Alice in Genderland 

As a woman, Alice Sheldon was a frustrated debutante. As James Tiptree Jr., she revolutionized science fiction.

By the time she was ten years old, Alice Bradley had seen up close two dead bodies lashed to posts on a trail in the Belgian Congo. She'd lain awake in a tent listening to the screams of a man being killed and slept with the formaldehyde-soaked remains of a young gorilla beneath her cot. She'd accompanied her parents on three excursions to Africa and been described in the New York Times as the "First White Child Ever Seen by the Pigmy Tribes." She'd watched her parents prepare for a lion hunt and longed for a gun of her own.

Alice grew up accustomed to public scrutiny. She was the only child of Herbert and Mary Hastings Bradley, wealthy, prominent Chicagoans whose celebrated expeditions to Africa in the 20s and 30s produced some of the first big-game specimens seen in this country. Herbert was a respected lawyer and real estate investor, Mary a prolific author. Her fiction appeared in Good Housekeeping, Ladies' Home Journal, and the Saturday Evening Post, and her account of the first African expedition, later published as On the Gorilla Trail, ran as a ten-week serial in the Chicago Tribune. She wrote two children's books inspired by the family's adventures, Alice in Jungleland and Alice in Elephantland, which her daughter illustrated. Mary was frequently asked to lecture on her travels and was inducted into the Society of Women Geographers, whose membership grew to include heavyweights like Amelia Earhart, Margaret Mead, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Young Alice found her mother's long shadow impossible to outrun. "I couldn't count the times I was patted on the head by some Eminence and told, 'Little girl, if you're ever half as talented, half as charming, half as good-capable-warmhearted-plucky-beautiful-witty-(name ten)-as your mother, you'll be lucky,'" she wrote. When Alice took up painting in her 20s, she did so partly because it was just the sort of refined, creative pursuit at which her parents wished to see her excel. She stabbed away at writing for years, trying her hand at journalism, a novel, a treatise on aesthetics, and occasional short stories, one of which was published in the New Yorker in 1946. (Unhappy with the editing process, she never submitted there again.)

But Alice never seemed at peace with the life she'd been born into. As she matured she spun in multiple new directions--chicken farmer, research psychologist, CIA agent--constantly in search of an identity more true to herself. It wasn't until 1967, at the age of 51, that she found her medium. On a whim she began writing short science fiction stories--under a male pseudonym, James Tiptree Jr.--and went on to become one of the genre's groundbreaking figures.

Tiptree became Alice's mouthpiece, a workable if flawed strategy for expressing ideas and passions that didn't fit the scripts available to women of her time. Her writing under the alias received multiple Hugo and Nebula awards, and four years after her death in 1987, two science fiction writers, Karen Fowler and Pat Murphy, launched the Tiptree Award in her memory, recognizing works that "explore and expand gender." Mainstream literary writers such as Aimee Bender, Jonathan Lethem, and Salman Rushdie have been honored alongside sci-fi heavyweights Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel Delany, and Nalo Hopkinson.

Julie Phillips, a Netherlands-based journalist, wrote about the Tiptree Award in an article about feminist science fiction for Ms. in 1994. "I did so much reading for that story that I thought, I have to see if I can get another out of this," she says. After completing a piece about Tiptree for the Village Voice in 1996, Phillips decided Alice's life merited book treatment. "It had never occurred to me to write a biography, but this just came along, and it was fascinating," she says.

Phillips's dense, thoughtful book, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (Alice took the name Sheldon after her second marriage), has been praised in the New York Times Book Review and Salon since its August release and stands to bring new readers to what little of Tiptree's work is currently in print. Tachyon Publications, which printed 2,500 copies of the Tiptree story collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever in 2004, has launched a second printing in response to the demand spurred by the biography. "Early on we tried to help Julie promote her book as best we could because we didn't want it to disappear," says Jacob Weisman, Tachyon's publisher. "We were naive enough to believe that her book needed our support."

In the process of analyzing the full scope of Alice's life, Phillips also exhumes Mary Bradley, who died in 1976 in the Hyde Park apartment where she'd lived for more than 60 years. The biographer believes it was Alice's relationship with her mother that gives the story a sense of continuity: with each new career, each move away from Chicago, Alice was driving yet another wedge between herself and Mary, whom she nevertheless admired a great deal and never stopped measuring herself against. Her desire to prove herself, the book argues, may have prevented Alice from ever being able to fully integrate the parts of her identity--sexuality chief among them--that didn't fit the Bradley mold.

Much like her daughter, Mary was a woman divided; unlike her, she seems to have been comfortable with the balancing act. A working writer with a solid reputation at a time when women were expected not to have aspirations beyond the domestic, she was also a mother, a socialite, and a consummate hostess. "She wanted to be a mother and an adventure heroine both, to shoot lions and raise a daughter at the same time," Phillips writes. "There was pressure on her not to do this." When the Bradleys announced plans to go to Africa with Carl Akeley, a family friend and a hunter and naturalist who worked for the American Museum of Natural History, Phillips notes, "editorials cast doubt on Mary's fitness as a mother or suggested that Akeley was taking the women along as decoys to attract male gorillas."

Alice, who'd previously attended the University of Chicago Lab School, was sent off to a prestigious Swiss academy at the age of 14. There and at Sarah Lawrence--then a two-year women's college--her fellow students viewed her as a glamorous, sleep-deprived oddball. She was erratic in her studies, distracted by romances and moody impulses, and though she bridled against her family's elite standing she wasn't immune to the lure of expensive fashion, banquets, and gossip columns.

This image of the author as a young woman was a surprise and even a disappointment to Phillips, who says she'd expected Alice to "rebel and take control of her life from beginning to end.

"I wanted her to be a geek like everybody else who writes science fiction," she says. "It wasn't like that. I think she was a geek, but a geek in the body of a beautiful debutante. She was so beautiful and socially fortunate that there were a lot of temptations to go down that road. She couldn't make the geek go away, but in the end she could kind of muffle the beautiful debutante."

Phillips suggests that Alice's beauty was an early burden. If she hadn't been beautiful, "she might have rejected the roles for girls and tried to make something new." Instead she "practiced femininity and flirtation, and got addicted to the rewards for being a pretty girl." But Alice's journals suggest that even as a young adult she'd begun to ponder the problem of being an intelligent, unconventional woman in a man's world. More confusing, during her years at Sarah Lawrence she developed the first of several unrequited crushes on girls and began suffering mood swings. Depression was a tiger in the cage with Alice the rest of her life, fueling a dependency on pills, especially speed, and an attraction to suicide.

On December 20, 1934, when she was 19, Alice made her debut at a tea attended by more than 400 guests. At a celebratory formal dance on Christmas Eve, she met a stepson of Cyrus McCormick Jr. and eloped with him several days later, an act that scandalized her parents and made the Tribune's front page. The couple moved to California, then Greenwich Village. Their ultimately disastrous partnership lasted six years, during which time Alice had an abortion and several affairs. In the late 1930s she painted, wrote art criticism for the Chicago Sun, and--with money from her first and only sale of artwork, a nude self-portrait--bought the gun she'd always coveted, a Fox CE double-barrel 12-gauge shotgun. As it turned out, she was a crack shot.

In 1942 Alice signed up for the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps, which she'd romanticized as a place where women were in control. But the secretarial work was stifling, the efforts at female solidarity not so utopian. Despite her disillusionment, she reenlisted when the corps was re-formed with full military status as the Women's Army Corps. Assigned to the Pentagon, she worked her way into the new field of intelligence as an interpreter of high-

altitude photographs. In the spring of 1945 she was reassigned to Paris, where she met a colonel 12 years her senior, Huntington "Ting" Sheldon. They were married less than a month later--again an impulsive partnering, but this time for keeps. After a few rough spots, Ting and Alice developed a devoted if (Phillips posits) largely platonic relationship.

Ting and Alli--as Alice began calling herself around this time--returned to the States in 1946. For four years they ran a chicken hatchery in New Jersey, a gig they'd been led to believe would allow them plenty of leisure time. When the novelty wore off they sold the farm and moved to Washington, where they both took positions in the CIA. Ting stayed for the duration of his career, but while Alice liked the work and atmosphere well enough at first, before long she got itchy: the hours were too long for the limited advancement available to women, and she longed to pour energy into creative and intellectual projects of her own. She went back to school in 1957 and ultimately earned a PhD in experimental psychology from George Washington University.

The rigor and challenge of academic pursuit suited Alice, but during the final stages of her dissertation something else began to take root in her mind. She started directing more and more energy into writing fiction, and in 1967 sent several short stories out to magazines like Fantastic and Galaxy under the moniker James Tiptree Jr. The name Tiptree came from a jar of jam Alice had spied at a grocery store; she picked the first name, Ting suggested the junior. (In 1972 Alice invented a female persona, Raccoona Sheldon, under which she wrote stories she thought were more feminine, with characters who were defined by their empathic urges. Raccoona's work was never as well received as Tiptree's, though a horror novella called "The Screwfly Solution" did win a Nebula.)

Phillips suggests that, having accomplished the serious writing her degree required, Alice felt free to indulge her impulse to write science fiction. The alias gave her "not just the authority to speak, but the courage to play games, to be bad at something, to stop trying to be polished and perfect but to be amateurish and silly and have fun." She sent off slight pieces peppered with dirty jokes and stories that creaked under moralistic weight, and from the start her writing was lauded for its quick narrative pacing and taut prose. Her first real breakthrough came with "The Last Flight of Dr. Ain," published in 1969, in which a biologist spreads a deadly strain of influenza with the goal of killing off the human race and saving earth. The story came close to winning a Nebula Award and "established Tiptree as a writer to watch, with depth, worldliness, and narrative style," Phillips writes.

Some of the earliest Tiptree stories drew on Alice's experiences in the CIA, some bore traces of the subversion of gender roles that defined the best of her later work, and many evinced the fascination with space exploration that characterized American culture in the late 60s. But Alice was also clearly hacking through some weedy personal terrain. In the Hugo Award winner "The Girl Who Was Plugged In," an ugly teenager agrees to be locked in a cabinet; in return she's able to control the body of an artificially constructed proxy, a blond movie star. "Among other things," Phillips observes, "the story seems to echo the uneasy relationship between Alli and Tiptree: the inadequate private self operates the attractive persona by remote, and division is the precondition of a complete self."

If the Tiptree persona was another attempt at independence from the Bradley story, it also allowed Alice to circle back to her mixed emotions about the displacement and joy that characterized her childhood. A critic described Tiptree's stories as populated by "people searching for Home with the obsessive and monomaniacal intensity of Ahab in pursuit of the White Whale. Interestingly, the Homes in these stories are seldom idyllic--in fact they are often hurtful and ugly. But for most Tiptree characters, the issue is never in doubt: in spite of logic, personal welfare, or comfort, the only important thing is to regain the Home that has been lost."

Alice had opted into a long literary tradition of women who'd sought greater authority or approval by hiding or downplaying their gender. But her deception was founded in truth: in the voluminous letters she wrote as Tiptree, Alice didn't hide or fudge any salient details of her life. Rather, her life became his. Tiptree, Phillips writes, enabled Alice to "feel taken seriously when she wrote abut what she knew: guns, hunting, politics, war. It let her write the way she wanted to write, with an urgency that was hers. It gave her enough distance and control to speak honestly about herself." As Tiptree Alice cultivated flirtatious, epistolary friendships with such dedication that for a while her fiction writing dropped off in favor of correspondence. Chief among her pen pals were Ursula Le Guin--whom she nicknamed "Starbear"--and Joanna Russ, with whom she tangled intellectually about feminism. Russ, interestingly, seemed on to Tiptree--"Do you know," she wrote to him at one point, "there's a good deal about you that seems to me more like women I know than like men I know in the way you handle your feelings?"--but she never explicitly questioned his gender.

Tiptree's literary reputation skyrocketed. In a gushing 1969 acceptance letter Harlan Ellison, then editing an anthology called Again, Dangerous Visions, wrote, "You are the single most important new writer in science fiction today. Nobody touches you!...I am so fucking destructed by what you've allowed me to read, I don't know how to say thank you." The author's mystique only stoked the buzz traveling through the tight-knit science fiction community. At a convention in 1974, a false rumor that Tiptree was lurking spread like a virus. A few readers speculated that he might actually be a woman; others concluded that his prose was distinctly masculine. Early on a fan dropped by the Sheldon home in McLean, Virginia; Alice told him he was mistaken, that no man named Tiptree lived there. After that she opened a post office box.

At the same time as her career as Tiptree was taking off, Alice was also coping with her mother's declining health. She'd travel to Chicago to see Mary and arrange for her care, but often her concern was expressed long-distance, through letters and phone calls. To Mary this might well have felt like abandonment; for Alice it might have been yet another act of self-preservation. Mary's feeble state, Phillips argues, could only have enhanced Alice's preoccupation with death, a common theme in Tiptree's narratives.

It was Mary's death in late October 1976 that inadvertently revealed Tiptree's true identity. Alice, writing under her pseudonym, had made it known that "his" mother lived in Chicago and had been an explorer; when Mary's obituary appeared in the Tribune, listing Alice as her only survivor, rumors began circulating based on the similarities between her bio and Tiptree's. Alice first came clean to one of her editors, then gradually to her friends in letters she wrote through the end of the year. In one she wrote, "I never felt deceptive. One knows when one is being devious and nasty and untrue, you know. I was always just being me." In another she offered a glimpse of her lifelong struggle with identity when she wrote, after the unveiling, that Alice Sheldon was "not a science fiction writer or any other kind of writer. I am nothing. Must learn to be happy so."

Sexuality was another struggle Alice had failed to resolve. As Tiptree she'd written about her teenage crushes but still held them at arm's length. To Joanna Russ, who'd expressed to Alice the liberation she felt upon coming out, she wrote, "It occurred to me to wonder if I ever told you in so many words that I too am a Lesbian...Oh, had 65 years been different! I like some men a lot, but from the start, before I knew anything, it was always girls and women who lit me up." Though she cultivated the closest female friendships of her life in Tiptree's letters, Alice never acted on her desires for women. It was just one more piece that didn't quite fit.

Alice kept up her literary friendships, and about four years later began to write as Tiptree again. But the alter ego had lost its magic, and Alice, free of her mother, still wasn't free from herself. Ting was going blind and her own health was deteriorating; her bouts of depression, frequent and fierce, often paralyzed her. She rejected the idea of writing an autobiography: "I will NOT return to being a Bradley appendage." She'd talked about suicide for years, and Ting had reluctantly agreed that they would take their own lives when they became too old or ill to enjoy them. In 1987, at age 71, she shot her ailing husband in his sleep, then pulled the trigger on herself.

Alice's papers are housed in the basement of the Baltimore home of her literary trustee, Jeffrey D. Smith, who became friends with the author in the mid-70s after interviewing Tiptree by mail for his zine, Phantasmicon. In his care are journals, letters, news clippings, unfinished autobiographical essays, and the three interviews Alice ever gave (two as herself, one as Tiptree). A few friends had suggested Smith attempt a biography himself but "I always said no," he says. "I'd looked at the material enough to know that there were some periods of her life that I had a lot of information on and other parts I had virtually no information on."

"I think he was still so busy respecting Tiptree's privacy that he hadn't gone through everything he had," says Phillips. Smith acknowledges there was "a lot of material that no-one had ever seen" until Phillips started her research. When she came along, he was happy to help, filling the backseat of her car with boxes and granting her permission to photocopy at will. She spent hours at Kinko's with Alice's papers. "Later on," she says, "when I started going to real archives where you have to handle the photos with white gloves, that was kind of a shock." One such archive was the Mary Hastings Bradley Papers at the UIC library: 171 boxes of published work, journals, manuscripts, letters, photographs and negatives, crumbling scrapbooks, magazine and newspaper clippings, even clothes, all bequeathed by Alice.

Although she'd found frequent praise of Mary's stories in Alice's writing, Phillips was underwhelmed. They weren't the "undiscovered gems" she'd hoped for; rather, they were a brand of light, popular fiction that now seems dated. Mary herself remains a bit of an enigma: though always confident and composed in the folds of elite Chicago, she did, according to Alice's journals and letters, harbor her own grim preoccupation with death. In particular, she worried about Herbert's when Alice was young, and she grieved terribly for a second daughter who was born four years after Alice and lived only one day. "She certainly liked to create the appearance that she was sailing through life," Phillips says, "and that was something Alice said about her: all the suffering went on behind closed doors, with Herbert and Alice as her only confidants. I think that was really hard on Alice." Alice once wrote of her mother, "She had emotion enough for 10, but I got it all, and was always--perhaps wrongly--aware that had the others existed she wouldn't have cared much for me. Or perhaps we could really have been friends, if I hadn't been also her sole possession and projection into the future."

Phillips found Mary's journals to be little more than carefully kept activity logs. "She didn't seem to have much of an inner life, so that didn't make her very interesting to me as a biographical subject." But Mary does seem compelling to former librarian Sandra Naiman, who's been researching her at UIC for a year. Naiman says she first heard about Mary Bradley 25 years ago when she was working at the Elmhurst Public Library. "A woman who was a regular patron came up to me one day and said, 'You know, I was going to write a book on what I'm going to tell you about, but I've decided to make a present of it to you,'" she says. The woman, who apparently had been involved with the accession of the Mary Bradley Papers, told Naiman she was "fascinated by the material--which had been given to the library by the woman's daughter--because of the way it showed how much her daughter hated her. And of course I was intrigued." Naiman had lived in Hyde Park years before; she suspects that she might have known people who knew Mary Bradley or even crossed paths with her from time to time. "I love Chicago, and I'm interested particularly in Mary in the context of Chicago in her lifetime," she says. "How extraordinary was she, exactly?"

Naiman agrees that the journals are light on introspection, and she too describes the fiction as "dated." But she's still fascinated by Mary's "incredible combination of opposites: she was enormously attractive to men, but she could do these heroic things like climb up muddy mountains in Africa." Whatever animosity tempered the love between her and her daughter, she says, is "not my main interest." But because "Alice didn't want to go see her mother when [Mary] had lavished so much care and attention and money on her," she does feel unkindly toward her. She says Alice strikes her as a person "hell-bent on blabbing her feelings on a variety of subjects. Alice just seems to me to have been an incredibly spoiled person." In her view, Mary and Alice's relationship is one characterized by "an inability to move on emotionally from late-adolescent mother-daughter feelings."

As similar as mother and daughter were in some respects, they stood worlds apart when it came to their responses to questions of gender and culture. Mary was simply not one to gnaw at the problem of being a woman in a man's world; Alice couldn't stop. Nor could Alice reach a satisfying conclusion. While her science fiction offered challenging takes on gender in an era when feminist voices were deepening the genre's complexity, her personal response to the movement was marked by ambivalence. "One of the ironies of Alli's career as Tiptree is that she insisted most on the biological, essential nature of gender at the moment she seemed to be proving that it was all an act, that gender was what you said it was after all," Phillips writes.

Naturally, Phillips says her sympathies are with Alice. "Mary's influence loomed so large over Alice's life that I felt like I had to defend Alice against her in a funny way," she says. "It seemed like nobody had ever been on Alice's side, and it was my job to say that Alice was more important than Mary. All her life it had been the other way around."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Chicago Daily News, Inc., Chicago Historical Soceity; Mary Hastings Bradle Papers, University of Illinois at Chicago; American Museum of Natural History Library; James Reber.

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