Alice Bradley Sheldon was the cosseted child of famous parents, her mother a writer, her father a lawyer who took little Alli and her mother on expeditions into unexplored regions of Central Africa. Alli, the heroine of her mother’s travel tales, grew up to be a painter, an intelligence officer for the Air Force, and, finally, a writer.
But it was not the voice of Alli that found its way onto the pages of science fiction magazines and short story collections. It was that of a mysterious figure named James Tiptree, Jr. Julie Phillips, author of this fascinating biography, refers to Tiptree as “he,” which makes sense, even though the reader knows that he is a she. Sheldon, we learn, impulsively took the name of her male persona from a jar of marmalade. She believed that a male writer would have a better chance in the sci-fi game which was then enjoying its first burst of mainstream readership. But that was not the only reason.
Alli once proposed that there should be “a great deal more homosexual activity on the part of women” and felt that sex with a man, for a woman, was a sort of necessary punishment. She was married to men several times and rumored to have had affairs with many others, but she admitted that women were the real object of her sexual desire. While she may have had some sexual liaisons with females, she more often avoided them, seeking out only women who were sure to reject her, and probably not knowing exactly what she wanted if she were accepted. Perhaps because she lived in an era pre-Sexual Revolution (she died in 1987 in her 70s) she felt unable to act out her lesbian fantasies. She wanted to be a man, as evidenced by her masculine career choices, but ended her days with an older man, Huntington Sheldon, whom she called Ting. She and Ting were very close, so close that Alice shot him in his sleep and then shot herself rather than watch as he and she became more helpless and ill with old age.
But the murder/suicide was not as shocking to those who knew Alli as was the “outing” of James Tiptree. Compared by other sci-fi writers to Hemingway and staunchly defended by them as a man, albeit a man who was remarkably able to express a female viewpoint in his writing, Tip was revered in a genre where men dominated. One of her few female peers, Joanna Russ, wrote to Tiptree on the subject of gender and the writer’s viewpoint, “You’re NOT a woman, kiddo…write your own stories!” The Tiptree/Sheldon subterfuge was discovered when Alli’s mother died and Tiptree’s
fellow writers put the facts together. At first there was true shock and
consternation. Tiptree had existed - if only in correspondence and in his well-known and highly acclaimed stories – as a man. Later, everyone willingly declared that, of course, it really didn’t matter that Tiptree was Sheldon. But Sheldon, a depressive and self-critical personality, was quick to perceive the slacking off of Tiptree’s fame as “his” female truth emerged. The death of her mother and the death of Tiptree were two major blows to a woman who had struggled all her life against a surging tide of misery.
Phillips has pulled together all the skeins of fact and deception in the long life of Alli Sheldon. Brilliant, tormented, she was a woman who tried every ploy, including simply becoming a man, to exist competitively in a man’s world.