James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (Julie Phillips) 5*

Author crush!  I’ve read one Tiptree novel and one Tiptree short story, and halfway through the biography I’m totally in love.  I haven’t even gotten to the point where Tiptree writes anything. This is the first biography I’ve read in years, and the most stunning that I’ve read ever. Everybody, everybody, everybody agrees.

I’d heard there was something about the CIA and chicken farming, so I was surprised to learn that Alice’s life starts in Chicago high society.  Her parents were wealthy, and her mother was Famous.  When Alice was 6, her parents took her on a 1000-mile walking trek through the Congo in order to shoot and stuff silverback gorillas for the museum of natural history.

The newspapers proclaimed little blonde Alice to be the first white child to ever step foot in Africa.  The whole thing is insane — 200 porters, encounters with cannibals, a pre-war Congo with high-elevation lakes resembling Switzerland, walking 1000 miles and then changing into dress whites to have dinner with the Belgian governor… Alice’s family would make three such African tours, and during the last one they decided, “Oh what the hell, let’s go back the other way around via India and China.” The family found India and China rather dull in comparison.

Biographies often spend a lot of time on the parents, which I usually skip/skim, but not this time.  Mary Bradley was a very popular author and speaker, and also a dead shot with an elephant gun.  On one of the hunts, Mary shot a young male lion and the creature, merely stunned, roared back to life as she was posing with its head on her lap.  Mary leaped up and shot it through the heart.  Back in America, however, Mary was all white dresses and perfect hair, always the life of every party.  She was “so unimpeachably feminine she could be herself.”  She was loving and charming and publicly joyous and every damn visitor to the house told Alice, “If you grow up half as _____ as your mother, you’ll have done well, young lady!”

Alice grew from a shy girl-child raised among the glitterati to a lost teenager at Swiss boarding school to a rebellious genius at college.  She grew up beautiful, inflamed with unconsummated crushes on lost girls (wistfully sketched later in Tiptree’s Dead Birds, one of the reasons everyone was so sure Tip was a man).  I could put together the best gender studies class ever out of Alice’s life and work.  Hell, I could structure a history/literature/art/geography/politics/everything class out of this one book.  Alice’s headmistress once reassured her parents about their genius daughter: “very often the most disorderly girls become the most punctilious housewives.”

She eloped with a boy five days after she met him at her debutante ball.  They “got on like Kilkenny cats, with magnificent reconciliations, until I came to.  Anyone who shoots a real gun at you when drunk and angry is simply not husband material, regardless of his taste in literature.”

Alice declared theirs an open marriage and did some drugs and brothels, “perhaps three I recall.  One I went to play whore, another to play man, I mean I dressed as a boy and went with some men and had to pay for having bitten a woman’s breast.  Most confusing.”  While they were married, her husband novelized their marriage as Dawn Breaks the Heart, which would obviously have to be part of the course syllabus.

Divorced at 27, Alice sobered up and enlisted for WWII.  This is where I am now: one-third of the way into the book and science fiction has crossed young Alice’s field of vision exactly once.

at 6:

at 16:

at 29:

Everybody, run out and read it so you can tell me: for you, what is the most astonishing thing about this book?  For me, it’s the sheer beauty of the letters that Alice writes.


3 responses to “James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (Julie Phillips) 5*

  1. God, what a life! And what captivating photos! They just don’t take ’em like that anymore. We’re simply going to have to do some high-contrast b&w candid shots, adventure and inaction alike, for our memoirs.

  2. Pingback: Brightness Falls From the Air (James Tiptree, Jr.) 5* | Living by Fiction

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