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Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton Paperback – June 16, 1999

35 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews Review

Billy Tipton was a jazz performer who played in clubs throughout the Midwest for nearly 50 years. Tipton never made the big time as a musician and ended up working as a booking agent in Spokane, Washington. Only with Tipton's death in 1989 was it revealed that the five-times-married father to three boys was biologically female. Diane Wood Middlebrook's biography describes the transformation of Dorothy Tipton, a white Oklahoman who was not allowed to play jazz because she was a girl, into Billy Tipton, a male pianist and bandleader. The author traces the life of this itinerant jazz musician over several decades and through changing constructions of gender.

Middlebrook, whose biography of Anne Sexton was noted for its controversial use of tape recordings and notes made during the poet's psychiatric treatment, was approached by Kitty Tipton Oakes, one of Billy's former wives, to write this biography; she interviewed his/her friends, spouses, family members, and colleagues and found them to have different, yet universally sympathetic, readings of Tipton's gender. In addition to examining what gender is, Suits Me also asks to whom it belongs: the individual or the people who interact with the individual. --Rebecca Brown --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Middlebrook (Anne Sexton: A Biography, Houghton, 1991) will fascinate another large audience with her exhaustive account of the life of jazz musician Billy Tipton. Born Dorothy Tipton in Oklahoma in 1914, and reborn as Billy Tipton in 1933, Billy passed as a man until death at age 74. Suits Me uses family interviews, anecdotes from musicians, jazz fans, lovers ("wives"), and friends to tell the story of a brilliant deception. The sensitive storytelling reveals thought-provoking perspectives about gender and the traditional American family, while capturing the social history of traveling jazz bands for 40 years. The family photographs and letters are particularly noteworthy in the exploration of Billy's life between the sexes, and there are extensive, enlightening notes and a bibliography. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries and/or libraries with women's studies or gay/lesbian/bisexual collections.
-?Lisa N. Johnston, Sweet Briar Coll. Lib., VA
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 348 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books (June 16, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0395957893
  • ISBN-13: 978-0395957899
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #192,493 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Jamison Green on June 28, 1998
Format: Paperback
When Billy Tipton died in 1989, the world rushed in and gave him, briefly, the larger fame he had once nibbled at as a jazz musician and entertainer. But in June of 1958, after 20 years of chasing the brass ring, when the door to the big time world of popular music opened and beckoned Billy in, he backed away from the spotlight, settling for playing the hotel ballrooms and clubs of greater Spokane, Washington. In Suits Me, Stanford University English professor Diane Wood Middlebrook explores both the geography of jazz and swing in the heartland of America, and the geography of gender in the middle of the 20th century. Because underneath his dapper suits and corny comedy routines, Mr. Billy Tipton concealed the body of a woman, and when he died, his sex revealed by paramedics and the coroner's report, he left hundreds of people who knew him, and millions more who heard the news, astounded by his "deception..."
Professor Middlebrook's research has been thorough, and she has spoken with most of Tipton's living relatives, former wives, business partners and many other musicians of the era. What she reveals to her readers is a fully textured portrait of an era and a man who worked hard and earned every privilege he received. She lets us almost hear the music, taste the dust from the roads Billy and his bandmates and partners traveled. She lets the people who knew him comment on whether they thought he was a man or a woman. She lays out the mystery of how others perceived and ignored or challenged Billy's gender presentation, and the l! engths to which Billy went to protect his secret, which sometimes wasn't all that hidden.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 28, 1998
Format: Paperback
I remember being called by a friend when Billy Tipton died. "She GOT AWAY WITH IT", my friend crowed. I've been waiting for a biography of this amazing person ever since and was not disappointed with SUITS ME. But it's difficult to realize that the events in the latter half of this story took place within my lifetime--at times they seem to have occurred on another planet. The most surprising thing about the book is the tolerance of Tipton's behaviour shown by a great many friends and relatives in a traditionally conservative part of the country. But rural Oklahoma in the thirties seems to have been full of men with womanish-sounding names and mannishly-named women, and no one thought anything of the occasional cross-dresser (the most hilarious episode is when Tipton meets the radio announcer who also passed as a man). As one friend of Tipton's says in SUITS ME: "There weren't as many mean people around then." The unconditional love some people have for friend and family is the true message of this book.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Peter Baklava on December 29, 2006
Format: Paperback
Submitted for your consideration: the curious tale of one Dorothy Tipton, AKA Billy Tipton---jazz pianist, husband, father, showman, raconteur, and male impersonator par excellence.

On the surface, this story does seem like fodder for Rod Serling. Billy Tipton was a riddle wrapped in an enigma, but his story is nonetheless quintessentially American. Nobody excels at reinvention quite as well as Americans. Reinventing oneself is part of the American dream, and as author Diane Middlebrook explains, Dorothy Tipton adopted male clothing and became Billy Tipton in order to pursue her dream of becoming a jazz artist. The chances of female instrumentalists for joining or fronting jazz bands were slim and none in 1935. But Billy/Dorothy was very versatile, likeable, and energetic and she parlayed her talents as a musician, arranger and showman into a respectable career, as the leader of small jazz combos in the Western U.S. Paradoxically, her fear of being exposed as a male impersonator, or "cross-dresser" in the parlance of the time, kept her mired in the semi-successful life of a musician who played "the circuit."

I think this book succeeds best as a portrait of Americana. Middlebrook does a fine job of capturing the flavor of Oklahoma, Kansas City, Spokane and the places in between that Billy traversed as a musician. She also delineates very well the fresh-scrubbed, impish, oddly sympathetic figure of Billy herself. Where she stumbles a bit is in her tendency to overanalyze, and to sometimes adopt the tone of Billy's risque and cheap humor within her own writing--she sometimes goes for the too easy and the too obvious turn of phrase.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Karen Franklin on November 1, 2011
Format: Paperback
As others have written, this is an excellent, nuanced biography; Middlebrook had little to work with and spent years gathering primary source material and conducting interviews in order to weave together an intriguing tapestry.

After reading it, I was curious to learn more. This review is intended to point other curious minds toward further resources:

If you want an opportunity to hear Billy Tipton play, some kind soul has made the songs from both albums freely available online. I've made a shortened link: Tipton. Quite enjoyable soft jazz.

And if you want to know whatever happened to the family, I found a 2008 story from the Spokane Review about the settlement of Kitty Oakes' estate. Sadly, she was psychiatrically hospitalized at the end of her life due to dementia, and the couple's three adopted sons had to fight for the right to inherit her estate. Here's a shortened link to that story:
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