Alice in Jungleland
by ALEX CARNEVALE
I may be an actress, I may be a writer, I may be — most probably — some man's grief.
- Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr.
1921. Former taxidermist and self-appointed naturalist Carl Akeley planned a new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History. His brainstorm was to slaughter a gorilla from one of the most remote regions of Africa, an animal first seen by Europeans in 1902. Who better to accompany him than a family with a six-year old daughter? That girl was Alice Bradley, and she would become more famous than them all, even the mountain gorilla, as the literary giant James Tiptree Jr.
There you see Alice's domineering mother Mary Hastings Bradley. This was not a garden variety safari. The destination was the Congo, and the journey was difficult, although not for Alice, who was carried most of the way by porters. Later she wrote that "If I dropped something I was quite accustomed to clap my hands and have six large, naked cannibals spring to attention and pick it up for me." Her mother penned a children's book about the trip called Alice in Jungleland and a book for adult audiences called On the Gorilla Trail. Alice's mother Mary Hastings Bradley would tour and lecture about this trip and others for the rest of her life.
one of the four gorillas killed during the trip
The impact it had on her only daughter was more profound. The horror of Africa's extremes affected the young Alice deeply. After slaughtering five gorillas, they kept one of the babies under Alice's cot, causing the smell of formaldehyde to pervade everything. Her mother killed a lion and posed next to it until it came back to life, not fully dead until she shot it in the heart.
The sort of parents who would expose a six-year to such things can barely be imagined, but the resultant fifteen minutes of fame her mother enjoyed constituted a shadow that Alice would fight to step out from under for the rest of her life. In Julie Phillips' magnificent biography of Alice Sheldon, James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice Sheldon, Alice, much later tells her mother that "You taught me, without meaning to, that love is the prelude to appalling pain."
When they returned to Africa in 1924, nine-year old Alice asked her parents for a rifle. This was refused, but the vision of her gun-toting mother in the brush created an indelible image — a persona she could never live up to. In other ways, Mary Hastings Bradley was an inspiration and a talented author in her own right. She did things few women of the period could boast; one of her stories won an O. Henry award. Though she loved young Alice, her daughter evolved into a depressed teen, even attempting suicide by cutting her wrist with razorblades.
Eventually they packed her off to college, where her mother expected Alice to follow in her footsteps and attend Smith. She declined and went to Sarah Lawrence, where the beautiful, precocious painter was immediately a star. It was at this age that Alice began to notice she was as interested in women as men. She struck a debonair figure as a busty, 5'8" sixteen year old, and later she reflected on her ambivalence about how she appeared: "I do not 'fit' my body. Never really have. When I was an 'attractive girl,' a 'beauty', I didn't want to be a pretty girl. I didn't fit the interactions forced on me." Too vain to wear glasses, Sheldon's time at Sarah Lawrence was invariably wild. (The president of the school wrote her parents a letter describing Alice's unusual sleeping and eating habits.) In some ways, her behavior was reactionary: she had discerned, beneath the pretense of her education, that most Sarah Lawrence girls were preparing themselves for their wedding day.
Phillips describes a typical Alice vignette:
One night at two in the morning, Alice was in the art department trying to master photography under artificial light. She had on black velvet overalls and spike-heeled lizard pumps, and she was taking pictures of the department's anatomy skeleton, which she had arranged so that it was reclining on the floor, reading the Sunday comics, and drinking a can of tomato juice through a straw. As she adjusted the lights she was interrupted by a "plump little girl in a pink wool skirt, Braemar sweater and pearls" who looked at the photo session, looked at Alice, and said, "You don't live right."
As a form of rebellion against her controlling parents, Alice eloped with a boy, William Davey, who sat next to her at her debutante ball. Since neither Sarah Lawrence or his school, Princeton, allowed married students, they both transferred to Berkeley and drove to California.
Their six year marriage was a complete disaster, highlighted by Alice going to jail for kicking a policeman in the penis and extensive drug experiments, which she described to Philip K. Dick in later life as "early opiates, wine, and — ugh — thyroid extract." As for her marriage to the hard-drinking Davey, she wrote, "Anyone who shoots a real gun at you when drunk and angry is simply not husband material, regardless of his taste in literature." Although Alice's husband expected her to cook and clean (neither of which she did, Bill's mother eventually paying for a housekeeper), he was further disappointed with her other wifely duties.
Bill and Alice's sex was terrible, aggravated by the fact that Alice was unable to have an orgasm through intercourse. Her continuing interest in women didn't exactly help matters, and they both drank enough that they should have been able to get it right. Instead they took solace in affairs, where Alice could express her desire to penetrate and be penetrated without being a simple object of affection. Though she desired women, she rarely acted on those desires outside of unrequited love, or whenever she was hammered. Instead, she sublimated those feelings, a choice that would later find expression in her male alter ego.
Alice's nude self-portrait hanging in a gallery
After some legal troubles in San Francisco (Bill had thrown a woman Alice was performing cunnilingus on out a plate glass window), the couple moved back to New York, and spent the following summer in New Mexico. She sold a nude self-portrait, and spent the money on a shotgun, killing ducks in the marshes around Santa Fe. Bill also gave her a .38. They moved to Carmel, California, but Bill broke his jaw when a car backfired while he was operating a hand crank. Alice never visited him in the hospital, and by 1940 the marriage was over.
Newly a divorcee, Alice settled in Chicago. American involvement in World War II was on the horizon. After a brief start as the art critic for The Chicago Sun (a job for which she cut her hair), something drove her to sign up for the army. Which she, incredibly, did. At the end of September 1942, she dressed up in a classy suit and presented herself at the recruiting station. She gave her parrot to the Brooklyn Zoo, her science fiction magazines to the library, and reported to Des Moines.
in her uniform
As a member of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), Alice was known by Davey, her ex-husband's last name. Her dominant and aggressive style was a hit in the military, and she quickly became a sergeant, applying to Officer Candidate School. Though the WAAC was occupied chiefly by tasks like making Army Christmas cards, she was still able to earn the ire of a commanding officer. Sent to Newport News and made a supply officer, she fucked one of her fellow officers and wrote in her journal, "Jesus it was good to get my legs around a young man again!" What a woman.
After the WAAC was shut down and most women returned to civilian life, Alice reenlisted. She eventually reported to air force intelligence school in Pennsylvania, but not before dating a variety of staid military men. Of one particular dud she wrote, "I like him thoroughly — and he appeals to me. But he keeps making me feel like a lady tigress, and that is not promising." Alice studied photointerpretation, and once she graduated, her group was moved to the basement of the Pentagon. Looking at photographs of Japan and occupied China, she listed military targets for the commanders.
In her spare time, she wrote her first novel — the Washington war jaunt The Victories of Light. As would become her custom in both art and life, the dumb male narrated the novel while the female was the one who really knew what was going on.
24 year old Alice at a Georges Braque show
In 1944 the army set up an "exploitation division." Its mission was to recover and evaluate the extent of German science recovered by the Allies after the war. Its leader was Huntington Sheldon. Alice didn't think much of her assignment, as most of her study had been of the Far East, and she was even less optimistic about her commanding officer. She confronted Colonel Sheldon, known to his intimates as Ting, and she challenged him to a game of chess and won. Blindfolded.
They married quickly after meeting, Ting being twelve years her senior. The sex was horrific; in Alice's words "masturbatory." He was better when he was drunk — and he was usually drunk — but he couldn't stay erect. This early sexual problem threatened to end the marriage before it had really begun. Alice concluded that she loved Ting more as a friend than as a passion.
Eventually they bought an egg hatchery in Toms River, New Jersey and planned to live off the income. This plan was slow in developing even near the end. Though she wanted children, complications from her abortion of Bill Davey's child had blocked her fallopian tubes. By 1952 they had sold the hatchery and they both took jobs in the CIA.
Alice was still Alice — in the context of her open marriage she had little qualms about sleeping with other Pentagon analysts. This was complicated by her continued use of mind-altering drugs. At some point, the CIA issued everyone on Alice's project Dexedrine. Speed was back in her life, an old friend from her unhappy days with her first husband. Later Alice told Philip K. Dick that she "fell repeatedly in the clutches of Dex — and did the insane bit of trying to come down with barbs. All, all by myself, and keeping up work in the world."
After entering academia and pursuing her interest in psychological research, Alice felt confident enough to send out her work in the genre of science fiction. Many critics later assumed it by order of the CIA that forced her to create her nom de plume of James Tiptree Jr., but really, she wanted to protect her academic career. Still, there must have been a part of her that was more than amused by the idea of being a man. Another identity fit her aggressive, multitasking personality, and with the suggestion of Ting that Tiptree should be a Jr, she was off and running.
Within a year legendary editors like John W. Campbell and Frederik Pohl were buying her stories. At first it was the deftness and the hurtling speed of her plots that garnered attention, but her CIA background added a technical element that was irresistible to journals like Galaxy and Astonishing Stories. Though she never imagined she'd keep up the pen name for long, she soon opened a bank account under Tiptree's name after convincing the manager that it was both legal and necessary.
Her first artistic triumph was "The Last Flight of Dr. Ain," a story about a scientist in love with female Earth who spreads a strain of influenza that will kill off its most destructive inhabitants. It was nominated for a Nebula, and opened the community of science fiction writers to her. An incestuous and eccentric crew, Tiptree could never see them in person, but that was no matter. Most weren't social butterflies, and she was alive in letters, even writing to authors like Tom Wolfe and Italo Calvino as Tiptree. (They wrote back, Calvino asking to see her work.) In the same year, 1969, she made first contact with Philip K. Dick.
At first the forty-year old Dick related to Tiptree when she wrote him in a nice way, as a fan, and she kept things on that level. But once he read "Dr. Ain", he wrote to ask her to collaborate on a novel with him. To say she was overwhelmed would be an understatement. The correspondence sputtered for a time, but others thrived. Of the many callings Alice had in her life, letter-writing was chief among them.
David Gerrold, a science fiction writer who would later create "The Trouble With Tribbles" episode of Star Trek, even tried the pop-in on his friend Tiptree. Alice opened the door and when he and a friend asked for Tiptree, she stared at him in shock. A few lies made Gerrold none the wiser, and forever afterwards Alice kept her change of address cards flying. In her will she included an apology to Gerrold: "It killed me not to be able to speak."
An acceptance from the flamboyant Harlan Ellison was also a particular source of pride for Alice during this period. Ellison wrote, "You are the single most important new writer in science fiction today. Not me, not Delany, not Blish, not Budrys, not Disch, not Dick...none of us...I am so fucking destructed by what you've allowed me to read. I don't know how to say thank you."
Though Ting never read her writing, and their marriage was sexless, they were close despite these handicaps. The editor David Hartwell commented that "They were always calling each other 'my sweet, my heart, my dear.' If he were in the room she had to touch him." More comfortable with each other than ever, Alice was fifty-five to her husband's sixty-seven. As she began to feel more safe in her life, her work improved.
Tiptree first wrote to Ursula K. Le Guin in 1971 after admiring her classic The Lathe of Heaven. Le Guin lived in Portland and was married to a history professor with three children. It would be marvelous to see Ursula's letters released in her lifetime, because what is public of them shows the exertion of a magnificent mind. Of Philip K. Dick's religious conversion and his lack of willingness to discuss it with her, she wrote to Alice, "Oh hell I don't blame him, I suppose anyone who gets within a letter's length of me scents the Voltaire lying in wait."
Philips interviewed Le Guin for her biography of Alice, and Ursula described the experience of communicating with the writer who she knew only as James Tiptree Jr.:
He was an extremely charming persona, and I think aware of his charm. The flirting was certainly mutual. The charm consisted partly in vivid intelligence, interestedness, epistolary wit and elegance and humor and good humor - really good letter-writers aren't common, after all — and partly, like all charm, was mysterious, irrational, irresistible. It is flattering to be written wonderfully clever, admiring letters to. Tiptree's letters combined lavish praise with personal reticence, also a rare combination. He courted, flirted, joked, charmed, and evaded. Masterfully. The praise did get in the way of open friendship. He refused equality, in that he was always writing as the admirer. This is perhaps why I always felt a certain element of play-acting, of performance in my side of the correspondence. I had to play up to Tiptree, and it was fun to do so; but a plain frank friendship would have been even lovelier. But that, of course, is denied to a persona.
When Tiptree won his first Nebula for "Love is the Plan The Plan Is Death" in 1973 Ursula half-suspected what might be up from "his" reaction to the prize: "This was just too improbable, a man who didn't think he deserved a prize." In truth, it was only the hard-boiled nature of Alice's stories that prevented her from being IDed earlier — if the internet had been around, she would not have been able to hide in plain sight.
As the feminist movement began its charge, Alice fell into correspondence with one of its finer representatives in her world: the brilliant novelist and academic Joanna Russ. Though she had yet to come out as a lesbian when she began her correspondence with Tiptree, Russ couldn't have been prouder of who she was, and her mindbending novel The Female Man remains an immortal classic. Though she and Alice never met in person, Russ felt no compunction about lecturing her older "male" friend on the inequities faced by women writers. Unbeknownst to her, the receiving party was all too aware of these differences.
Russ also went after Le Guin, who, she was convinced, chose too many male protagonists. Le Guin was considerably less sure of the feminist movement — though she wrote from an undeniably feminist perspective, she disdained Russ' embrace of the oppressive patriarchal power structure as a skin that women could also inhabit. As a happy wife and mother, she also resented some of Russ' ideas on those subjects.
Split between her two friends, neither of whom knew she was an incredible synthesis of both ideals, Alice couldn't help but be ambivalent. She shared the ideals of the feminist movement without question, but was unsure of what it meant for her work. Alice's second pen name, Racoona Sheldon, sent out stories under separate cover (sometimes with a recommendation from Tiptree) and explored these ideas more closely.
When Alice's mother died in 1976, Alice's life exploded. Her mother had been in many ways the center of her world; by her death she had published in most major American journals of the period including The New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post. Mary Hastings Bradley merited an obituary in local papers, and Alice thought only of her grief.
In letters she let slip that her mother died, and many of her correspondents, including Harlan Ellison, were aware that her mother was a Chicago naturalist. Confronted by Jeff Smith (the editor who would become her literary executor) she was forced to confess. She came out to many of her closest friends, and even wrote a letter to Robert Silverberg apologizing for allowing him to praise her for her excess of maleness in an introduction to one of her stories in his New Dimensions anthology. She appears to have been extremely uneasy with how correspondents would now view her. Here is her letter to Le Guin:
I want you, alone, to know first from me because of our special relation. I write this feeling a great and true friendship is wavering on the balance, about to slide away forever to the dark.
Ursula, Ursula, I am petrified. All the friends, the sf world — will they take it as "deception"? Will I have any friends left? Will the women who mean so much to me see it all as an evil put-on?
Well dear Starbear an old age is dead and time to begin a new. But I think I'm finished.
Tip says goodbye to a very dear friend and all that is hers.
Let me know what you think if you're still speaking to
Le Guin wrote back, reassuring her friend:
oh strange, most strange, most wonderful, beautiful, improbable - Wie geht's, Schwesterlein? sorella mia, sistersoul! ... Do you know what? I don't think I have ever been surprised before. Things have happened but when they happen one thinks Oh, of course, this had to Be, etc, deep in my prophetic soul I Knew, etc — but not this time, by God! And it is absolutely flatfoodedly surprised — it's like a Christmas present! I want to laugh, also slightly to cry, because the whole thing now is on this huge and unexpected scale of real and total reversal — only what does reversal mean? Explain to me, my Gethenian friend. ... I don't know about people's reactions, I suppose there are some who resent being put on, but it would take an extraordinarily small soul to resent so immense, so funny, so effective and fantastic and ETHICAL a put-on.
Not surprisingly, Alice plunged into depression. She had shed one of her selves, and there was bound to be a toll. She was a person far from inured to criticism, and this was her most exposed moment. Some of Tiptree's critics believed her work lost some authority when Tiptree "died", but it only changed into something just as compelling, if less flashy. Her collection of horror stories Tales of the Quintana Roo even won a World Fantasy Award.
Ting's failing heath had also changed Alice's life. She was using so much Numorphan that she had to check into a hospital to break its hold over her. More and more frequently she spoke of suicide. She had planned it for years. When the time came in May of 1987 she killed her husband by shooting him in the head while he was asleep (friends speculated that he was not exactly ready to go), making a few goodbye phone calls and offing herself. The police found them in bed together — after observing how messy Ting's exploding brain was, she wisely wrapped her own in a towel.
It is sometimes asked whether Alice would have achieved the same level of acclaim if she had written as Racoona Sheldon from the beginning. It is at least a possibility that some of material seemed fresher coming from a man, who rarely attacked the same themes at this time. Le Guin and Russ both thought Tiptree an excessively enlightened male; e.g. "you're one of the good ones." Really, there weren't any good ones, and most of the friends who abandoned Alice once she was only Alice were males like Frederik Pohl and Harlan Ellison, though it seems reductionist to ascribe this merely to her sex. They perhaps understandably felt betrayal at a person who pretended to be one of their own.
The taking of a pen name is in many ways a frightening process. It is easier than we believe to become something other than ourselves. Yes, Alice was every bit as incredible a man as she was a woman. It worked because she was only herself, a devastatingly iconoclastic figure whose brilliance in carrying off the deception at all is underappreciated. That she was also one of sf's signature talents is difficult to believe, and that was the problem for both the world, and Alice. We forgive liars, but only when we understand their reasons for their untruth. This was the block that many of her friends stumbled over, perhaps because it wasn't entirely clear to woman herself.
If she was Tiptree, and he was undeniably a part of her, then who was Alice? And if she was Alice, then she was no longer Tiptree, and that particular voice was what first distinguished her and must have been a source of enormous comfort and confidence. She was capable of so many voices in her writing, which hurt her more than it helped — one powerful voice is preferred by many to a single strong one. Her most powerful voice had been compromised. A close look at the stories of Racoona Sheldon reveals them to be near identical to Tiptree's quality, and yet they did not meet with the same measure of success. Her friends continued to urge her to write as Tiptree, even after her public identity was widely known. Perhaps she subconsciously (or even consciously) shaped certain material through Tiptree. When her Boswell comes along we'll know, but for now, what a fascinating experiment she made. There is power in names, and keeping Tiptree around instead of making a clean break with her identity may have ended her — and Ting's — life more quickly than it did.
Real lives reach a tender and appropriate resolution even when they are filled with the kind of tragedy we usually only read about. Fake lives have no such honor: they are doomed from the first, created from air to avoid a reality that is too shameful or prescient to bear. It is easy to say that Alice Sheldon stepped outside of her time. She did things most women of her generation could only dream of. The toll of two other people, plus the sex-starved wife, plus the repressed lesbian, was unimaginable.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about the AMC series Mad Men and Fairfield Porter and the New York school of poetry. Thanks to Julie Phillips' magical biography of Alice, James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice Sheldon, which you can purchase here.
Consider how odd it would be if all we knew about elephants had been written by elephants. Would we recognise one? What elephant author would describe — or perhaps even perceive — the features which are common to all elephants? We would find ourselves detecting these from indirect clues; for instance, elephant-naturalists would surely tell us that all other animals suffer from noselessness, which obliges them to use their paws in an unnatural way. So when the human male describes his world he maps its distances from his unspoken natural center of reference, himself. He calls a swamp "impenetrable," a dog "loyal" and a woman "short."
The only animal who can observe man from the outside is of course the human female: we women who live in his house, in his shadow, on his planet. And it is important that we do this. This incompletely known animal conditions every aspect of our individual lives and holds the destruction of Earth in his hands. ...
I don't identify with "normality," not in this world. I don't hold, nor do you, illusions about the great dazzling sanity of sf, no, it's more a matter of looking for the direction in which the darkness gives way to something that may be, someday, sunrise.
- Alice Sheldon