30 December 2014

Space Dogs

In the New York Times’ “Science Times” section of 4 November, Dana Jennings, an editor at the Times, published a review of a new book by Olesya Turkina called simply Soviet Space Dogs (translated from the Russian by Damon Murray and Inna Cannon; FUEL Publishing, 2014).  Turkina, a research fellow at St. Petersburg’s State Russian Museum, relates the history of the Soviet space program of the 1950s and ’60s by telling the stories of the canine cosmonauts launched in the rockets and Sputniks of the USSR in early experiments before humans, starting with Col. Yuri Gagarin aboard Vostok 1 on 12 April 1961, were sent up.  Though some seven nations have sent animals into space, including the U.S., only the Soviet Union made a practice of using dogs (China seems to have sent two dogs into space in a single flight).

I don’t know how many people who read ROT occasionally are old enough to remember the beginning of the space race, which began in earnest on 4 October 1957 with the flight of Sputnik 1, the first man-made object to orbit Earth.  I was not quite 11 and just starting 5th grade when we listened to the launch reported on a radio our teacher’d brought into the classroom so we could hear the world-shaking event live.  (Needless to say, the same procedure was followed on 31 January 1958 when Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite, was launched into space.)  All of this, including Gagarin’s first flight, when I was in 8th grade, and then Marine Lt. Col. John Glenn’s Friendship 7 flight on 20 February 1962 (I was a 15-year-old prep school freshman by then) were objects of endless fascination for me and most of my peers (and, I daresay, our parents as well).  This was science, this was modernity, this was adventure.  

Of course, it didn’t hurt that I was mesmerized by our new, young president, John F. Kennedy, whose election in 1960 was the first in which I took an active interest.  (I suppose part of my focus came from the fact that JFK’s Republican opponent was Vice President Richard Nixon whose daughters were my schoolmates.)  It felt personal somehow, not like the reelection of Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 when I was 9, going on 10 (I barely even remembered the first Eisenhower election: I was 5!).  I still have vivid memories of the Kennedy inauguration, when the famously hatless president exhorted us—and believe me, he was talking directly to me and my friends—to “ask what you can do for your country.”  (It turned out, unbeknownst to me at the time, JFK was addressing my father as well; later that year, he left private business and joined the U.S. Foreign Service.)  I sincerely believed that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans,” even though I was too young then to take it up myself—but I felt as if this new era was mine in a way.  My father, who had turned 42 three days before the vote, had a similar sense: he confided in me that this election had been the first in which he felt the candidates were more like his older brothers than his father (he told me once he’d cast his first presidential ballot in Franklin Roosevelt’s third campaign, when Dad was 22 and FDR was 58).  

Not long after that remarkable inaugural address, JFK made another now-famous speech that also had resonance for me even at that young age.  On 25 May 1961, the president stood before Congress and declared that the U.S. should “commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”  I don’t know how many people, hearing that promise, believed it literally—but, not knowing any better, I did.  After all, wasn’t this the United States of America?  Wasn’t this the 1960s?  We were at the vanguard of history, weren’t we?  What could possibly prevent us from fulfilling JFK’s magnificent pledge?  For probably most of my generation, the Baby Boomers, those of us just entering our teen years in the new, modern decade of ceaseless prosperity, television, jet planes, and rockets when the only war was a cold one, the exploration of space, until then the purview of science fiction and fantasy, was the most exciting and important human endeavor ever conceived.  Even as the war in Southeast Asia usurped our attention, broke our hearts, and dampened our spirits in the years to come—before that anticipated moon landing on 20 July 1969—space flights were always events of immense excitation.  We may not have sat glued to the radio for the later ones (I was actually out of the country in July 1969, for instance) like we did in that 5th-grade classroom in 1957, but we paid close attention nonetheless.  

Now, we all knew that the space programs used animals as test passengers.  The U.S. tended to concentrate on monkeys and apes, and occasionally the animals died on the flight.  (The first dogs to die on a mission were Lisa, Russian for “Vixen,” and Dezik on 29 July 1951 when the module’s parachute failed to deploy.)  I guess what we youngsters didn’t know—because it wasn’t reported or publicized—was that in the earliest test launches, the animal passengers weren’t expected to survive.  Later, when I was a little older and more aware, as fascinated as I was with space exploration, I felt twinges of fear and sadness for the animals who hadn’t volunteered for the missions but were made to risk their lives for our benefit.  I don’t know why, though, but the primates we sent aloft didn’t get my sympathy to the same extent as the dogs sent up by the Soviets.  Maybe this was because I never “knew” a monkey or a chimp, but doggies were part of my life; we had dogs as pets from the early ’50s until we went overseas in 1962.  (I missed having a dog so much that as soon as I settled in New York City as an adult, I adopted a dog and had a canine as a pet for the next three decades.  Readers of ROT can check this out by reading my two doggie posts, “Sobaka: A Memoir,” 31 July 2009, and “Thespis,” 10 February 2010.)  

(There’s a small irony in this report in that I named the first dog I had as an adult on my own “Sobaka,” which is the Russian word for ‘dog.’  The illustration accompanying Dana Jennings’s book review was a poster of one of the early canine cosmonauts with a caption that reads in Russian: pervyi passazhir sputnika ‑sobaka “laika”—which means “The First Passenger Of Sputnik –The Dog “Laika.”)

In the 1950s and ’60s, the USSR sent up 57 missions, both orbital and sub-orbital, with dogs as test passengers to gauge how humans would fare in space.  Little was known about the effects of space flight on the living body and no one was even sure if humans could survive the launch, the departure from Earth’s atmosphere, or the weightless vacuum of space itself.  The actual number of individual dogs who flew on Soviet rockets was smaller than 57 because several animals flew more than once, and most survived the flight.  The few who died in space were the victims of technical malfunctions such as hull penetrations or failures of the descent parachutes or life-support systems; but Laika, the first dog who went into orbit, was never expected to return to Earth since the technology for reentry from orbit hadn’t yet been developed.  The last Soviet space dog flight was in 1966.

The Soviet scientists felt dogs, trained at the Institute of Aviation Medicine in Moscow, were easier to train and more capable of enduring long periods of inactivity than other animals.  The preferred dogs for the test flights in the USSR were strays picked up on the streets and in the alleys of Moscow because the scientists felt they would be more able to endure the harshness and stresses of space than dogs used to living in homes.  The testers assumed that street animals had already learned to withstand hunger and extreme cold.  Small, robust female mongrels were the scientists’ choices in the belief that they would be more likely to stand up to the rigorous training.  Small animals—no more than 14 inches long and 13-15 pounds—were necessary because of the confined space of the early space modules and bitches were used because the clinicians deemed their calmer nature more suitable for the flight conditions and because the animals’ space suits had an apparatus for the collection of waste specially designed only for females.  (The leg-lifting necessity for males was a problem as well.)  

In addition, the dogs had to be photogenic, even-tempered, and energetic for the propaganda the missions were sure to generate.  All the photos of the space dogs that I saw, every one of them cute and intelligent-looking, looked a lot like my Jack Russell-mix, Thespis!  (Thespie’d have been too big for the program: he weighed in at about 25 pounds.)

As part of their training, the dogs were made to stand still for long periods and confined to smaller and smaller cubicles for 15 to 20 days at a stretch to prepare them for the constrictions of the space capsule.  (The dogs could stand, sit, or lie down, but there was no room in the capsule to turn around.)  Other regimens included wearing space suits and riding flight simulators and centrifuges that replicated the force, speed, and noise of a rocket launch.  (These machines left the animals with increased pulse and elevated blood pressure.)  The test animals all received a special diet of high-nutrition gel to help them bear the rigors of space flight and confinement.  The test dogs were trained to eat this special food that would be their sustenance in space.  

As I indicated, several of the experimental dogs died in the service of the Soviet space program, but those who survived their space flights, though some suffered adverse after-effects (tooth loss, gallstones, constipation, and restlessness, for example), lived out their days in the loving care of the scientists and lab technicians of the IAM.  One bitch, Strelka, who flew in 1960, returned to whelp six pups, one of whom, Pushinka (“Fluffy”), was sent by Premier Nikita Khrushchev to three-year-old Caroline Kennedy, the president’s daughter, in June 1961.  Some became canine heroes and celebrities, appearing on radio and TV (what do you suppose a dog does on radio?  It’s sort of like ventriloquist Edgar Bergen on the air in the ’30s!) and getting their photos in the press.  They even made “personal” appearances alongside human celebs and a photograph of some of the doggie space travelers’ descendants is displayed at the museum of the NPP Zvezda company (Research and Development Production Enterprise Zvezda; the name means ‘star’ in Russian) in Tomilino, Russia, outside Moscow (the manufacturer of space suits for the Russian space program and ejector seats for fighter jets). 

Years later, looking back at the costs and benefits of the early space program in the Soviet Union, one senior scientist expressed regret at the deaths of the test dogs.  Of Laika, he said: “The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it.  We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog . . . .” 

In his review of Turkina’s Soviet Space Dogs, Jennings named four of the scores of dogs the Soviets sent into space: Laika, Mishka, Belka, and Strelka.  Let’s have a look at their stories.  

Before orbital flights, the space program of the Soviet Union shot 12 canines into Earth’s upper atmosphere, just shy of outer space.  (Some of the vehicles broke through the atmospheric barrier and so technically flew into space.)  The first Earth-born creature, aside from microbes, officially to be catapulted into space, and the first animal to orbit the Earth, however, was Laika (the name means “Barker”).  Possibly part husky or Samoyed and part terrier, the approximately three-year-old Laika was launched into orbit from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 3 November 1957 aboard Sputnik 2 atop a modified SS-6 ICBM.  Laika, the name by which she became known to the world, like many of her fellow space dogs, had several names at various times.  She was originally named Kudryavka (“Little Curly”) and was also known as Zhuchka (“Little Bug”) and Limonchik (“Little Lemon”).  The press in the U.S. dubbed her “Muttnik,” a pun on the orbital module Sputnik.  (Sputnik is just the Russian word for ‘satellite’; it literally means ‘co-traveler.’)

After Laika was picked up from the streets of Moscow, she was kept for training at the IAM like her fellow space dogs.  The even-tempered, 11-pound mutt, described by her trainers as “quiet and charming,” was prepped for the Sputnik 2 flight at the Moscow lab with two other canines, Albina (a woman’s name, comparable to “Blanche”) and Mushka (“Little Fly”), who didn’t fly with Laika but went up on other flights.  Albina, who’d already flown twice in sub-orbital missions, was Laika’s backup passenger and Mushka was the “control dog,” kept on the ground and monitored to test the gauges on board.  The three canine cosmonauts went through the training regimen I outlined earlier.  

The Sputnik 2 mission was intended to repeat the spectacular success of the first orbital flight, attracting the world’s attention to the Soviet space program.  Khrushchev’s scientists decided in October on an orbital flight with a canine passenger.  This left only a month to design and build the spacecraft in which Laika would ride.  The mission was to be a test to see if a living creature could survive in space as well as a chance to take instrumental measurements of the sun’s radiation and cosmic rays.  The craft was equipped with rather rudimentary technology and provisions: enough of the special food for seven days, devices to regulate the oxygen level and clean the atmosphere of carbon dioxide, a temperature regulator to keep Laika cool, instruments to measure her heart rate, respiration, and other vital signs. 

The dogs were prepared at the Moscow lab and then flown to Baikonur Cosmodrome.  At the launch site, the dogs’ training was continued as they were placed inside the capsule to get used to the confinement and the feeding system.  Laika was installed aboard Sputnik 2 three days before the launch while final preparations were made.  The mission staff all knew that she wouldn’t be coming back.

Sputnik 2 was launched in the early morning of 3 November 1957 (reports of the exact time vary between 5:30 a.m. and 7:22 a.m.).  When the rocket reached orbit, the nose cone containing Laika’s module was separated, but some of the technology malfunctioned, likely because of the rush-job to construct the capsule, and the heat-regulation system couldn’t function properly.  Temperatures inside the module rose to 104 degrees Fahrenheit and Laika’s monitors showed she was under tremendous stress.  Between five and seven hours after lift-off, after Sputnik 2’s fourth orbit, Laika’s readings indicated no signs of life.  These facts weren’t revealed until 2002; for decades, various accounts of Laika’s death were rumored, including that she’d died of oxygen starvation or that she’d been euthanized as planned with poisoned food.  On 14 April 1958, over five months after its launch, Sputnik 2, with Laika’s remains on board, fell out of orbit and disintegrated on reentering the Earth’s atmosphere.  

Like some of her successors in the canine space program, Laika became a folk hero.  Her photograph in a space suit and helmet appeared in newspapers and magazines, and her portrait was affixed to just about anything someone could put it on: toys, candy wrappers, cookie cans, matchboxes, handkerchiefs, postcards, envelopes, stamps, badges and lapel pins, and commemorative plates.  There were even Laika brand cigarettes.  But Laika became a symbol, the representation of all the animals who were thrust into space to serve the human quest for new frontiers, sometimes at the loss of their lives.  A memorial to the first dog to orbit Earth was unveiled at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, on 12 April—Cosmonautics Day (the anniversary of Gagarin’s historic flight, in anticipation of which Laika’s life was sacrificed)—in 2008.  

Mishka (colloquialism for “Little Bear” similar to “Teddy” in English; also a man’s nickname that’s equivalent to “Mikey”) seems to have made two sub-orbital flights.  Little seems to have been recorded about Mishka’s flights and the names by which the space dogs were known were sometimes reused so it’s not always easy to determine if all the canines called Mishka are the same animal.  She seems to have gone up aboard a Soviet R-1B rocket on 15 August 1951 with another dog named Chizik and again on 28 August with Chizik.  Both flights soared to a 100-mile apogee and both the dogs were safely recovered after the first flight, but the mission failed on the second outing and the animals died.  (Other records say that Mishka and Chizik survived that second launch and Mishka flew again aboard an R-1D rocket on 2 July 1954 with another dog named Damka—“Little Lady”—but while her companion survived, Mishka died.)  While later orbital flights had pressurized flight capsules, earlier sub-orbital test flights such as Mishka’s didn’t and the earliest pressure suits were still largely experimental—though there’s no record that these facts had any bearing on Mishka’s demise in flight. 

(Mishka was also the name of the bear mascot of the XXII Olympiad in Moscow in 1980.  A common name for toy or fictional bears in Russian, its popularity probably stems from the alliterative name Mishka Medved, or “Mikey the Bear,” in the same way animal characters in English are named Tony the Tiger and Rocky Raccoon.  The popularity of the nickname for bear characters—the bear has always been associated with Russia both among Russians and among outsiders—has made it a common name for other animal pets, particularly dogs.  There were many canine cosmonauts named Mishka in the ’50s and ’60s, while, for instance, there was only one Laika even as she became a symbol of patriotic sacrifice—however unwitting on the dog’s part.  Some of the names seem to be untranslatable or purely colloquial, such as Dezik, a nickname but I know not what for, and Chizik.)

Belka (“Little Squirrel” or “Whitey”; belyi is Russian for ‘white’) and Strelka (“Little Arrow”), like their names, were a matched pair as far as their history in the Soviet space program was concerned.  They flew into orbit together on 19 August 1960 aboard Sputnik 5, staying aloft one day (about 18 orbits) before returning safely to Earth.  (The two 12-pound mongrels were actually substitutes for the original selections, Bars— “Panther” or “Lynx”—also known as Chaika, or “Seagull,” and Lisichka, or “Little Fox,” who’d died when their rocket exploded on the launch pad.)  Along with their fellow passenger animals—a rabbit, 42 mice, two rats, a swarm of fruit flies—they were the first Earth-born creatures to survive an orbital flight.  

The Soviet space scientists monitoring the passengers’ vital signs at first became worried when video transmissions from the Sputnik 5 module didn’t show the slightest movement from either dog during the first three orbits.  On the fourth orbit, though, Belka shuddered a little and vomited (which became a factor in limiting early human flights to a single orbit).  The two canine cosmonauts seemed to snap out of their torpor and for the remaining dozen orbits appeared more animated.  The success of the flight prompted the Soviet government to release the film of the flight a few days afterward, showing the two dogs, one in a green space suit and one in red, doing somersaults in the weightlessness of the capusle.  Strelka appeared apprehensive and uneasy, but Belka seemed to enjoy herself, barking and playing.

Belka and Strelka were immediately celebrated in children’s story books and cartoons and a Russian animated film entitled Belka and Strelka: Star Dogs (Belka i Strelka. Zvezdnye sobaki) was released in 2010 (2013 in the U.S., as Space Dogs).  Especially popular with children, the dogs toured schools and orphanages.  The two doggies even posed with visiting American pianist Van Cliburn, who hugged Belka and Strelka on camera.  The pair never flew another mission, living out their lives in honored retirement at IAM.  The dogs died of old age and their bodies were preserved and are on view in Russia’s Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow (also known as the Memorial Museum of Space Exploration).  Belka’s displayed in a glass case in the museum, but Strelka is still traveling around the globe as part of a touring exhibition.  A 16-foot memorial statue of the two canine space explorers peering out of a giant space helmet is planned outside the Zvezda plant.

As I wrote earlier, in retirement Strelka had six puppies, including the one named Pushinka who was presented to JFK’s daughter, Caroline, and lived in the White House.  Pushinka’s sire was Pushok (“Fluff”), a lab dog who never made it to space.  (Pushinka and a Kennedy dog named Charlie in turn had four pups whom the president humorously called pupniks, two of whom, Butterfly and Streaker, were given to Midwestern families.  The other two grand-puppies of Strelka and Pushok, White Tips and Blackie, lived for a time at the Kennedy home on Squaw Island in Hyannisport, Massachusetts, but were eventually given away to Kennedy family friends.  Pushinka’s descendants are still alive today.  

Eight months after Sputnik 5 bearing Belka and Strelka returned safely to Earth, and following some half dozen more canine flights, the first human space passenger flew around the planet.  Cosmonaut Gagarin is reported to have quipped: “Am I the first human in space, or the last dog?”  

25 December 2014

The (Drag) King of Jazz

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably familiar with David Henry Hwang’s 1988 Broadway play M. Butterfly, the story of a French embassy official in Beijing who has a decades-long affair with a Chinese actress and singer.  As anyone who’s seen the play or the 1993 film adaptation will know, the Beijing Opera performer was in reality a Chinese spy . . . and a man.

Hwang’s play is fictional, but it was based on a real incident and real people, including Shi Pei Pu, the singer who passed for a woman and even produced a son she told her French lover was the result of their liaison.  Beijing Opera is an all-male form of theater—the female characters, known as a dan, are all played by male actors who specialize in them.  (The famous Mei Lanfang was a dan actor and so was Bruce Lee’s father, Lee Hoi-Chuen.)  Similarly, Japanese Kabuki, a related performance form, is also the domain of male performers and there are onnagata, specialists in female roles, who have lived their off-stage lives as women.  But dan like Shi Pei Pu (who died in 2009) and the onnagata are actors, and they’re specially trained and practiced in the art of appearing and behaving as their opposite gender.  (The Japanese contend that only a man can portray the ultra-feminine characters demanded by Kabuki, that no born female could be so dedicated and compelling.)  These actors have made gender-shifting their life’s occupation and study, even when they take it outside the theater.  What, then, do we make of Dorothy Lucille Tipton, a jazz musician and bandleader who lived in Spokane, Washington?  Dorothy Tipton was better known as William Lee Tipton, or simply, Billy—and she lived most of her life as a man. 

Gender, as the postmodern saying goes, is performance—an expression of the belief that “sex” is an anatomical and biological construct, determined by nature, while “gender” is cultural and social.  We may have been born with determined sex differences (female; male), but gender differences (femininity; masculinity) are behavioral—that is, performed—and may be chosen, changed, and blurred pretty much at will or inclination.

Dorothy Tipton was born in Oklahoma City on 29 December 1914 (in Billy’s later account, he shaved six years off his age); her father, G. W. (for George William) Tipton, a machinist, built, repaired, and raced automobiles and airplanes.  In the 1920s, G. W. Tipton, known as Billy, began designing planes and flying air mail in and out of Oklahoma City.  Both Tipton’s parents, G.W. and the former Reggie Parks, played popular music on the piano and Tipton learned to play the violin and started giving concerts at 7; she later studied music in Kansas City.  After her parents divorced in 1928, Tipton was taken to KC to live with her father’s wealthy sister, Bess, who introduced her to the piano.  It was here, in one of the nation’s great jazz towns and during the nascence of the Big Band era, that Tipton, who took the nickname “Tippy” around then, began to become seriously interested in jazz and studied piano and saxophone, which remained Billy Tipton’s principal instruments.  When she reached high school, Tipton wanted to join the school band, but was barred because she was a girl.  Returning to Oklahoma City and her mother, Tippy Tipton finished high school in 1932 and went on to Connors State Agricultural College, a junior college in Warner, Oklahoma, where she was finally able to join the school’s band. 

It was also at this time, about 1934 when Tipton turned 20, that she began appearing in male garb, in hope, she later asserted, that this would enhance her chances of being taken seriously in the largely all-male world of jazz bands.  At several auditions, the club managers would say that though Tipton was very talented, they wouldn’t hire a woman musician.  To pass as a man, Tipton cut her hair, padded her pants, and bound her breasts, a practice she’d later explain as support for the ribs fractured when a Buick crashed into her.  She even obtained documents identifying her as a male, and at her next audition, Tipton got the gig.  At first, Tipton dressed in male drag mostly for performances, but by 1940, the musician was living as a man off stage as well.  She also adopted her father’s nickname, “Billy,” at the same time.  Now permanently taking on the role of a male piano- and sax-player billed as Billy Lee Tipton, the jazz instrumentalist undertook the further daring step of dating a girl, Non Earl Harrell, a “horse,” or professional on the faddish walkathon circuit, who was soon known as “Mrs. Tipton”—a title eventually held by at least five women over Tipton’s lifetime.  (None of his “marriages” was strictly legal: none of them, nor his “divorces,” was recorded.) 

By 1936, Billy Tipton was leading his own band and appearing regularly on radio stations in OKC.  His talent was attracting considerable acclaim and by 1940 he’d joined Scott Cameron’s big band playing all around the Midwest and into Wyoming and Colorado. The next year, Tipton  and Non Earl moved to Joplin, Missouri, a music town, and played for 2½ years at the Cotton Club and around the Midwest, followed by two years or so gigging in Texas.  Tipton was sharpening his chops and gaining a rep as a talented pianist and sax-player—and nobody questioned his gender, despite his diminutive size (5’4”), wide hips, pink cheeks, baby face, and high-pitched tenor.  In 1942, he broke up with Non Earl and had a liaison with an amateur singer named June.  By 1946, he was “married” to pretty, 19-year-old Betty, a farm girl with a spectacular figure with whom he stayed for seven years.

In 1949, Tipton was asked to rejoin George Mayer’s Sophisticated Swing Trio, which planned to get in on the Pacific Northwest club circuit action.  For a brief time in the 1950s, recorded Diane Wood Middlebrook, Tipton’s biographer (Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton, 1999), gambling in private clubs in Washington State was legal, drawing gaming tourists to the state from all over the country.  Though the first dates weren’t very auspicious, they did have a benefit.  One local radio station in Roseburg, Oregon, recorded the Thursday-night gigs at the club the Sophisticated Swing Trio was playing, and so four of their performances survive for posterity.  During the three years that followed, Mayer’s trio played the northwest circuit in Oregon and Washington, and as far east as Idaho and Montana.  Soon, Dave Sobol Entertianment Agency of Spokane began booking the trio’s gigs, putting the ensemble into some of the best clubs in the region, including the Boulevard Club in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where Tipton and his fellow musicians shared the stage with the likes of the Ink Spots, the Delta Rhythm Boys, and Billy Eckstine. 

In 1951, in Longview, Washington, Tipton began to form his own group, the Billy Tipton Trio, which eventually included Ron Kilde on bass and Dick O’Neil on drums.  Tipton started a professional association with Sobol who booked the trio into top-flight hotels in Spokane like the Ridpath and the Davenport where the combo played Dixieland and covers of poplar jazz classics.  They were also not above a little slapstick and costumed gags: one report had it that Tipton slapped on a bonnet as the trio swung into Ella Fitzgerald’s famous 1938 rendition of “A-Tisket A-Tasket.”  He was an accomplished emcee and showman for the little floor shows his band had to put on to please their customers, and he became popular for his convivial persona, spiffy attire, and boyish good looks.  A natural mimic—as a musician and bandleader, Tipton was expected to sound as much like the artists he and his combo covered as possible—he created small vaudeville skits in which he enacted rubes, dunces, clowns, and kids; he played everything, in fact, except grown women and wrote punny blackouts and one-liners to keep the audience amused.  In 1954, Tipton met his fourth wife, Maryann, a sometime call girl.

The trio still toured, however, and while gigging in Santa Barbara, California, in 1956, the combo was heard by a scout for Tops Records out of L.A.  The label signed them to a contract and in 1957 issued two albums, Sweet Georgia Brown and Billy Tipton Plays Hi-Fi on Piano, which contained such jazz standards as “What’ll I Do,” “The Man I Love,” “Willow Weep For Me,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” and “Don’t Blame Me.”  The recordings sold respectably and brought the Billy Tipton Trio some renown and better offers, including the house-band spot at the new Holiday Hotel casino in Reno, Nevada, in 1958.  Tipton disappointed his two bandmates, however, not only by turning down the lucrative chance at the big time, but also by declining four additional albums for Tops.  Apparently he feared the spotlight would be too bright for his other performance.

Tipton moved to his last hometown, Spokane, in 1958 and the trio played weekly gigs in local clubs for the next decade, during which Tipton also acted as a booker for Sobol’s agency, helping younger musicians find work in the business.  He ended up owning the agency, but retired from performing in 1973 when arthritis in his fingers and bursitis made playing painful.  He also suffered from emphysema and ulcers, but declined to see a doctor.

In 1962, Tipton left Maryann and “married” his fifth “wife,” a busty, red-headed former stripper named Kitty, and they raised a family including three adopted sons, John (b. 1963), Scott (b. 1963), and William (b. 1969).  (He explained that the need to adopt was the result of his “sterility” from that encounter with the Buick which left him with severe damage to his ribcage and genitals.)  The couple became active in the PTA, the Boy Scouts, and their community; Tipton was always the first to arrange a benefit for a cause or a friend in need.  Tipton devoted himself to his boys: “He was always there for me,” said son John, and Scott declared, “He did a helluva good job with us.  That's what mattered.”  Though the musician was no athlete, he played ball with his sons and took them camping—but he never went swimming and he always wore a T-shirt and an athletic cup outside his underwear.  Tipton seldom spoke of his private life or any of his personal problems, and he rarely saw a doctor and, though he had a Social Security number, he claimed no benefits in his later life.  He and Kitty had separate bedrooms (“Kitty liked to stay up late,” explained John) and, according to one report, the musician only made love in a darkened room and usually only half-undressed; he “was deft at the use of a prosthetic device.”

After a quarrel, Tipton separated from Kitty in 1982.  He and his sons moved into a run-down mobile home in a trailer park on the outskirts of Spokane.  The boys left, his income dwindled, and he spent his last years broke.  Refusing to see a doctor despite failing health, he collapsed and died of a perforated ulcer on 21 January 1989.  He’d made a comfortable living for himself and his family as a musician—he called himself an “entertainer”—but his final estate was almost all debts.

At his death, when the coroner revealed Tipton’s anomalous sexuality, his ex-wives and sons all insisted that they had had no idea their husband and father had been born a woman and had disguised himself as a man—without surgical enhancement or hormones—for 55 years.  (His aunts and cousins back in Oklahoma and Missouri, with whom he remained in contact, still knew him as Dorothy, but since he never let his former existence as a female and his present one as a male bleed into one another, neither camp knew of the other life.)  He portrayed an exemplary citizen, a dedicated family man, an affectionate husband, and a loving father.  If anyone had known, or even suspected, no one said anything in all those years.  Dave Sobol, Tipton’s longtime friend and agent, remembered him as “a perfect gentleman.”  The musician and bandleader may have begun impersonating a man for financial reasons, a ploy against the sexism of the industry, or even as a sort of joke—propositions most people who had something to say about Tipton’s deception after his death reject—but it became his life. 

There remains considerable mystery about how the former Dorothy Tipton maintained the fiction, and no one’s talking, leaving it all up to conjecture and prurient imagining.  (Kitty, who died in 2007, ordered Tipton’s body cremated, so the physical evidence is gone.)  There remains a lot of speculation about Tipton’s motivation for his gender-bending life and the nature of his true sexual orientation.  (The notion of transgenderism hadn’t been conceived in Tipton’s day; the term itself didn’t even appear until 1965 and at his death, the concept had barely been defined, much less come into common use.)  “He got tired of keeping that secret,” lamented John. “That’s what probably gave him the ulcers and killed him.”  His brother Scott added, “I think he probably never told us because he was afraid we might have rejected him.  I could have accepted it. . . .  He was my dad.”  Youngest son William, however, acknowledges, “Now I feel that though I knew him for 18 years, I never knew him at all.”  (Years later, William—who sometimes called himself Billy Tipton, Jr.—said, “He was a phenomenal person.  He was a better man than most men could be.”)  Curiously, though, he may have hinted at his double life through inside jokes that seemed insignificant . . . until you knew the truth.  One of the sketches he wrote for his trio’s performances went like this: “How many sexes are there?” asked the straight man.  Responded Tipton: “The male sex, the female sex, and the insects.”

Ironically, due to a split in the family after Tipton’s death, the musician’s ashes were divided between two family camps, one box going to John and Scott and the other to William.  Diane Middlebrook reported that a local journalist reflected, “Even now, ironically, there are two Billy Tiptons.”  Middlebrook observed that at Tipton’s death, no trace of the breast bindings and the jockstrap, what the biographer called his “sex-concealing gear,” was found in the trailer.  “Billy,” Middlebrook speculated, “had prepared to emerge from behind his screen like the Wizard of Oz.”

(The bandleader’s biographer also found double meaning in some of the songs the Billy Tipton Trio played, such as “Exactly Like You”; “All of Me”; “The Way You Look Tonight”; and “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” with lyrics that plead, “It wouldn’t be make-believe if you believed in me.”  But, of course, these were also just the jazz standards the trio’s audiences expected to hear.)

Many years after Tipton’s death, Brook Ellingwood, a staff writer at KCTS-TV, the PBS outlet in Seattle/Yakima, Washington, described the musician’s life as “a set of Russian nesting dolls,” with “a talented girl wanting to play” jazz inside “a cross-dressing woman” inside “a pleasant yet unremarkable heterosexual man.”  I don’t see Tipton as a set of dolls, though.  That’s way too passive and rigid for what he did.  In my perception, the life of Billy Tipton was a concurrent array of performances, like Charles Spencer Chaplin playing Charlie Chaplin playing The Little Tramp playing The Lone Prospector (his character in The Gold Rush) playing various roles (explorer, waiter, valet, millionaire, dancer, lover, and so on).  Dorothy/Billy Tipton was, simultaneously or serially, a young, jazz obsessed girl; a talented musician and bandleader; a female musician dressed as a male for professional reasons; a woman living as a man; a husband and lover; a father; a community-oriented gentleman.  To borrow (and slightly misapply) words from William Shakespeare: “All the world's a stage, / . . . / And one man in his time plays many parts.”  Whenever Billy Tipton ventured forth, at home or in public, he wore several (if not all) of these costumes.

Of Dorothy’s relationship to Billy, Middlebrook put it aptly:  “[H]er sexual identity became an exquisite act . . . .  [S]he was the actor; he was the role.”  All we can say for sure is that Dorothy Lucille Tipton took on the part of Billy Lee Tipton in 1934 and made it the longest-running—and arguably the most successful—performance of all time.  After all, even The Fantasticks only ran 42 years—13 years fewer than Billy!
  (Okay, London’s The Mousetrap has run 62 years to date—but both Fantasticks and Mousetrap changed casts—Billy Tipton never did.  So there!)

[Like many actors and screen personalities during their lifetimes, Tipton became a symbol after his death and his photo was used as an iconic image.  He appeared on the cover of Lou Sullivan’s Information for the Female to Male Cross-Dresser and Transsexual (Ingersoll Gender Center, 1990).  There have also been many adaptations of the Billy Tipton story—I wonder how Tipton himself would feel about that, having worked so hard to keep his private life to himself for so long.  Aside from the biography by Diane Middlebrook (who died in 2007) and countless articles (including nationwide obituaries) both in print and on line, there are:

  • Stevie Wants to Play the Blues by Eduardo Machado, a 1990 play based on Tipton’s life, performed at the Los Angeles Theatre Center
  • “Tipton” by folksinger Phranc, a 1991 song in tribute to the musician
  • The Opposite Sex Is Neither, a theatrical revue by Kate Bornstein, featuring Tipton, premièred at the Fourth Annual National Festival of Lesbian and Gay Performance (Highways, Santa Monica, California), 1992
  • Billy by Timothy Brock (music) and Bryan Willis (libretto), an opera based on Tipton’s life, staged in Olympia, Washington, in 1994
  • Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man by Alix Umen and Prisco, a 1995 eight-minute film based on Tipton’s life and career
  • The Slow Drag by Carson Kreitzer, a 1996 jazz musical based on Tipton’s life, performed at the American Place Theatre, New York City, and the Whitehall Theatre, London
  • Trumpet by Jackie Kay, a 1998 novel based on Tipton’s life
  • “The Legend of Billy Tipton” by the punk band The Video Dead, a song about Tipton’s story on the 2003 album Shogun Sessions
  • “Kill Me, Por Favor” by Ry Cooder, a 2011 short story including a section about Tipton in the collection Los Angeles Stories
  • A Girl Named Bill – The Life and Times of Billy Tipton by Nellie McKay, a 2014 cabaret act drawing on the story of Billy Tipton]

20 December 2014

Dispatches from Spain 5

by Rich Gilbert

[Rich Gilbert is back now with his latest installment of the e-mail reports on his and Sallie’s six-month sojourn in Madrid.  They’re now about one-third of the way through the adventure—their apartment lease is up in May—and they haven’t decided what to do then, but they made a visit to Nuremberg, Germany, where Rich served in the army (after I got to know him in Berlin some years earlier).  This message arrived in my inbox on 15 December and as I promised, I’m posting it as soon as I can.  (I’ll endeavor to keep Rich’s reports as current as I can from now on, as long as he keeps sending them.)

[As previously, I’ve lightly edited Rich’s e-mail to delete personal information on him and his friends and family, and I’ve inserted bracketed side remarks where I think they’ll be helpful.  (Comments in parentheses are Rich’s own.)  If you are intrigued with my friend’s reports on this experience, be sure to follow up with visits to Sallie’s blog, Rambling Solo, which Rich mentions and to which he provides a link below.]

Madrid – December 15, 2014

Dear Friends and Family,

Sallie and I have now been in Madrid almost two months. She continues to produce her blog, Rambling Solo, http://ramblingsolo.blogspot.com.es, which describes some of our experiences from her perspective. As before, I will separate my comments into sections, so you need only read what interests you.

Daily Life

We have settled into a general routine. Monday through Friday, Sallie goes to a Spanish class from 9:00 to 1:00, and has a fair amount of homework, which she is diligent about.  As a consequence, I have become the “homemaker” doing most of the laundry, shopping and preparing the meals. We have each arranged to get decent haircuts from people who did not speak English.  Maybe three times a week, I fix a big lunch and we have light dinner.  Other times, I go downtown to meet her after class, and we get lunch and do something.  We have year passes to the national museums, which includes the Prado [Madrid’s world-class art museum].

I also joined a nearby gym a 5 minute walk and in the direction of our favorite bakery and mercado [market].  There is no pool, but if I get there between 10:00 and 11:00, I have no problem getting on an elliptical machine and most of the weight machines.  Still, I was initially surprised to see a number of well developed young men and women working out at that time.  Then I remembered that the unemployment rate in Spain for young adults is close to 50%! Of course, some of those young people may have night jobs, but it is a sobering reminder that Spain still has its economic problems. (Despite the fact the President [of the Government, what we call the Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy] recently announced the crisis was over.)

I still read portions of El Pais [the national daily] every day, so my reading vocabulary is growing, but the speaking/listening needs work. We are both still having trouble hearing the Madrilenos when they talk. We need the practice.  We have some local bars and restaurants where the staff will talk with us, and but we probably have to put more work into it.  I will say that is some places when they figure out we are foreigners, especially  Americans, who are trying to learn Spanish, they are often pleased and will try to work with us.

I have reconnected with friends from 25 years ago who live outside town, but Pamela is from Bermuda and Juan speaks good English, so that is what we speak when together. It is the same for a local ex-pat that I sometimes watch futbol with at one of the bars.

Legal Troubles

We had a scare which we just resolved this past week.  Both Sallie and I recall that when we got our visas, the staff at the Spanish Embassy said we had to report to the police within 90 days to “register.”  There were no other directions.  Well, that proved to be a confusing endeavor, and no one was really able to give us advice I could understand.  I finally found out that we had to get national ID cards from the national police; the first step was to have our fingerprints taken.  I was supposed to get an appointment on line, but when I did so, it said there were no dates available.  The 90 day visa expires while I am back in the States, so it was important to get this fixed.  I finally reached out to an attorney with whom I had a mutual acquaintance and he put us in touch with a local firm.  It turns out we were supposed to get the ID card within 30 days, not 90 days! We were definitely not told that. So with the lawyer we went out to a station (in the far outskirts of Madrid).  We were prepared to show that we had at least started our way through the bureaucratic thicket before the 30 days were up.  However, thanks to the attorney having all the documents together (and possibly because we were elderly, middle class Americans), they processed us without an argument.  We should get the ID cards in 30 days – hopefully just before I return to the States. It was a necessary expense, but we are both angry that no one at the Spanish Embassy ever told us clearly what we needed to do.

Negative Aspects

We are having a great time, but it occurred to me that I should tell you some of the negative aspects of living in Madrid and Spain just to give our experiences some perspective:

1.   The bureaucracy.  (See above!) (I suppose our immigration bureaucracy is even worse, though.)

2.  The Spaniards are not consistent about cleaning up after their dogs (and there are a lot of dogs.)

3.  It is sometimes awkward to walk on the street or in the Metro as the Spaniards do not automatically move to pass on the left; but instead keep walking where they are. Also they often have their eyes on their phones. (Apparently mobile phone theft is not a big problem on the street or in the Metro or buses, which I suppose is a good thing.) So you have to keep your eyes wide open when walking around.

4.  The beer.  We found a brewpub in Madrid on Plaza Santa Ana, and the beer was awful.  The beer from the tap in most bars is almost always a lager, from different Spanish brewers. It is cold with a clean taste, so I am not actually complaining about it. I have found a place that serves Pilsner Urquell on tap; you can also sometimes find Guinness and German beers.  My expat friend has introduced me to a pretty good dark Spanish beer which our local bar sometimes has in bottles. Still, the wide variety of good beers we can get from American bars, and especially the brewpubs, is lacking. Sometimes you just want a good IPA! (We did find a good authentic Mexican restaurant though; not enough to make us forget La Plaza [a Mexican-Salvadoran restaurant on Capital Hill, where Rich and Sallie lived in D.C.], but good.)

5.  The food wrappings, both plastic wrap and aluminum foil, do not come with a nice metal cutting edge.  You have to try and tear them by hand or stop and use a pair of scissors.

So with the exception of the immigration bureaucracy, I admit these are minor points really, but they are also part of life here.

Back To Germany

Sallie and I flew up to Nuremburg for four days to meet our friends John and Nancy Y*****, whom some of you may know from the T-shirt party [an annual event Rich used to host], who were finishing a river cruise of Christmas markets in Germany. It was rainy some of the time, and cold all the time. Still, the food, the drink, the architecture, and the atmosphere were quite different from Madrid. It felt a little like I was coming back to familiar place after having lived in Germany many years ago.  [Rich did a second gig in the army after becoming a lawyer and was a JAG officer in Nuremberg.]  The most amazing thing to me was that my German came back almost immediately.  My Spanish reading vocabulary is much greater than my German, but I did not struggle in casual conversation there the way I do sometimes in Spanish. I found myself thinking in German, even for the first few days back in Madrid. (Kind of embarrassing to say “Danke Schoen” when I meant to say  “Gracias.”)

The Allies bombed Nuremburg to rubble during the end of WWII and there were pictures of it in a number of places. The Germans rebuilt the Altstadt (old city) with a combination of old buildings, including the castle, numerous churches, and the city wall, with modern buildings. It works and it was fun to walk around. Outside the Altstadt, it is all pretty modern.  We stayed in a nice, clean, convenient apartment we got through AirBnB. We would do that again.

News Of The United States

I try to look at the Washington Post online every day to stay roughly current with news in the United States, but it is interesting to see what is covered in El Pais and how it is covered. Given the importance of the United States in the world, we get a fair amount of coverage of major US news. The election was news of course, but so also was Obama’s immigration pronouncement. The coverage of the latter was relatively favorable here. Of course, the protests resulting from the failure of the grand juries to indict the police officers in Ferguson and then the Staten Island made the front page, although the pictures of the burning and looting got the most coverage, as is often the case.

The release of the Senate “torture report” was the lead story when it come out.  That will continue to reverberate for a while I suspect.  Interestingly though, the next day the President of Brazil [Dilma Rousseff] released a similar report about human rights abuses during the military dictatorship.  She was a torture survivor herself and cried during the press conference. Of course, the Mexican story of the murder of the students in Guererro is not going away either; there is much more continuing coverage here than in the Post.  This does not make our national embarrassment any less, but, hopefully, we can say this was aberration at a specific traumatic point in our history. I think it is unlikely to be repeated in such a horrifying degree regardless of future events and future administrations.

There is no coverage here of United States sports whatsoever, so I need to go online to follow the surprising Wizards, as well as that train wreck surrounding the Washington Football Team [i.e., the Redskins, whose name is controversial these days].

Spanish Politics

Spanish politics are a mess.  (Of course, our system seems pretty dysfunctional too, but in different ways.)  The corruption stories just keep coming. The sister of the King [Infanta, or Princess, Cristina , whose brother was crowned King Felipe VI just five months ago], for heaven’s sake, was charged with corruption stemming from her husband’s activities [Iñaki Urdangarín, Olympic medalist  for handball in 1996 and 2000].  The prosecutor eventually dropped the criminal charges, but is asking for a 600,000-Euro [nearly $750,000] civil fine as restitution.  He is asking for 19 years for the husband!   The amount of money floating around in dozens of these cases is in the millions.  Bob McDonnell [former Virginia governor convicted of corruption in September] clearly was not thinking big enough. Also, for those of you who have asked – I still have not been offered one of the “tarjeta oscura” credit cards which key figures in the government received from a bank, and which one does not have to pay back; I will let you know if that changes. [See Rich’s comments on this “dark card” in “Dispatches from Spain 3 & 4,” 10 December on ROT.]

Of course, this drumbeat of corruption charges is eroding the faith in the political system for many Spaniards.  The party in power, the Popular Party (PP), is taking the biggest hit.  If elections were held today, Podemos (“We can”), would win the most seats, but not enough to form a government on its own, so some sort of coalition is likely going to have to be put together.  Podemos is a populist party, with a charismatic leader [Pablo Iglesias], most of his circle of advisors are academics.  They have been vague about their specific policies, but are basically left wing.  They are talking about renegotiating or defaulting on the national debt, which has the Germans in a tizzy.

Meanwhile, in the Northeast, the Catalan separatist story keeps humming along.  The latest is that Artur Mas, head of the Catalan government, wants to call new elections and run a single slate with all of the separatist parties represented.  His thinking is that if they win a clear majority, this would be the effective equivalent of a referendum, as the whole slate would be committed to independence.  If they win, Mas wants to declare independence in 18 months after negotiating a separation from Spain. Mas is having trouble lining up all of the separatist parties, some of whom do not want to wait the 18 months. No guarantee that the Spanish government will go along with it.  Vamos a ver! (we shall see).

One aspect of the story which I found interesting as a criminal defense attorney, concerned the response of the government to the “consulta,” the informal referendum held last month [on 9 November]. The national Constitutional Court ruled that it, like an earlier formal referendum was unauthorized, but the Catalans held it anyway. At the time, the Constitutional Court, while saying that the vote was not authorized, ignored the national government’s request to issue a specific court order to Mas and his government not to hold it.  Well after the vote, the national chief prosecutor and his counterpart from Cataluña [Spanish for Catalonia] met to discuss whether to pursue criminal charges. The Catalan chief prosecutor decided to call a meeting of his subordinates to seek their advice – an interesting step which has no counterpart in the U.S. legal system.  The Catalan prosecutors decided that there was not enough evidence that Mas had violated a specific order and recommended that he not be charged with “disobedience.” While not binding, the Catalan chief prosecutor accepted the recommendation.  That left the national chief prosecutor out on a limb, so he called his own meeting.  Not surprisingly, his prosecutors voted to charge Mas and some subordinates. 

Of course, this is just what Mas wanted as it threatens to make him a martyr for Catalan independence, thereby enhancing his stature going into the elections. Although the chief prosecutor is not officially part of the Justice Ministry, clearly there are politics at work.  In the end, there has to be a political resolution of this, not a criminal one. For what it is worth, given my imperfect grasp of legal Spanish, I also think that the Catalan prosecutors had it right.  Even at the time, I noted the significance of the refusal of the Constitutional Court to issue any orders to Mas or the Catalan government. I think you have to have an unambiguous order to be convicted of failing to obey it. (Ironically, we have a strikingly similar issue in one of the cases I will argue when I come back to the States next month.

Spanish Futbol

The “big three,” Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Atletico Madrid are 1-2-3 in the Spanish league, and all won their groups in the European Champions League tournament. Unfortunately, that is not the lead story any longer. While we were in Germany, a brawl broke out between fans of Atletico Madrid and A Coruna (in the far northwest of the country) and an A Coruna fan was killed. This has put violence in futbol squarely in the sports pages for weeks now. It turns out most of the clubs have fans that purport to support violence, like the “hooligans” of British soccer. They are called “ultras” here.  In some cases, they make up only a segment of the fan club, which is true of Atletico Madrid.  El Pais described some as “ultra left” and “ultra right.”  I guess the “ultra right” are like skinheads and often express racist, xenophobic, and homophobic views; a group of Atletico Madrid fans were caught on camera this past week giving the fascist salute at their match in Italy. I am not sure what the “ultra left” groups stand for; they are apparently equally prepared to take up violence, so I am not so sure they are any better than the “ultra right.” (No one has made this clear, but I think much of the distinction may date back to the Spanish Civil War.)

After the death, the Spanish futbol association announced that clubs who cannot control their fans would be held responsible, which can result in a loss of standing points, and even possible demotion to the next lower level.  This would be a huge deal, so maybe the clubs will take more action.  There are things which can be done to reduce, if not eliminate, the risk of violence. There are plans to install facial recognition and fingerprint technology to keep out known trouble makers. Since apparently being in these groups is considered a “point of honor,” many of the leaders are not shy about making themselves known.  The clubs can also close down sections where the groups have seats, or disperse the fans. It would be like breaking up the Barra Brava fan club of DC United (who are not violent; I’m just giving an example). The synergy of having all the fans in one place would be dissipated. In addition, the leagues wants to cut down on the racist, xenophobic, and homophobic chants and songs, which add to the potential for violence.  Both Real Madrid and Barcelona have already taken this step for some time; their international advertising revenue is too valuable to allow a group of hooligans get caught on camera being fools.

So now that people are talking about the problem, maybe it will get better, at least in and around the stadiums. (By comparison, 15 people have been killed in soccer violence in Argentina this year; they even had a gun battle between rival gangs!)


Sallie’s son David, daughter-in-law Heidi, and granddaughter Emily, will all be here for the holidays.  We may make a trip to Avila, Segovia and Salamanca, and another trip to Barcelona for a few days, but Sallie still wants to spend Christmas and New Year’s here in Madrid. We have still not decided what to do in May when our lease is up, but we will be staying in Europe, and probably Spain (although Sallie has a yearn for Italy too.)

I will be back in D.C. for work from January 15 through February 3; hope to see a number of you then. In the meantime, we both wish you all happy holidays.