 20 years old when she started trying to play music and make a living at it. And it was during the Great Depression when the jobs were very hard to get.

But in addition, there was this milieu of real fear about the economic catastrophe that people were in. I got this very much reflected through Billy's cousins, who were devoted to her, and who were some of my -- provided some of the most important kinds of insights into Billy's -- the phase when Billy was deciding this was the way to do what she wanted to do, because they were there the first day that she ever crossed-dressed, actually.

They told me about binding her -- tearing up this sheet and helping her tie it around her -- middle of her body and put a great big safety pin in it; and how she slicked back her hair and said she was going to go audition; see if she couldn't get a job playing in a band where they needed a saxophone player and also were going to be crossing the state line, which she couldn't have done if she were a female.

And then she came back and had money in her hand. And they said to me -- both of them found ways to say this: you can't understand unless you lived through the Depression what it was like. Think of the alternatives. Just think of what might have happened to Dorothy.

What was on their mind was obviously unspeakable, but what they meant, I'm sure, is that after all, you know, you just didn't know how from one day to the next, where you were going to get any money. You might have ended up becoming a prostitute. It's definitely what they -- what they feared and what they projected onto Billy as a -- as the basic issue; this stark thing.

So what Billy did -- landing on her feet by cross-dressing and just playing music as a man, was to them just admirable and inventive. I think one of them used the word "innovative." So clearly, there was a payoff right away for cross-dressing.

GROSS: Billy Tipton started cross-dressing just professionally to get work...


GROSS: ... but wasn't -- wasn't really pretending outside of that to be a man.

MIDDLEBROOKE: No, but what she did -- apparently, when she would go to auditions was -- was practice the "don't ask/don't tell" sort of tactic, because she'd go in and sit down with her saxophone, apparently, and join a band and then guys would figure out or observe that she was female, and they just sort of took it in stride, according to them.

And I do ask them, maybe even if becomes a little too repetitious in the book, because I can't get enough of the answer: did you know that Billy was female? And they say: yes, so what?" You know, I say: "now, come on, really it can't be 'so what.' It must have mattered." They'd say: no, it was just -- she was just a, you know, she was a good piano player; she was a good musician. And that's just the way it was. Nobody made much of a fuss about it.

Now, that was in the early days in Oklahoma City. That was between, say, '34 and 1939, when Billy was playing in country swing bands that were modeled on the band of Bob Wills (ph) and playing dance music in honky-tonks. So, it wasn't really -- we shouldn't say -- couldn't say a very high-profile economic life.

But in about 1940, I think -- I think Dorothy had big ambitions to be a jazz musician, and I think that she decided that the only way that Billy was going to ever get any real work in a swing band, which is what I think she wanted, was to pass as a man full-time; not just be this strange creature who, you know, wore men's clothes and blew a saxophone.

So she went to Joplin, Missouri and began being a man full-time.

GROSS: When you do the equation in your mind, finally, how much do you think of Billy's transformation from female to male had to do with his career as a jazz musician, and how much did it have to do with just gender identity?

MIDDLEBROOKE: Well I think -- I think that anybody who does something like this for this long has more than one reason for doing it and probably more than -- has lots of reasons for doing it. But my problem in answering that question is that almost everything that I might have to say about it would come from the present, when we have a very rich array of ways of talking about gender and are very interested in gender ambiguity. But in Billy's day, that really wasn't true.

And I found that when I was trying to elicit from people who knew Billy an account of what Billy's personality was like and what his -- what, you know, what he -- just trying to get close to what it was like to be near him, that I had to just use what language they had for these things.

Let me tell you that -- the story that was the most consciousness-raising for me in this. I was pretty sure that I had found a lesbian history in Billy's life in Oklahoma City, and I was asking the musicians. I said, you know, here Billy was living with this person that was listed in the city directory as Nonearle Tipton, so she was passing as his wife. I said: "did you think that Billy was -- and Nonearle were lesbians?" And the guys would say to me without exception, they'd say: "no, we didn't think that."

One day after I'd been hearing this for many years, I was speaking to a woman who'd been involved in this business too, and I said: "Sarah, I can understand this because I think that Billy and Nonearle were romantically involved with each other, but whenever I asked the musician 'did you think they were lesbians,' they say 'no.'"

She said: "well honey, we didn't have that word. Now, we didn't call anybody a lesbian. You're from San Francisco. You don't understand this. See, if you would ask them: 'did you think Billy and Nonearle were romantically involved?' -- they would have said: 'well hell, everybody knew that.'"

So I went back to these musicians. I said: "Wayne, did you think that Billy and Nonearle were romantically involved?" And he said: "yep." So I was learning that they were answering the questions I had asked them, and they didn't think that Billy was a lesbian because they didn't have that word and they didn't think of people as having kind of gender identity of that kind. They were just people getting by in show business -- nice people, good musicians. And it was nobody's damned business. That was pretty much the story.

GROSS: Gender is such a kind of big subject now. And I'm wondering what people who focus on gender issues have had to say about Billy; some of the things that have been projected onto Billy Tipton.

MIDDLEBROOKE: I think that there is a sort of division between the trans-genderists who've adopted Billy as poster-boy -- in fact, Billy appears on the cover of a how-to book on cross-dressing that was published in San Francisco shortly after his death; as the example of the person like themselves, the trans-genderist, who believes that he's been born into the wrong body. He is a man in a female body and wants that corrected.

The other kind of camp that claims Billy are lesbians who see Billy as a kind of -- a butch who was not permitted to be socially acceptable; who didn't have a context in which he could live out a female masculinity, so to speak. And so therefore had to pass.

But I -- my view of her -- of Billy is as an actor who was fulfilled within the roles that the music business and her own talent permitted her to play.

GROSS: Has writing the biography of Billy Tipton challenged any of your views about gender?

MIDDLEBROOKE: I think it's challenged just about everything. I've found that the only way that I could really get close to Billy's subjectivity, which is so elusive since she really was very good at protecting herself from being -- from intimates -- was to try to identify with the women that were close to Billy and think about what it is that, for me, is masculine about a man.

And I don't think theories help very much, but what does help is just sort of consulting your own experience; that is, how -- what a huge range there is in sexual intimacies, for one thing; just a huge range in men's bodies; men's ways of being close to you.

And also the kinds of private, usually unspoken negotiations you make yourself around privacy; and that those things themselves are the -- I think the inner -- the kind of inner-accountability you can have toward somebody like this.

GROSS: Well Diane Middlebrooke, thank you very much for talking with us.

MIDDLEBROOKE: Thank you, Terry.

BOGAEV: Diane Middlebrooke's new biography of Billy Tipton is Suits Me.

Coming up, Geoff Nunberg on bilingual education.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Philadelphia
Guest: Diane Wood Middlebrooke
High: Author Diane Wood Middlebrooke has written "Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton." It traces the life of jazz musician Billy Tipton who passed as a man most of her life. Middlebrooke also wrote "Anne Sexton: A Biography." She is a professor of English at Stanford University in California.
Spec: Music Industry; Sexuality; Billy Tipton; Suits Me
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Suits Me
Date: JUNE 01, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 060103np.217
Head: English Only
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:55

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: Tomorrow, Californians will be voting on an initiative that could end bilingual education in the state. If passed, all students with limited English proficiency will be put into a one-year English immersion program, then moved into the regular English language classrooms.

The measure is called "English for the Children," but is more often referred to as the "Unse (ph) Initiative" after Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unse, who spearheaded and financed it.

Our linguist Geoff Nunberg has these thoughts about bilingual education and the teaching of English.

GEOFF NUNBERG, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: There's a story that my old linguistics professor Robert Austerlitz (ph) liked to tell about the great Russian linguist Roman Yacobsen (ph). As a student, Austerlitz was attending a seminar that Yacobsen was teaching in New York, just after he came to America during the war.

Yacobsen liked to teach each session in a different language -- one day in French; the next in German; the next in English and so on. One day he began: "so, in which language shall speak in today? Ah, yes, have not yet speak Russian." And he began his lecture.

Austerlitz raised his hand timidly and said: "excuse me, Professor Yacobsen, but I don't know Russian." Yacobsen took on a pained expression and said: "Austerlitz, you are linguist, no? We will speak Russian. Try to follow."

You could think of this as the "tough love" approach to language learning. It seems to be gaining popularity in recent years. Right now, for example, there's a controversy here in California over the academic proficiency test that the legislature has mandated for all students in order to evaluate teachers and administrators. This is part of a national trend, of course, but the California statute requires that the test be given exclusively in English.

It's an odd requirement, particularly in a state where more than a quarter of public school students have limited English proficiency. You're not going to learn a lot about kids' mathematical skills if you give them word problems in a language they don't understand. And if scores improve over time, you're not going to be sure who to give raises to -- the math teachers or the English teachers.

The Unse initiative on the ballot is just another example of the same mentality. It has a certain common sense appeal. If we want the kids to learn English, let's get them into English-only classrooms as soon as possible. But few of the linguists and educators who've worked on the problem think it's a very good idea.

For one thing, those immersion programs that measure requires haven't actually been tried, and nobody in the field believes that a single year will be enough to bring students to the kind of English fluency that they need in order to do their school work. As for bilingual education, it's true it isn't a panacea, and in any case it currently reaches only about 30 percent of limited-English students, which is one reason it's a little silly for opponents of bilingual programs to blame them for high Hispanic dropout rates.

But for all its problems, the research shows that it's been an overall success. It may not be intuitive, giving kids all that instruction in their native language while you're teaching them in English, but the idea is really pretty simple: you make the transition to a new language most effectively when the subject matter is familiar to you.

It's a lesson I learned many years ago when I was hanging around Rome and trying to learn Italian by going to movies every day. I discovered that I did a lot better watching Casablanca dubbed in Italian than I did with Pasolini. It helps if you know what's coming: "oh yeah, this is where he says that they'll always have Paris."

And geography tests and math word problems are really no different. That's why the transition is so much easier for middle class kids from Europe and Asia. They've already wrestled in their own languages with those goofy problems where people try to figure out how long it takes to fill up a swimming pool with the drain open. But it's a different matter for kids who have never seen word problems, or for that matter, a swimming pool.

They do better when they can learn the subject matter in their own language while they're learning English. And that's what has educators worried about the immersion approach -- the fear that you'll dump them in and they'll never resurface.

But that's a hard point to make, particularly with American voters who tend to have a shaky conception of what's involved in learning a language. This is a country, after all, where you can make a living selling sets of cassette tapes that promise to teach you to speak French like a diplomat in just 30 days.

If the polls are any indication, voters will be swept away by the common sense appeal of the initiative. But as another famous linguist named Leonard Bloomfield (ph) once observed, most of what passes for common sense about language is really just the accretion of a couple of hundred years of medieval lore. That's the problem with asking voters to decide on questions of educational method. All they can give you back is the sense they were born with: "we'll speak English; try to follow."

BOGAEV: Geoffrey Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University and the Xerox-Palo Alto Research Center.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Geoff Nunberg, Palo Alto; Barbara Bogaev, Philadelphia
High: Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg comments on a California ballot initiative that would create "English-only" classrooms."
Spec: Language; Culture; States; California
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: English Only
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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