BILLY TIPTON: SELF-MADE MAN
By Sally Lehrman
Diane Middlebrook found herself
face to face with questions about sex identity when she began
researching the life of jazz musician Billy Tipton for her coming book.
Tipton, a saxophone and piano player who led popular dance bands in the
1940s and early 50s, made his career traveling through small towns on
the Southwest and Northwest jazz circuits. He lived a glamorous and
exuberant life, made lots of friends and married several times.
Tipton eventually settled down in Spokane, Washington, married a
former stripper named Kitty and adopted three sons. But jazz fever died
out as Tipton grew older, and he spent his last years alone in a trailer
park with little money. In 1989, at age 74, what Tipton thought was
emphysema turned out to be a hemorrhaging ulcer. His youngest son called
an ambulance and watched as the paramedics who tried to resuscitate his
father uncovered a startling truth: The dying man had the body of a
As Middlebrook, a Stanford professor of English, began talking with
Billys wives, children, cousins and colleagues, she asked about sex
identity. She asked about sex. She asked about the way Billy dressed,
the way he talked, the way he presented himself while making love.
Middlebrook struggled to find the words to describe him. Born as
Dorothy, Billy had fooled men and women alike for 50 years. The first
time the young woman passed as a man it was a joke and a
concession to the economic pressures of the Depression