book review

Review: “Suits Me” by Diane Wood Middlebrook

Middlebrook, Diane Wood. Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton 
Houghton Mifflin, 1998
Hardcover, 326 pages
ISBN 0-395-65489-0

Billy Tipton was a musician and entertainer who flourished during the 1930’s and 1940’s. When paramedics arrived to treat Billy after he had collapsed at home in January 1989, Billy’s adopted son William, who had placed the 911 call, was just as surprised as the medics to learn that his father was a woman.

In Suits Me, Diane Wood Middlebrook traces the life of Dorothy Tipton, who grew up as a girl until about the age of 19. When a band in need of a saxophonist wouldn’t take on a woman, Dorothy cut her hair, put on men’s clothes, and re-auditioned as a man; this time she was enthusiastically accepted. Thus began the life of Billy Tipton.

But Billy continued to maintain the persona of a man long after his musical career was over. He even went so far as to stage a wedding, complete with fake marriage license, and to adopt (also illegally, unknown to his wife) three young boys. Although Billy had a social security card and paid taxes while he was working, he never applied to receive social security benefits when he was old enough, despite a dwindling income. And he refused to see a doctor despite worsening emphysema and ulcers—all because he feared his secret would be discovered.

Middlebrook spent several years tracking down and interviewing the still living family members, friends, and associates of Billy Tipton. Her research shows in the details that bring to life the world of traveling musicians of Billy’s era. But despite all the author’s research, the book never answers the question of why Billy worked so hard to maintain his illusion until his death. Middlebrook seems content with speculation:

And if her first act of cross-dressing was a brilliant, problem-solving prank, Billy quickly found that being taken for a man provided access to almost everything she wanted—music, travel, the love of adventurous and caretaking women. 

(p. 11)

Also, Middlebrook gives no indication that she did any research into gender identity, a field that has been studied at least since the mid 1960’s. Her analysis of Billy Tipton’s life never rises above the level of pop psychology:

The men in Dorothy’s family were always walking out on the women. Billy became a protector, the kind of man who solved the problems created for her mother’s kind of woman by her father’s kind of man. Throughout life, Billy surrounded herself with creatures that needed protection: small dogs, young men, vulnerable women, and eventually children. 

(p. 59)

It’s unfortunate that Middlebrook didn’t take the extra step of discussing Billy’s life in a psychiatric sense. Without this analysis, Billy Tipton’s life is merely a titillating story.

© 1999 by Mary Daniels Brown

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