Six weeks after his death and the discovery that Billy Tipton was a woman, the story of the popular Spokane jazz musician has taken on an unpleasant life of its own.
In contrast to Tipton’s gentle ways, the surviving family has become split into two camps that are feuding over the estate, the rights to the musician’s story and the details about his life.
On one side is Kitty Oakes, a former striptease dancer who lived as Tipton’s wife for about 20 years, and Billy Tipton Jr., 19.
He is the youngest of three sons Oakes and Tipton said they adopted while they lived on Spokane’s South Hill.
The other two sons, Scott Miller, 27, and Jon Clark, 26, make up the other camp. They say they are angry and bitter with the rosy picture of family life that Kitty has painted.
“It’s a mess,” said Miller, adding that he and his brother wouldn’t be surprised if some aspects of the dispute end up in court.
“She (Oakes) was the reason we moved out of the house and lived on the streets when I was 15. She treated us horribly and, after we left, she took it out on Billy until he couldn’t take it any more and left, too.”
Oakes declined to comment directly, instead letting her agent, Barron Stringfellow, speak for her. Stringfellow said his client has always wished the best for her children and had been deeply hurt by attacks from Miller and Clark.
“Inside, she’s a mother,” Stringfellow said. “She doesn’t understand why the other two boys have been playing so down and dirty.”
Although the family members apparently have harbored hard feelings for years, it was Tipton’s death and subsequent publicity that fueled the current venom.
Tipton, 74, died Jan. 21 of a bleeding ulcer. A musician and entertainer, Tipton had for at least half a century lived in the guise of a man.
After the news that he was a woman broke in this column, the story made headlines from The New York Times to the National Enquirer. People magazine devoted two full pages; Time magazine’s article was shorter, but carried a 1950s-vintage publicity photo of the Billy Tipton Trio in its heyday.
Journalists weren’t the only interested parties. For days, Tipton family members were deluged by inquiries from TV and movie producers, talent and literary agents and others looking for story rights and a piece of the action.
So far, Unistar, a Hollywood-based independent production company, has signed Clark and Miller for the rights to their story. Unistar representatives say a deal for a television movie about Tipton is all but guaranteed.
“We’re really close,” Mike Valverde said on Thursday. “We’re still negotiating on a couple of deals, but we’re really close.”
Oakes and Tipton Jr., who originally protested that my column had invaded their privacy, have been anything but private.
They have hit the talk-show circuit hard. They sold their “world exclusive” story for the Feb. 21 edition of the Star tabloid.
“Oh, Billy! You poor baby,” opened Oakes’ first-person article for the Star. “How you must have suffered – but I bet you’re having a glorious laugh on us all now! That was my reaction when I learned the truth.”
As of yet, however, Oakes and Tipton Jr. haven’t signed away their story rights.
“We haven’t talked any money with anybody,” said Stringfellow, adding that Oakes and Tipton Jr. are examining a number of serious offers.
“It comes down to accuracy,” he said. “How much accuracy they are interested in. Kitty would rather let the Billy Tipton story be shelved if it isn’t done right.”
After all, said Stringfellow, “She and Billy Jr. are the story. Without them there is nothing.”
There is plenty of disagreement on that point.
According to Unistar’s Valverde, Oakes and Billy Jr. have practically talked themselves into motion picture irrelevancy. Their appearance on talk shows and tell-all interviews, he said, has them overexposed and has greatly diminished their worth to a producer.
“Most of her story is common knowledge now.”
The Star article is detailed in Oakes’ depiction of life with Tipton. In it, she claims to have been as unaware of Tipton’s sexual identity during their marriage as her children were.
Oakes, who met Tipton in 1959, writes that she never had sex with the musician. Nor did she ever sleep in the same room with Tipton or see her husband naked. She attributes their lack of intimacy to her own health problems and a story Tipton told her about being rendered impotent after a car accident.
Miller and Clark find much of this to be hogwash. They also question her claims of not knowing Tipton’s secret and the descriptions of a happy family life.
Miller says the Star article has a number of inconsistencies.
For one, Oakes claims to have married Tipton on “St. Patrick’s Day 1962 by a justice of the peace in Spokane” and to have divorced him in 1982.
No such records exist at the Spokane County Auditor’s Office. That fact, said Miller, proves that Oakes was involved in some kind of cover-up from the beginning.
Likewise, Miller and Clark say they have proof that their adoptions were never legal, either.
Stringfellow agreed that it was possible that Oakes and Tipton were never officially married. As for the adoptions, “Kitty herself says they (Miller and Clark) were never adopted,” he said, adding that he has seen legal documents on the other son’s adoption.
Adding to the mess is a dispute over two wills supposedly left by Tipton. One, handwritten and not notarized, leaves everything to Tipton Jr. The other will, this one notarized, leaves everything to Clark.
In the meantime, the two Billy Tipton entourages invaded the East last week and proved that even in death, the Spokane jazz musician is star of the show.
In Pennsylvania, Clark and Miller were guests of “Pittsburgh Talking,” a citywide television call-in program.
In Connecticut, Oakes and Tipton Jr., taped a segment for the nationally televised “Sally Jessy Raphael Show,” to be aired in mid-March.
As divided as the Tipton household is, they are in agreement on one thing: The world has offered them a chance to cash in on the mystery of Billy Tipton’s sexual masquerade.