Must-read writing by-or, this time, about-Sarah Lawrence College alumnae/i, faculty and students. For this issue: an excerpt from chapter 9 of James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice Bradley Sheldon '34, in which the author, Julie Phillips, details Sheldon's Sarah Lawrence years.
James Tiptree, Jr., burst onto the science fiction scene in the 1970s with a series of hard-edged,provocative short stories. Hailed as a brilliant masculine writer with a deep sympathy for his female characters,he penned such classics as Houston,Houston,Do You Read? and The Women Men Don't See. Then the cover was blown on his alter ego: James Tiptree, Jr., was really a 61-year-old woman named Alice Sheldon-a member of SLC's class of 1934. A new biography by Julie Phillips, ten years in the making, is based on extensive research in the Sarah Lawrence Archives and elsewhere.
At Sarah Lawrence, Alice was a school star, charismatic, mercurial, “different.” Now it was she who wore high heels and made the other girls feel young. Her classmate Marjorie Kelly Webster recalled first seeing her when they both got on the train from Chicago in the fall of 1933. “She was tall, with a great walk. She had beautiful auburn hair piled high on the top of her head-long hair was unusual in those days-and she was very stylishly dressed. Finally one of us screwed up enough courage to go talk to her. She didn’t come introduce herself-Alice was shy, for all her striking appearance.”
Even on the artistic campus Alice stood out for her talent as a painter. Another classmate, Tayloe Hannaford Churchill, recalled her as “several years ahead of us” in maturity and sophistication. “I’m sure her family were very artistic and cultural; they must have been to produce a girl like that. She painted very, very interesting things; she had an unusual imagination. She was not an everyday child. Compared to the rest of us she seemed very aware of what she could do and who she was and what she wanted to be.”
It struck Churchill that Alice didn’t conform the way other young people of her social class did, or accept the limitations put on women. “In those days women were very subtly aware that we were second-class citizens. The best you could do, if you knew your way around, was to be a first-class second-class citizen. And this is where Alice stood out. I never heard her talk about being a feminist but she just acted like one. She just was one. She was a very independent person.”
Marjorie Webster recalled that Alice would invite other girls to her dorm room in the evenings, light candles, turn off the lights, and begin to tell “wonderful, scary African ghost stories. She scared us so we all had to go to bed holding on to each other. They were always about departed spirits returning and haunting people. You had to be very, very careful what you did. [...] She had a very dramatic way of talking, and flickering candles with the door closed and the curtains pulled-it scared the daylights out of us.”
If Alice rewrote her stories to make herself the heroine, she may have had a good reason. At least one college friend thought Alice’s “bravado, this air she put on,” was a way of catching up to Mary [Alice’s mother], who came to Sarah Lawrence more than once during Alice’s freshman year, taking groups of girls out to dinner and giving a talk on Africa. Her friend suspected that her mother’s being an author was “a real cross.”
Alice herself felt that all this drama was an effect that came and went with her moods. When her “vitality” was high, she once wrote, she felt herself “emanating some sort of radiant energy, and people occasionally can be seen to 'warm their hands’ at it. [.] The remainder of the time something seems wrong.” She recalled, “People came up to me years later and said how I seemed to be the one the sun shone on. They never saw the midnight.”
Alice was still being “wayward” and moody. In her school reports, her painting teacher said she was the most talented artist in the school, her paintings “original, outstanding, pulsating with life”-only she hardly ever did her work. Along with charges for dry cleaning and lunches at sandwich shops in town, the Bradleys received bills for the removal of paint in a bathroom, a broken window, library books lost and defaced. In the spring of Alice’s freshman year the college president, Constance Warren, wrote the Bradleys a worried letter. “Her habits of eating and sleeping are exceedingly erratic. Her headaches have been persistent and the oculist’s tests showed that she needed glasses very badly but she has put off having his prescription filled.” (Alice never got the glasses. She was too vain.) She had fallen and gotten a bad scrape, then neglected it so that it got infected. She had stayed up all night working on a play, “and would have done it a second night had not Miss Heinlein stopped her. [...] We have found it quite impossible to persuade her to lead a normal life.”
Alice was especially impatient with sleep, and when she was caught up in work that excited her got as little of it as possible. Lack of sleep in turn exacerbated her moods, making her even more vulnerable to ups and downs. Yet, like Mary, she loved working at night. It suited her natural rhythm. Writing as Tiptree she explained, “I fling myself down and let sleep iron it all out, and then get up at some private hour, sometimes like 2:30 or 3, when the world is magical, and work then.” She used to do all her work at night “and leave it on the professor’s desk in the morning, like the elves.” The night was for her another safe, secret space.
But what was all this studying for? The longer her education went on, the more it felt to Alice like a dead end. At Dartmouth, Princeton and Yale, the boys were planning to go into law or medicine, business or politics. At Sarah Lawrence, the girls were working toward-what? The unspoken answer, Alice recalled, was marriage.
The post-suffragist 30s were a difficult time for young women. They were told that they could do anything they wanted, that the future lay before them like an open highway. Then they were handed, not the keys to a fast car, but the handle of a shovel, and saw that they would first have to build the roads themselves. It was hard for a woman alone even to support herself; to do so at anything above a subsistence level required a professional education and extreme dedication to a career. Besides, careers for women seemed to rule out Life, as defined by passion, boys, sex, and later marriage and a family. The threat of ending up an old maid was dire, the pressure to have children very strong. The women who succeeded were the ones who from the start knew exactly what they wanted. A woman seldom got the freedom to change her mind or go on a Wanderjahr.
Alice was so determined not to be found out as different that she too gave in to the pressures. She didn’t work hard at her career. She later observed that a classmate, one of her “followers,” had become a successful editor at a women’s magazine. But that girl had been neither pretty nor popular, so the school stars could learn nothing from her example. And yet Alice hated what her shallowness made her. Being stuck in traditional roles for women was one of the great sources of Alice’s anger.From James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips. Copyright 2006 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press
Often that anger was directed at other women. About girls and women, Alice was always ambivalent. She wanted to like them, but was regularly disappointed by their failure to take their future seriously, by their artificiality, later by their reluctance to think politically and their willingness to put up with the status quo. She wanted women to join forces, but there seemed to be “so very many who cling to, [take] pride in their deformity of soul.”
She had extremely high standards for life in general, and was impatient with people who did not live up to them. But her frustration with women in particular is a theme that recurs throughout her published and unpublished writings, from the very first stories she wrote (set at unnamed women’s colleges, about girls who can’t seem to “adjust themselves”). And it always also stands for the problem of herself, of whether or not she was like other women. If she wasn’t, she might be in trouble, since “a certain degree of masculinity or boyishness” was said to be the outward sign of the female “sexual invert.” Yet the only way to survive as an intelligent woman was to think of oneself as a secret exception-not really a woman at all.