James Tiptree, Jr. : the double life of Alice B. Sheldon

by Julie Phillips

Hardcover, 2006




New York : St. Martin's Press, 2006.


James Tiptree, Jr. burst onto the science fiction scene in the 1970s with a series of hardedged, provocative short stories. Hailed as a brilliant masculine writer with a deep sympathy for his famale character, he penned such classics as Houston, Houston, Do You Read?and The Women Men Don't See. For years he corresponded with Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison,Ursula Le Guin. No one knew his true identity. Then the cover was blown on his alter ego: A sixty-one-year old woman named Alice Sheldon. As a child, she explored Africa with her mother. Later, made into a debutante, she eloped with one of the guests at the party. She was an artist, a chicken farmer, aWorld War II intelligence officer, a CIA agent, an experimental psychologist. Devoted to her second husband, she struggled with her feelings for women. In 1987, her suicide shocked friends and fans. The James Tiptree, Jr.Award was created to honor science fiction or fantasy that explores our understanding of gender. This fascinating biography, ten years in the making, is based on extensive research, exclusive interviews, and full access to Alice Sheldon's papers… (more)

Media reviews

The Women's Review of Books
In this excellent biography, Julie Phillips traces the threads of Alice Sheldon's remarkable life, braiding them together, teasing apart tangles.

User reviews

LibraryThing member figre
This is a great little biography. Okay, not that little, but great nonetheless.

It is the story of Alice Sheldon, daughter of Mary Sheldon, a prominent writer and lecturer of the early 1900’s. Of course, you may still not know who Alice is. For various reasons (a lark, anonymity, some deeper issues – exploring the reasons [though not necessarily providing an answer] is part of what the book tries to do), she submits science fiction stories under the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr. Now, if you are any kind of reader of science fiction, you know the name. If you are still unclear, search out some of the stories (check the Nebula awards), for James Tiptree is one of the great authors of the genre.

What makes this all so intriguing is James’ refusal to say who he was. (And this use of the male pronoun is on purpose. The author has this same problem – is it he or she – and recognizes that there is a dual enough personality to use both.) In fact, the final revelation of Alice as James almost brings to a close his writing career – James is never the same as an author. And the end is tragic – a suicide pact between Alice and her husband.

This story is not neat (whose life is); there is no pretty wrapping with a bow. And Phillips does an excellent job of digging into the information that might help shed some light on this troubled woman. Her life is a constant battle between facades, and this exploration shows how these battles lead to Alice as James. This is well researched, and includes quotes and documents that, as well as might be possible, provide an insight that Alice may not have had on herself. From the journeys as a child with her parents to Africa, to the girls’ school, to the WACs, to the CIA, to her writing, we begin to gain insight into an individual trying to determine who they are. We see a woman trying to lead a bohemian life (because some expected it), and a woman trying to be a mother and wife (because others expected it), and a woman trying to glean her own sexuality (because she cannot decide what she or others expect.)

But this book cannot have the answers. (How can any of us have the answers to any part of us?) Her life ends tragically as she shoots her husband, then herself as part of a suicide pact – neither wanting to grow too old. Yet, it is unclear how much a pact it was, and how much was in Alice’s mind. Again, the author delves in and lets us draw our own conclusions. Any good author has her own conclusions, and Phillips leads us certain directions, but the final picture is ours to draw.
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LibraryThing member astrologerjenny
I found this book absolutely riveting. It's true I'm a fan of Tiptree. But even if you know nothing of her work, you can't help but be amazed by her life. The author does a wonderful job of opening up Sheldon's psyche, exploring her lesbian tendencies, her depression, her rushes of creativity. She makes good use of journal entries and letters, and Tiptree was a lavish and exuberant letter-writer.

This book has stayed with me, bringing up a lot of thoughts on the masks we wear, and our ability to encourage or suppress our creative impulses. I see Tiptree's life as an object lesson in some ways. I wish I could reach out to her, tell her she's beautiful, urge her to stick around a little longer.
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LibraryThing member bcquinnsmom
I must confess that I've never read any of James Tiptree Jr.'s work, and that I had no idea who this person was prior to picking up Phillips' book. That didn't seem to matter, however, because this was one of the most well-written biographies I've read in quite a long while. Alice Bradley Sheldon was a most interesting subject -- and Phillips does an excellent job in researching, putting together and presenting Sheldon's life both as herself and as James Tiptree, Jr., a writer of science fiction whose works were very well known even though Tiptree himself remained somewhat of an enigma even among his contemporaries in the world of SF writing. I won't go into detail here, because many other reviewers have done so quite well, and there are multiple places on the internet to find details about Sheldon.

Phillips' analysis of Sheldon's background, her insecurities, her search for who she really was and wanted to be is very well done. But this isn't just a cut and dried biography. It's a look at a woman trying to find herself through many different persona: daughter of Chicago society parents, eloping at an early age and divorcing, then going into the Army Air Corps, then moving along to work in the CIA, marrying again, obtaining a PhD to do psychological research, and becoming an egg farmer, to name a few. Phillips' argument is that Sheldon knew none of these roles ever truly fitted her, and that by taking on the role of Tiptree, a male science fiction writer, she had finally found a way to give herself an outlet for the person she'd always wanted to be. But even then she still got very caught up in her own turmoil about identity as her Tiptree persona consistently grew in stature and landed him a bit of fame along with awards (Hugo, Nebula); Alice had to devote more of her own lessening energies into maintaining it while trying to keep Alice Bradley Sheldon a secret to her public and science fiction writer friends -- but then at the end of the day as Tiptree, she was still Alice Bradley Sheldon having to contend with herself.

Very well written; I had a lot of difficulty putting it down once I got started. When I can pick up a biography of someone with whom I'm not even vaguely familiar and not want to put it down, that's saying something about the author's writing. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who wants an intelligent read.
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LibraryThing member PhoenixTerran
I first found out about Julie Phillips biography James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon when I was browsing the New York Times one morning over breakfast. The review was positive, but more importantly (for me, anyways) this was the first time I had even heard of Tiptree. I was somewhat astounded to discover an important, groundbreaking, and award-winning author of science fiction that I knew literally nothing about.

Soon after reading the article I came across for the first time the Tiptree Award, which is given to science fiction and fantasy works "that expand or explore our understanding of gender." This piqued my interest even further and so I picked up a copy of the book even though it was about a year and a half before I actually got around to reading it.

Alice Bradley Davey Sheldon, a native of Chicago, grew up traveling the world. Over the course of her life she played many different roles: loyal daughter, artist, army officer, CIA agent, devoted wife, academic. But most famous was her persona as a writer--James Tiptree, Jr. A secretive man who wrote brilliant science fiction and whose writing was so "masculine" that for nearly a decade very few even suspected that he was really a woman. Phillips biography is complete and detailed in telling the story of the life and death of this incredible and complex individual.

It is obvious that Phillips has done her research. She conducted interviews, read correspondence, pursued both primary and secondary sources, and familiarized herself with the work of Tiptree and Sheldon. Everything is documented and she often lets the materials speak for themselves, extensively quoting primary sources and incorporating interpretations of the fictional writings flawlessly into the text in a way to shed light on the reality of Sheldon's life. Also included is a detailed index, a bibliography, and an extraordinarily helpful guide to Tiptree's and Sheldon's publication history.

The book is actually much longer than it first appears; both the print and the margins are small. But while the length is noticeable, Phillips' writing is immensely readable. It is a biography, and obviously not a novel, but I was compelled to keep reading to see "what happens next." Two things in particular struck me as being especially well done (besides the fantastic research): One, the inclusion of years in the chapter titles helps tremendously in keeping the timeline straight; and, two, the use of names and pronouns when referring to the various aspects of Sheldon's identity help clarify and situate the context of the subjects being addressed.

I see a lot of myself in Alli Sheldon, so this book holds additional meaning for me. I have never read any of Tiptree's work before but am definitely more than interested to now. Unfortunately, most if not all of it is out of print with only sporadic resurgences. Luckily, I stumbled (quite accidentally) across a beautiful copy of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (an illustrated "best of" collection that Sheldon helped to select) at a local used book store. While Sheldon's story will particularly interest those familiar with science fiction, anyone who enjoys reading biographies will appreciate this expertly executed one. Phillips has not only written a brilliant and well researched biography, but has also provided an intense examination of gender and feminism in science fiction, female writers, and, most importantly, personal identity.

Experiments in Reading
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LibraryThing member ronincats
This is an extensive biography, with 40 chapters clearly delineated by the years. I stand in awe of the scholarship and the ability to make it all interesting if at times slightly overwhelming. Sheldon had a fascinating life, but her extreme sensitivity and probably manic-depressive personality made it almost uniformly painful to her. The most interesting part for me was her years writing as Tiptree, both the interactions with the science fiction world in her letters and reading the commentary on her stories as I was also reading them in the collection Her Smoke Rose up Forever.… (more)
LibraryThing member hardlyhardy
During the 20th century, a number of female writers chose to write under sexually ambiguous names. Harper Lee, Isak Dinesen, Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers and Andre Norton, among others, didn't actually pretend to be men, but if biased publishers and readers began reading their work under the wrong impression, where was the harm?

Alice Sheldon, however, chose to go whole hog. She saw the name Tiptree on a jar of jam and decided to write her science fiction stories under the name of James Tiptree Jr., keeping her true identity a secret from virtually everyone for a number of years. As biographer Julie Phillips tells in her book "James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon," she flirted with Ursula K. Le Guin and other women by mail, while pretending to be one of the boys with Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick and other men in the science fiction community. She fooled them all.

Everyone knew Tiptree was a pseudonym, but interest in who the writer really was became all the greater because his stories were so original, like nothing science fiction fans had never read before. Because Tiptree had a post office box in McClean, Va., some speculated the writer might be a CIA agent. (Both Alli Sheldon and her husband had, in fact, once worked for the CIA.) Someone even thought James Tiptree Jr. might really be Henry Kissinger. A few thought the stories sounded a bit like the voice of a woman, but in other respects they were thoroughly manly.

The secret was revealed in the early 1970s when Tiptree let slip in letters that his mother had died, after previously disclosing she was a former African explorer living in Chicago. It was then a simple matter to check the obituaries in the Chicago papers, where it was found that author and world traveler Mary Hastings Bradley was survived by just one child, a daughter named Alice Sheldon.

Having lost the mask behind which she had written her startling stories, Sheldon's talent dried up, and she wrote only a few stories after that, most of them not very good.

Sheldon suffered from a manic-depressive personality, and she seemed to have conflicting identities within her throughout her life. Although happily married for a long time, she was sexually confused, never quite sure who or what she really was. She also also wrote science fiction as a woman under the name Racoona Sheldon, although these tales were not as well received as Tiptree's.

She had talked about suicide her entire life, and in 1987 she put a gun to her head after first killing her ailing husband.

The biography by Julie Phillips, published in 2006, is well worth reading whether or not one has ever read a James Tiptree Jr. short story.
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LibraryThing member karenmerguerian
Most people probably come to this book from an interest in the science fiction of Tiptree, or the story of the author's female biology and male identity. For me the really interesting thing as I read it was how Alice Sheldon (and others of her generation) had the flexibility and intelligence to function over time in so many different historical worlds: the Victorian, World War II, the Cold War, the 1960's. Maybe it's the reason she was able to take on an entirely new and different persona when she created the nom de plume James Tiptree. I've never actually read anything by Tiptree, although I read a quite good story by Raccoona Sheldon at one point.… (more)
LibraryThing member donp
Couldn't resist this, sitting in the discount bin of the campus bookstore.
LibraryThing member Murphy-Jacobs
I went on a themed reading spree two summers ago -- I had a university library at my disposal, so I went digging around at random and ended up reading about 19th women writers, then about depictions of women in movies based on those 19th century novels, and finally about women in science fiction (it connects through Frankenstein. Really, it does.)

This book, picked up because of a long ago comment from a friend who had made a random disparaging remark that he'd always known James Tiptree Jr. was a woman because of her writing (meaning women can't write good SF), had sat on my shelf a good long time, but after all this summer reading, I grabbed it, fell into it, and didn't see daylight until I'd finished it. The biography reads with novel-like intensity as we wind our way through Alice Sheldon's complicated, troubled, yet very familiar history until she gave birth to her own male self in the guise of James Tiptree Jr.

It could be the one biography I own that I'll read a second time. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the history of science fiction, women writers, gender issues, or just a desire to read a good book.
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LibraryThing member kvrfan
(3.5 stars)

Without a doubt, this book will stand as the definitive biography of James Tiptoe, Jr./Alice Sheldon. It covers Alli/Tip's life in such detail, punctuated with journal entries and correspondence, that one could hardly wish more detail . . .

Except, to my mind, in one area. Alli makes clear she had great struggles with her mother, but I never got why her struggles were as great as they were. Her mother did not abuse her, either physically or psychologically. Was it simply because her mother was overbearing? That she had different expectations for her daughter than Alli had for herself? That her mother, by virtue of the fact that she was quite an honored public personage while Alli was growing up, simply cast a shadow Alli found it difficult to escape? There are hints to all these things, but for the struggles Alli endured (her mother seemed supportive of most any direction Alli wanted to go) these issues seem rather trivial.

Anyway, Alice Sheldon was an interesting character who wrestled with identity issues all her life. Perhaps it could only have been someone so uncertain of her identity that could launch an alter ego for herself in the form of James Tiptree, Jr. While many an author adopts a non de plume, for Alli the adoption of the Tiptoe identity was so much more. It became something to hide behind, to entrust her creativity to, and to guard jealously, so that when the truth about the mysterious James Tiptree finally became known, it nearly undid her.

In most cases, I could have just done with a little less detail.
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LibraryThing member lilysea
A completely riveting story of an elaborate and long-running masquerade. I've never even read Tiptree, but I will now!
LibraryThing member antao
“What I do with emotion is not, strictly, to ‘bottle it up.’ I parcel it out. I make it drive me in work; I try to use it to understand the world; I occasionally try to form or express little bits in objective writing or drawing; I try to stay out of situations which encourage it; I take it out in physical exertion – and what still can’t be handled I do ‘bottle up’ and sit on. What else can one do? […]”

Alice Sheldon in “James Tiptree, Jr. - The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon” by Julie Phillips

Biographies have traditionally had a complex relationship with "truth." Hesketh Pearson's brilliantly readable mid-twentieth-century biographies favour "good stories" over the boring facts. Julie Phillips didn’t have to tackle one of the most difficult things in writing a biography: correct the distortions and myths in previous biographies. It was all a blank sheet. Phillips seems to favour the "bag of facts" approach to biography which has been gaining favour but this too has its problems – notably, that reading such a book tends to be a chore, not a pleasure. The challenge, I think, is to keep a balance between telling the story and being rigorously, “checkably” factual.

When it comes to autobiographies, you sit down with your blank sheet of A4 and start sucking your pencil (or your mouse), desperate for inspiration; isn't the mining of your own life likely to be more quickly and readily available at all hours of day and night and perhaps require less effort than having to pass what you have learned of the nature and life of other people through a process of synthesis and precis and imaginative marshalling? There may also be the thought that the hanging out of dirty linen (linen from best Irish flax?) on a public washing line may be helpful to one's own bruised psyche. Though full disclosure is very fashionable these days, of course, I'm not sure this is necessarily therapeutic. This also applies to biographies. Just as in so many films a scene airing much emotion is accompanied by a sly, tinkling, solo piano as the filmmakers slip into telling-you-what-to-feel mode. Perhaps we can make a distinction between a case where a writer dishes the dirt on him/herself, with little collateral damage caused, and a case where Big Bertha transmogrifies into a cluster bomb and the havoc spreads inexorably from the centre, like a pebble chucked into the Tralee Ship Canal outside Blennerville.

Tiptree/Sheldon was literally a Feminist-in-Disguise for generations. I'd agree she doesn't fit the current shrill, superficial version of feminism that is sometimes just online shaming (and not all that progressive often) but I'd wager she's going to have a lot more credibility as a feminist in 100 years’ time and all the twitter "feminists" will be forgotten along with the motherhood-on-a-pedestal Victorians, the racist anti-Union feminists of the early 1900s and the anti-sex pro-Reagan 1980s groups. Feminism is a very old and long tradition. I think he/she had been thinking about it lucidly for a lot longer than most all of us. Too bad his/her story ended the way it did. We may never know what it really happened and what made him/her do it.

Without delving much deeper into the book, I would say the aim of any writer is to publish something that sells. In the book blogosphere, I meet lots of people who think they can write, including two or three who think they can write so well, that they want to charge people to listen to their advice on what these people should be reading. They call themselves bibliotherapists. I can't tell you how desperate I am to tell them that they are living in cloud cuckoo land and that the country is full of bin men, shop assistants and dog walkers who are in every way equal, but haven't got their brass necks. I imagine a lot of writers who pick an unusual subject - like writing about a writer such as Tiptree - have had enough of emptying bins or walking dogs. That also goes for Biographers.

As one alien said to another after visiting earth, 'What do you think?' The other alien replied: 'Well the ones with the intelligence seem ok, but I'm not sure about the ones with the testicles.', and this coming from a Sapiens belonging to the latter; Tiptree belonged to the former.

NB: Must-read for those of you who love SF-of-a-different-Persuasion. Unmissable as well because of the letters between Tiptree/Sheldon and some other SF writers, namely Philip K. Dick, Joanna Russ, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

A coda:

“’And then about three o’clock in the morning Mrs. Sheldon called me back and told me that she had actually killed Mr. Sheldon. I remember she said, ‘Jim, I slain Ting by own hand and I’m about to take my own life, and for God’s sake don’t call the police, to give me time to do what I have to do here.’ And by this point there was nothing I could do. I did call the police, and they went over and found that both of them were dead.’”

John Morrison in ““James Tiptree, Jr. - The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon” by Julie Phillips

Tiptree/Sheldon was true to herself to the end of her days. Big testicles. What a woman! My kind of SF.

SF = Speculative Fiction.
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LibraryThing member Gretchening
Fascinating biography of James Tiptree, Jr. aka Alice Sheldon, whose colorful life and inscrutable, gender-obscuring career as an award-winning SF author, and finally tragic suicide give an incredible amount of insight into her work. Very readable and interesting bio.
LibraryThing member cindywho
I can't remember if I started reading Tiptree's bizarre but often good for a mindf**k stories before I knew that she had been outed as a female writer. This biography is a fascinating tour through her upper-class explorer childhood, to stints as a WAC to working at the CIA. Finally she falls into putting her tortured psyche into stories and the literary friendships with many famous figures from the SF world of the 60s and 70s. It does get bogged down at times with the personality analysis, by the author and the subject, but it was overall a good read for a biography.… (more)
LibraryThing member Lyndatrue
It's an insightful work, but there are times that I'd rather have less insight. I can remember the world's surprise when it was revealed that James Tiptree Jr was actually a woman. Any woman who had read "The Women that Men Don't See" simply nodded and said (to herself) of course, of course.

I'm very happy to have found this (my favorite book store has taken to putting books *about* SF authors next to the works of the author, which is where I found it. It's a remarkable work, and the extraordinary photographs in the book give shading to a person that was eminently private in life.… (more)



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