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Alice Bradley Davey
James Tiptree Jr.
Alice Hastings Bradley (1915–1987), later known as Alli, was the only child of charismatic, wealthy, glamorous, and eccentric parents. Her father was Herbert Bradley, a lawyer and naturalist, and her mother was Mary Hastings Bradley, a prolific writer of fiction and travel books. From an early age she travelled the world with her parents.
As she grew older and her sexuality developed, Alice felt ambivalent toward other girls. In some ways she preferred the company of boys, who seemed much more straightforward emotionally. Her relations with them were flirty, easy and fun. In the presence of girls, Alice often felt annoyed by their frivolous superficial behaviour and their hierarchical approach to friendship. At the same time she felt strongly attracted to them, they excited her in ways she found deeply unsettling, yet she did not pursue her feelings beyond a few fumbling encounters. The passion she felt was unrequited, and remained so: her desire for women would never be fulfilled (as far as anyone knows). The only coming out Alice experienced was as debutante, in 1934, when she was nineteen years old.
Alice Sheldon led many extraordinary lives: she was an exceptional painter, a brilliant storyteller, and passionately interested in science; she eloped at age nineteen, and in her first year of marriage became pregnant, and had an abortion; she was an art critic for the Chicago Sun under the name ‘Alice Bradley Davey’; divorced, married again, enlisted in the army, worked for the CIA; became a poultry farmer; and achieved an undergraduate degree at age forty-three, followed by a Ph.D. in experimental psychology. In all these lives she would feel uncomfortable with her own body and experience a life-long battle with depressions.
At the age of fifty-two, she began submitting stories to science-fiction magazines. Alice wasn’t fearless enough to submit her writings under her own name; anonymity seemed a better option. ‘I am a reclusive type, afraid of meeting people, except on paper,’ she once admitted. A fateful trip to the supermarket with her second husband, Huntington Sheldon, in 1967 provided inspiration. Spotting a jar of ‘Wilkin & Sons’ marmalade, she was struck by the label: ‘Tiptree,’ in a distinctive cursive print; the name came from the English village near which ‘Wilkin & Sons’ owned farmland and orchards. This would become her new identity: ‘James Tiptree,’ she said to Ting, Huntington’s nickname. ‘Junior,’ he replied, without missing a beat. They laughed, but the name stuck and an author was born. Alice intended to use a different pseudonym for each short story she submitted, but as it happened, James Tiptree Jr. was such a rapid success that he stayed. Alice kept her alter ego a secret even from those closest to her. ‘At last I have what every child wants: a real secret life… nobody else’s damn secret but MINE,’ she wrote in her dairy in 1970.
She would receive letters and checks addressed to ‘James Tiptree, Jr.,’ her alter ego began to seem like a real person, separate from her. He became a card-carrying member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). He even had a nickname, insisting on being called ‘Tip’. In correspondence he enjoyed flirting with women, (Tip complimented one editor’s assistant by calling her a ‘superdoll’). Some women developed a crush on him in return. He mentored aspiring sci-fi writers – by mail, and wrote fan letters to fellow authors he admired or envied, including Italo Calvino, Anthony Burgess, and Philip K. Dick. When editors asked to meet Tiptree in person, they were given lame excuses. In retrospect, it seems incredibly that the ruse was so easy to pull off. But it worked, so Alice kept going. Even though she regarded her early sci-fi stories as mechanical and banal; they were selling, and the act of writing proved a pleasant diversion from the episodes of crushing depression that came on without warning.
Her two selves were, however, at odds: the charming Tiptree longed to connect, to find acceptance and kinship, to establish a sense of community in the sci-fi realm. He was witty, generous, and kind, a great raconteur, and always supportive of the endeavours and ambitions of his peers. Alice was forced to act as his vigilant sentry, rejecting intimacy, withholding information, and keeping outsiders at arm’s length. This internal clash between concealment and revelation was confusing and often painful to bear.
In her extensive correspondence with several people, of which an important one was editor Jeffrey D. Smith, Alice carelessly offered many of her own life experiences as Tip’s, rather than making them up entirely – a misstep that would lead to the downfall of her alias. For instance, Tip told people he was born in the ‘Chicago area’, had travelled around colonial India and Africa as a child, joined the army, and had ‘some dabbling in academy’. When Alice’s elderly mother was ill, Trip described the burden of caretaking as his own. Perhaps Alice’s inability or unwillingness to create an entirely fictional background – familial or professional – for Tiptree indicated that on some level she hoped someone would discover her secret and that she would be made whole – freed from the burdens of duality.
At the point that Alice had inhabited Tiptree for half a decade, she began to feel constrained by writing as a man. She wanted to express her ‘feminine’ voice, yet still unwilling to unmask herself entirely. Alice introduced ‘Raccoona Sheldon’, another alter ego. ‘Raccoona’, after racoons: mask-wearing bandits, stealthy and clever. It was actually Tiptree who announced the arrival of Raccoona – an old friend of his from Wisconsin – to Smith, mentioning that she was a gifted writer. Alice took as much care with her female pseudonym as she had taken with the enigmatic Tiptree, buying Raccoona her own Olivetti typewriter – this one with black ribbon to distinguish it from Tiptree’s blue ribbon. Raccoona was given a distinct handwriting and signature, and a mailbox in her name at the post office. Yet just as Alice would slip up in covering Tiptree’s tracks, here too, she was somewhat sloppy. For one thing, she’d given Raccoona her own surname. Raccoona had mixed success in getting her stories published, and better luck only when her pal Tiptree wrote cover letters of recommendation on her behalf. Raccoona felt exasperated and jealous that Tiptree – a man – was getting his stories published by the same editors who were rejecting her work – with Alice being the dutiful midwife to them both. By this point, Alice wished, in a sense, that Tiptree were dead, but killing him off wasn’t an option. Alice’s ambivalence toward her male alter ego had started to affect her ability to play the role. She was tired and lonely. Tiptree strained her nerves more than ever. He seemed pointless: this man named after a jar of jam at the supermarket.
In November 1976, Tiptree sent Smith a letter: ‘Mother died last week,’ he wrote, ‘leaving me with a new dark strange place in the heart, and flashes of a lively, beautiful, intelligent, adventurous red haired young woman whom I had once known.’ The subsequent biographical details about Tiptree’s mother, unfortunately, were too specific – they included where Tip’s parents had lived for sixty-four years – and too similar to the newspaper obituaries of Alice’s mother. It was already well known that Tiptree’s mother had also been an African explorer, a typical biographical detail. Tip seemed to recognise that he had spilled too much personal information. He ended by saying, ‘Well, this is a weird letter.’ It was. The author had perhaps deliberately laid out all the clues that would link Tiptree to Alice. It’s no wonder: she was exhausted, anxious, and in very bad shape, despite Ting’s effort at managing her moods. She was hooked on prescription pills, including Percodan, Dexedrine, Valium, and Demerol. The charade had run its course.
The outpouring of fact and emotion in Tiptree’s letter was not lost on Smith. Nonetheless, he felt highly protective of his dear friend he’d never met or even spoken to on the phone. He did not want Tip’s cover blown, but he could not resist investigating whether Tip’s revealing missive was indeed a ‘road map to a newspaper obituary,’ as he recalled later. His research didn’t take long: the first Chicago newspaper he found at the library, a copy of the ‘Tribune’, let him to the death notice of a ninety-four-year-old Mary Hasting Bradley, who was survived by one child, a daughter. The obituary matched details of Tiptree’s letter. How to reconcile ‘Uncle Tip’ with the posh Alice Hastings Bradley Sheldon? To ease the aftermath of Alice’s broken secret, Smith opened up to Tiptree first. In a gently honest letter, ever respectful of his friend’s privacy, he wrote that he was not making ‘a demand for information,’ but warned, ‘I am going to receive questions, and whatever you choose to disclose or withhold from me, please pass along the Party Line what I am to tell others.’ He received a response – not from Tiptree, but from Alice Sheldon, introducing herself. She asked that Smith keep her secret for a little longer. He agreed. ‘How great,’ Alice wrote, but she was relieved beyond measure that the consuming role was no more. Her reply was casual: ‘Yeah. Alice Sheldon. Five ft. 8, 61 yrs., remains of a good-looking vaguely visible, grins a lot in a depressed way, very active in spurts.’
After the initial dizzying rush of revealing her true identity, Alice became severely depressed again (being exposed meant that a part of her was now dead.) It was something like the shattering remorse that sets in after a breakup. Alice was rid of this troublesome character, and now she wanted him back. Like an ex-lover, Alice could remember only the good that Tip had brought into her life; he had made her a celebrated science-fiction author and provided her with supportive community, the likes of which she had never known. Without him, she felt unstable and unable to write.
Alice admitted in the essay, ‘A Woman Writing Science Fiction’, written six months before her death, that she did not feel proud of using a male pseudonym to get ahead. She happened to choose a man’s name as a lark, and stuck with it only because it worked so seamlessly, Frankly, she kept exploiting it because of the superior treatment she received as a man: her work was taken seriously, she was well regarded by the women with whom she corresponded as their ‘understanding’ and empathetic male friend, and she occupied a place of power and influence among her peers – allowing her to challenge editors to publish more woman writers. Alice said that she felt ashamed of using a male guise to earn her place, while other woman writers had languished or succeeded entirely on their own name terms ‘I had taken the easy path,’ she admitted.
On May 19, 1987, Alice Bradley Sheldon and her husband Huntington Sheldon were found lying in bed together, hand in hand, dead of gunshot wounds, at their home in McLean, Virginia. Just before midnight, Alice had phoned a family attorney to warn him that she planned to kill her husband and herself. She calmly asked that he notify the police. When the officers arrived at the house, they found the couple alive, concluded the situation was under control, and left. Two hours later, Alice phoned the lawyer to tell him she had killed Huntington. Again she asked him to summon the police. Alice then called Huntington’s son and told him she had shot his father. Alice claimed she and Huntington had agreed in advance upon a suicide pact, however she had waited until he was asleep to kill him. At about 3:30 in the morning, she shot herself in the head.
Ciuraru, C. (2001), ‘James Tiptree, Jr. & Alice Sheldon’, Nome de Plume, A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms, pp.239–266
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