The name that hid a startling secret
It was common in the 19th century for a woman to adopt a male nom de plume in order to be taken more seriously as a writer or to preserve her privacy. By the 20th century, though, women had come into their own in literary terms, and a practice that had well served such writers as George Eliot, George Sand and the Bront‘s became passÅ½. So it was surprising in the late 1970s when acclaimed science fiction writer James Tiptree, Jr., was outed as a woman, not least of all because Tiptree had been heralded as a notably masculine writer, albeit one who played fast and lose with gender issues in his stories.
Tiptree, the world learned, was really Alice Bradley Sheldon, a then 60-something woman living a quiet life in the rural exurbs of Washington, D.C. But as Julie Phillips demonstrates in her impressively detailed and engaging biography, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, much of Sheldon's earlier life had been anything but quiet. Before becoming a science fiction writer when she was in her 50s, this gifted woman had been a painter, a WAAC officer during World War II, a CIA agent, a research psychologist and even a chicken farmer. Extraordinarily bright and beautiful, Allie Sheldon did many things well, but spent much of her life struggling with identity issues, a struggle that kept her from leaving her mark in any one field until she rediscovered science fiction in middle age.
Reading Phillips' incisive and sympathetic account of Sheldon's life, it seems inevitable that this woman would have an unconventional life. She was born to a world of privilege, her father a Chicago lawyer and her mother, Mary Bradley, an extremely successful writer of popular fiction and adventure travel. The Bradleys were atypical by any measure, leading numerous expeditions to the African interior and taking young Alice along with them from the time she was six. A childhood spent hunting elephants and learning Swahili left the girl with a restless sense of adventure that she would never tame, saddling her with aspirations that pushed beyond the circumscribed parameters for women of her generation. More often than not, these unfulfilled aspirations led to frustration and unhappiness.
Sheldon dabbled in colleges Sarah Lawrence, Berkeley, NYU never quite finishing what she began, and at painting, even studying with Ashcan School painter John Sloan. She weathered an impulsive and disastrous early marriage and had strong emotional and casual sexual attachments to a number of women (Phillips suggests that Sheldon's true sexual disposition was lesbian, but she never had the courage to embrace that life). Twenty-six when America entered World War II, Sheldon enlisted, enjoying her work in the photo intelligence division, and ultimately marrying her boss, Col. Huntington Ting Sheldon. After the war, the Sheldons tried their hands at running a chicken hatchery in New Jersey before returning to Washington where they both took positions with the nascent CIA.
Ting stayed with the Agency, though Allie left after just three years, frustrated by its glass ceiling. She tried a bit of freelance writing, then finally knuckled down academically, earning a Ph.D. in psychology. She ultimately applied her fascination with theories of perception to her fiction, and that fiction, Phillips shows, would borrow heavily from Sheldon's extraordinary experiences and her lifelong personal conflicts about sexuality and gender roles. In 1987, Sheldon shot Ting while he slept, then turned the gun on herself, carrying out a suicide pact the two had made.
The limited output of James Tiptree, Jr., is not well known outside the world of science fiction, but Phillips' appealing, authoritative biography is meant for readers well beyond the limits of the genre. Sheldon's secret identity and the issues she explored in her fiction are interesting, true, but her life story proves fascinating in its own right, unique in its particulars, and emblematic of the constricting reality that intelligent, accomplished women routinely faced before the women's movement made it possible for them to be masters of their own destiny. Robert Weibezahl is the author of the novel The Wicked and the Dead.