Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton

The music business has permitted the free exchange of gender currency since classical musicians were first called “longhairs.” Indeed, in an age of necklace-bedecked rappers and poodle-tressed metal bands, the strangest part of the Billy Tipton story is its corny provincialism.

A small-time lounge entertainer who settled in Spokane, Wash., Tipton made headlines in 1989 when, in dying, the saxophonist- pianist was found to be a woman who had posed as a man for five decades. But Tipton was no drag act: Born Dorothy Tipton in 1914, she took on a male identity in adulthood and carried it out full-time with nearly flawless credibility—performing in male-dominated showbiz circles, marrying at least five women (including a few who said they never knew Tipton was a woman), eventually settling into a model suburban life of barbecues, PTA meetings, and Boy Scout outings with three adopted sons who, upon learning the truth about Tipton, said they’d always think of him as Dad.

Why would Billy Tipton attempt such an incredible ruse? And how did he/she do it (not to mention, how did he/she do it, wink, wink, nudge, nudge)? Diane Wood Middlebrook explores both gender and sex, as well as a range of related mysteries, in Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton (Houghton Mifflin, $25). It’s a well-researched and exquisitely poised book, admirable for resisting the temptation to reduce Tipton to a trendy gender-crossing heroine—the Mulan of Lounge—or a martyr for her schlocky art (Tipton made career compromises but never gave up her cuff links). If Billy Tipton succeeded at becoming a man, Middlebrook prevails at a literary task as daunting: She makes Tipton a person. A

Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton
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