'His Pen Was My Prick': The Incredible Secret Life of Author Alice B. Sheldon, Aka James Tiptree Jr.

She always felt deeply alienated – a woman born at the wrong time and in the wrong gender. Her intimate correspondence sheds light on the secret life of Alice B. Sheldon, who wrote science fiction in the mid-1900s under the pen name James Tiptree, Jr., and was compared to Hemingway

Alice B. Sheldon.

In the cornerstone-laying ceremony for CIA headquarters, in Langley, Virginia, in 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the agency’s director, Allen Dulles, inserted a time capsule in what were said to be the foundations of the building. When asked about the contents of the capsule, Dulles smiled enigmatically and replied, “It’s a secret.” In fact, there were no classified materials in the container, and the “cement” used to seal it in place was composed of sand, water and sugar.

The next day, the cornerstone and capsule were removed for safekeeping until they were installed, a year later, in the now-completed home of the Central Intelligence Agency, aka “The Company.” The motto that adorned the front of the building came from the Gospel of John: “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” But Dulles never let the truth bother him, as he showed when he asked the females present at the ceremony to make themselves highly visible in the publicity photos, “to highlight the vital role which women play in the agency.”

In fact, not all the women who worked for him felt they were fulfilling a vital role. By the time the cornerstone was finally laid, Alice B. Sheldon – wife of Huntington “Ting” Sheldon, who led the agency’s Office of Current Intelligence under three presidents (Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy) – had already left her own job in the CIA’s photographic intelligence center. Decided she would try her luck in academia, she obtained a PhD in experimental psychology. In 1967, however, she encountered a jar of marmalade that would change her life.

James Tiptree, Jr., had also worked at the CIA, and occasionally spiced his letters with remarks like, “You have no idea how tough it was in the 1960s when we were trying to get hold of a sample of Fidel Castro’s urine.” Tiptree published his first science-fiction story, “Birth of a Salesman,” in March 1968, and immediately established himself as a unique and powerful voice in the genre. The writer and editor Harlan Ellison, who wasn’t known for excessive modesty, wrote to him, “You are the single most important new writer in science fiction today. Not me, not [Samuel R.] Delany, not [James] Blish,… not [Philip K.] Dick... none of us.”

Tiptree’s writing was tough, wiry, merciless, restless. He wrote about apocalypses, he wrote about rifles, he wrote about rape and he wrote about sex – between men and women, women and aliens, and aliens and other aliens who ultimately devoured each other. Some believed he was actually J.D. Salinger or Henry Kissinger, and writer Robert Silverberg likened him to Hemingway. “There is something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing,” he noted, adding that he envisioned him as “a man who has seen much of the world and understands it well.”

Silverberg could only conjecture, as he had never met Tiptree. “Tip” protected his identity zealously and communicated with the world – abundantly – via the mailbox. He corresponded with Italo Calvino and with Tom Wolfe, with Philip K. Dick, with whom he shared recollections of the period during which he’d been addicted to Benzedrine (which the CIA had supplied to him and his colleagues), and with many others. Though invited to the World Science Fiction Convention, in 1974, to receive a prize for his story “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” he didn’t show. Isaac Asimov admitted that there were so many people at the convention that he wasn’t sure whether he had actually met Tiptree, but said that on the basis of his correspondence with “Tip,” he could say for certain that he was very nice.

One of the richest and most wonderful exchanges of letters conducted by Tiptree was with the famed writer Ursula K. Le Guin, whom he called “Starbear” (reflecting the meaning of her name in Latin), excerpts of which appear in the latest Hebrew-language issue of Granta magazine. But five years of flirtatious, witty, amusing and profound correspondence between the gnarled older writer and the young author couldn’t prepare Le Guin for the letter Tiptree wrote her on November 24, 1976, with its confession, “I never wrote you anything but the exact truth… other than the signature… The thing is, I am a 61-year-old woman named Alice Sheldon.” The name “Tiptree,” she revealed, “came from seeing [the label on] a marmalade jar” in a shop.

Le Guin’s reply wasn’t long in coming. “Oh strange, most strange, most wonderful, beautiful, improbable… I will now proceed to tell you one thing that has made me slightly unhappy in our peculiar & extremely precious-to-me relationship: I had thought, I wonder if Tiptree is not a homo, and unable to talk about it, having been hurt too often… and Oh hell why can’t I ask him but I can’t…” As to “What will people say?” – Le Guin was resolute: “My God, who cares? What does it matter? I hope their little eyes will widen and their little mouths fall open… I only wish I had more friends like you.”

Power and prestige

Alice Sheldon was born Alice Hastings Bradley, in Chicago, in 1915. Her father, Herbert, was a naturalist; her mother, Mary, was a novelist and author of travel books. They took their blond 6-year-old daughter with them on a safari to the Belgian Congo, where she saw her bold mother shoot elephants and lions. Mary Hastings Bradley used drawings by Alice in the children’s book she later wrote about their adventures in darkest Africa, “Alice in Jungleland” (1927). The book made the daughter famous for a time in Chicago, with photographs of her in light safari clothes standing next to Africans appearing in the local press.

Alice Sheldon with Kikuyu people in the 1920s, during her family’s African safari.

But not all was idyllic in the wilds of Africa. When Alice returned to that continent with her parents at the age of 15, she found herself applying “Band-aids to fulminating syphilis and leprosy,” as she later described it, in a makeshift clinic alongside her mother – who remained the driving force throughout her life, for good and for ill. Mary Hastings Bradley was “dazzling and formidable… gifted [and] beautiful,” and her daughter once told her, “You taught me, without meaning to, that love is the prelude to appalling pain.”

The fraught relationship between mother and daughter reached the brink of incest. Her mother “intimated that she had these weird erotic feelings about me,” and when Alice was 14, Mary more or less invited her to sleep with her, as the daughter later wrote her good friend the feminist science-fiction writer Joanna Russ. Alice almost acceded, “but… I didn’t know how.” That incident was especially confusing to Alice because, even though she was later married twice and had no few relationships with men during her life, “from the start, before I knew anything, it was always girls and women who lit me up,” she told Russ, who was a lesbian herself.

But Sheldon wasn’t interested in “choosing a side.” She felt uneasy about the gender into which she’d been born: “I do not ‘fit’ my body. Never really have.” Elsewhere she wrote that having a woman’s body was like “being the owner of a large and only partly tamed animal.” She termed herself a “hopeless xenophile,” and from within the depths of the alienation that she experienced relentlessly, Alice Sheldon was the alien that craves the human species and all its gender manifestations.

But Sheldon was born into an unforgiving society and time. She reached places previously off-limits to women, such as the army aerial photography unit she served in during World War II, an experience that scarred her deeply: “The lesson of my time is, if it is inhuman, cruel, unthinkable, it’ll happen.” But her biology was her fate. “I have been called brilliant, beautiful, neurotic, suicidal, restless, amoral, anarchic, diffuse, weak, strong, perverse,” she noted, and concluded that 90 percent of that was connected to the fact that she was a woman during that particular time and place.

That was also the cardinal reason behind the fact that Sheldon assumed a male identity, something that went on for nearly a decade. “I’ve had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation,” she admitted in a 1980s interview. “Tiptree was ‘magical’ manhood, his pen my prick. I had through him all the power and prestige of masculinity, I was… of those who own the world… And my view of the world as structured by raw power... I want power. I want to be listened to… And I’ll never have it. I’m stuck with this perverse, second-rate body; my life.” The protagonist of the wonderful, appalling short story that Tiptree penned in 1973, “The Women Men Don’t See,” says of the entire male species: “What women do is survive. We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.”

Ursula Le Guin, who responded to Sheldon’s confession lovingly and acceptingly, kept her secret. But enthusiastic fans who drew a connection between the fact that Tiptree informed friends of his mother’s death, and a death notice about a woman that appeared in the paper – in which it was stated that she was survived by a daughter – figured out and revealed the secret. Not everyone reacted like Le Guin. Some were offended because Sheldon had deceived them and had led them to make firm assertions based on that deception; others assailed her post-exposure writing as being inferior to her earlier work.

Sheldon felt emasculated, impotent without her protective male persona. At the same time, her husband of almost 40 years, who had seen everything but knew when to turn his gaze away, if necessary, whether in their open marriage or at the CIA, was growing increasingly blind. Sheldon was trapped. She sank deeper into the depressive state that had always plagued her until finally, on May 19, 1987, she shot her husband in the head. Years earlier Huntington had forced her to sign a suicide pact, in the hope that it would prevent her from taking her own life. She called her lawyer and her husband’s son from a previous marriage, told them what she had done, and why, and then wrapped her head in a towel and killed herself with the same pistol. The note she left behind was dated September 13, 1979; it had waited patiently until the day it was needed.

Alice Sheldon knew the truth, but it did not make her free. The only thing that could have saved her was a time machine – like the one the self-styled expert on the subject, futurist Alfred Lambremont Webre, claimed last year that the Vatican had sold the CIA in the 1960s. If such a machine existed, Sheldon, like a character in one of her stories, could have fast-forwarded to 2018, with the diverse gender possibilities that are offered and accepted, and found the power she so ardently craved. But if Sheldon erred in her calculations, to even the smallest degree, she might have landed again in the wrong time and place.

When the next crisis that upsets men comes around, says the protagonist of Sheldon/Tiptree’s “The Women Men Don’t See,” “our so-called rights will vanish like – like that smoke. We’ll be back where we always were: property. And whatever has gone wrong will be blamed on our freedom… You’ll see.”

Quotations cited in the text come from a 2015 symposium marking the acquisition by the University of Oregon Libraries of the literary papers of Alice B. Sheldon; from “James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon,” by Julie Phillips (2007); and from “Letters to Tiptree,” edited by Alexandra Pierce and Alisa Krasnostein (2015).