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Private Lives : A Jazz Pianist's Ultimate Improvisation

February 13, 1989|ANN JAPENGA | Japenga, a former Times staff writer, is a free-lance writer who lives and works in Spokane.

SPOKANE, Wash. — When Kelly Capehart visited the old man who lived in the yellow and white trailer next door, he encouraged him to talk about his days playing the piano in a jazz trio. The topic, Capehart said, seemed to cheer up the man he called Mr. T.

After Mr. T. died on Jan. 21 at age 74, Capehart, 25, tidied the old man's trailer, examining the contents with more than the usual curiosity people have for others' keepsakes.

Mr. T's possessions included books on Elvis Presley, an ivory money clip and a row of men's shoes, each with a lift in the heel. But Capehart never found what he was really looking for--something that would help explain to him why Mr. T, better known as Billy Lee Tipton, had lived as a man when he was actually a woman.

Capehart was not the only one searching for information. No one but one of the former wives of the late jazz musician claimed to have realized he was a woman before his secret was revealed by paramedics answering the call at Tipton's trailer.

"I'm still trying to search for answers and clues," said Capehart, who described Tipton as a "quiet, saddened man."

The wave of national media interest that followed the revelation of Tipton's secret last month was triggered by speculation that Tipton had masqueraded as a man to succeed in jazz, a field that was difficult for women in the '30s. Reports had Tipton's charade taking him to great heights in his profession, performing, for example, with renowned Big Band musician Jack Teagarden.

But Teagarden's sister, Norma Teagarden of San Francisco, said Tipton never played with her late brother. And it appears to many who knew Tipton that the decision to change gender actually was motivated as much by personal as career reasons.

"Everybody wants to leap on this idea that he was a girl who played piano and wanted to make it on the big scene," said Don Eagle, a Spokane musician who knew Tipton. "It's kind of a cop out, isn't it? I say this was actually a gender change."

Norma Teagarden, 77, agreed. She said Tipton had lived in her mother-in-law's Oklahoma City rooming house in the 1930s and was even then a woman who preferred to wear men's clothes.

Could Tipton then have been a rare, modern example of an independent, often eccentric type from earlier times--women who successfully pass as men?

According to Jonathan Ned Katz, a New York author of two books on the history of homosexuality in America, many of these women died without ever explaining their conduct.

Katz calls such individuals "passing women" or "crossing women," the latter because "they cross over into the role and receive the power and the money associated with men."

This usurping of male privilege has provoked "extreme societal anger," said Lillian Faderman, who explores some cases in her 1981 book, "Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women From the Renaissance to the Present."

In earlier times, women discovered to be living as men often were punished, sometimes being hanged, mutilated or burned alive, said Faderman, an English professor at California State University, Fresno.

She said she knows of at least 400 cases of women passing as men in the Civil War, and can cite scores of examples from the 1900s and earlier. The phenomenon is less common today, probably because women's roles are less restricted than they once were.

(Men who passed as women have been of less interest to sociological researchers, Katz said, perhaps because men did not gain status or freedom by becoming women.)

Though some people may dismiss individuals like Tipton--who lived for 50 years or more concealing an intimate truth--as lonely, pathetic or curious figures, "How do we know there weren't a lot of satisfactions in this life?" Katz asked. ". . . There may have been great joys in this life, as well as a strain to keep up a mask."

Tipton's former wife, Kitty Oakes, has sold her story to the Star, and will appear tonight on the Fox television show "A Current Affair." She is not giving other interviews about her husband until the Star story runs next month, said her agent, Barron Stringfellow.

Tipton and Oakes--who, according to a handwritten addition to Tipton's will is to receive only $1 from his estate--had three adopted sons. They could not be reached or would not comment.

In her original comments to Spokane's newspaper, the Spokesman-Review, Oakes insisted that Tipton "gave up everything" to pursue a jazz career, saying, "There were certain rules and regulations in those days if you were going to be a musician."

Stringfellow said that Oakes, who claims she was unaware of her husband's secret until after her divorce 10 years ago, contends that Tipton married three times simply to "help him protect his secret."

After Oakes reveals the Tipton she knows, "Everybody will realize there's no sexual, ugly, yucky story here," Stringfellow said. "This story has to be caught now, before it gets any seedier."

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