BIG STAR FALLIN' MAMA - Five Woman in Black MusicBuy NOW at:
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by: Hettie Jones
publisher: The Viking Press, Inc., New York
ISBN number: 0-670-16408-9

(Only the section about Billie - webmaster)
Billie Holiday

One day we were so hungry we could barely breathe. I started out the door. It was cold as all-hell and I walked from 145th to 133rd..... going in every joint trying to find work....... I stopped in the Log Cabin Club run by Jerry Preston... told him I was a dancer. He said to dance. I tried it. He said I stunk. I told him I could sing. He said sing. Over in the corner was an old guy playing the piano. He struck Trav'lin and I sang. The customers stopped drinking. They turned around and watched. The pianist... swung into Body and Soul. Jeez, you should have seen those people - all of them started crying. Preston came over, shook his head and said, "Kid, you win."

Billie Holiday was not quite seventeen then; it was 1932. Before she was done singing in the summer of 1959 many more people had cried over her Trav'lin All Alone and Body and Soul. There were popular songs, as were most others she sang, and a lot of other people recorded and performed them. But Billie transformed them. She was a jazz singer; she put the blues inside and made each song her own. She thought of her voice as an instrument: "I don't think I'm singing, she explained. "I feel like I'm playing a horn... What comes out is what I feel."

A lot of different feelings came out of Billie's horn - she sang for over twenty-five years, in the United States and Europe as well. She could be gentle, funny, sarcastic, heartbreaking. Her honesty about feeling was what made people cry; she found it hard to lie. Astonished critics cried: "'She appears to mean every word she is singing" and "You believed every word she sang." There were some words about which Billie was especially believable. People told her no one sang "hunger" like she did, or "love." She sang what she knew, a first rule in playing jazz as Charlie Parker explained it: "Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn." Billie said simply, "You just feel it, and when you sing it other people can feel something too."

Born Eleanora Fagan, called Billie Holiday and titled Lady Day-she was a beautiful woman, this First Lady of jazz. But so much of her life was a sad song and a bitter story, and heroin as well as hunger and love overwhelmed her finally when she was only forty-four. The recordings she left still tell about it. Some people can let her sing on and on while they listen: "Lady Day has suffered so much she carries it all for you," says a young man in an English novel. But for others the blues, meant for response, carry the listener as well. Either you go with Billie or let her go, and sometimes you have to choose, as LeRoi Jones has written:

At the point where what she did left singing, you were on your own, at the point where what she was in her voice, you listen and make your own promises. More than I have felt to say she says always....

Sometimes you are afraid to listen to this lady.

Though she had always liked to sing, Billie had never thought of becoming a singer, But by the time she arrived at the Log Cabin that day in 1932, singing looked better than some of the other ways she had tried to take care of herself, Billie was a city girl, she had been born in Baltimore, Sadie Fagan, her mother, was thirteen when Billie was born, Her father, Clarence Holiday, was fifteen. They were married three years later, and lived together for a Though she had always liked to sing, Billie had never thought of becoming a singer. But by the time she arrived at the Log Cabin that day in 1932, singing looked better than some of the other ways she had tried to take care of herself. Billie was a city girl, she had been born in Baltimore. Sadie Fagan, her mother, was thirteen when Billie was born. Her father, Clarence Holiday, was fifteen. They were married three years later, and lived together for a while. But World War I took Clarence overseas and after that his musical ambitions took him on the road. He did give Billie her nickname though. Because she was a tomboy he had called her Bill, which she stretched to Billie after Billie Dove, her favorite movie star, and because she wanted to have a pretty name. She may have been tough but she was a tough girl.

With Clarence gone and work in Baltimore hard to find, Sadie had to leave her child to go up North. On her own with grandparents and cousins, Billie was constantly reminded that since her mother had been "bad" she herself would undoubtedly turn out that way. Her grandparents were gentle but they did not rule the cramped household, leaving that to Cousin Ida who, for one thing, beat Billie when her own son Henry wet the bed. For a while there was the great-grandmother Billie loved, who was nearly a hundred years old. During slavery she had borne sixteen children to the man who had owned her. "We used to talk about life," Billie remembered. "And she used to tell me how it felt to be a slave, to be owned body and soul.... She couldn't read or write, but she knew the Bible ... and she was always ready to tell me a story from the Scriptures." One night the old lady persuaded Billie to let her lie down to sleep (she wasn't supposed to because of an illness but Billie didn't know). She died later with a rigid arm around the child's neck. Billie woke up screaming and went into shock, but after she came back from a month in the hospital Cousin Ida only had something else to beat her for.

The solution was to work outside. Baltimore is famous for the white marble steps that lead up to some of its old houses, and Billie got to know them well. Her price for cleaning a flight of stairs plus a bathroom was fifteen cents. For five or ten cents she ran errands. For Alice Dean, the madam who lived on the corner near Billie's house, and Alice's girls, errands were free. Instead of money Billie took her pay in time, all of which she spent listening to Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong records in Alice's front parlor. Sadie had fits-she didn't want her daughter hanging around a house of prostitution. But Billie was only interested in the music: "If I'd heard Louis and Bessie at a Girl Scout jamboree, I'd have loved it just the same.... If I'd heard Pops and Bessie wailing through the window of some minister's front parlor, I'd have been running free errands for him."

For a while at some point, it looked like things might change. Her mother came back and married a longshoreman who was ver kind to Billie, but he died after they had lived together only a short while. Then, when she was just ten, a neighbor attempted to rape Billie. The man got a five-year jail sentence. Billie was placed in a Catholic home for wayward girls and sentenced to remain until she was twenty-one-she never found out why.

At the home each child exchanged her clothes for a uniform. Any disobedient girl was made to wear a ragged red dress; the others were not permitted to speak to or go near her. One girl being punished like this during Billie's stay pushed herself higher and higher on a swing until it broke and she flew, screaming, to her death. The night Billie was made to wear the red dress she was also locked in a room with the body of another girl who had died at the home. She beat on the door all night until her hands were bloody. Somehow, after all this happened, Sadie and Billie's grandfather managed to find a lawyer who got her out. Billie had been afraid she'd never leave the place alive. "For years I used to dream about it and wake up hollering and screaming," Billie wrote in her autobiography. "My God, it's terrible what something like this does to you. It takes years and years to get over it; it haunts you and haunts you."

From then on Sadie tried to keep Billie with her, but there was never enough money for them to manage, even though Billie scrubbed floors after school until she was exhausted. So Sadie returned to New York and Billie to her grandparents' house until she was thirteen. When school let out that year they put Billie on the train with a ticket round her neck for Long Branch, New Jersey, where Sadie was working as a maid and had a job for her. At this normally rebellious time in her life Billie acted like a normally rebellious girl-she ripped up the ticket, determined to go to Harlem, and ended up at the YWCA in Manhattan. Though her mother finally found her and got her to Long Branch, Billie didn't last very long at her job. Both of them realized she just wouldn't be able to work as a maid, so Sadie decided to board her out in Harlem. Unfortunately the lady who was to watch over Billie was not exactly a lady and the establishment she ran was well known, to everyone else apparently but Sadie, whom Billie considered "square."

It was 1928 by then, and everyone was living it up. Billie was still young but as she later admitted, "I thought I was a real hip kitty." Being a twenty-dollar call girl soon got her the silk dress and patent leather high-heeled shoes she wanted, but eventually it got her the kind of trouble she never intended. When Billie refused the attentions of a very influential man, he arranged for her arrest, complete with false witnesses and a false report claiming she was sick. Billie spent four months in a notorious women's prison, some of that time in solitary confinement on a diet of bread and water, in a dark cell where one lost track of time. In the course of an investigation during 1931, the judge who convicted Billie as a "wayward woman," was declared unfit and removed from the bench.

After Billie was out of jail and had decided to quit hustling, she and her mother got an apartment together in Harlem. The Depression had hit and things were harder for most people, but not for Billie and Sadie: "A depression was nothing new to us, we'd always had it." But then Sadie got sick, too sick to work, and everything was up to Billie. Her father was playing in the city; he had become a well known guitarist by this time. Billie would go downtown (100 blocks) and beg some money from him while he begged her not to call him Daddy-it spoiled his romantic image. Then she would get back up to Sadie so they could eat and pay the rent. Things went on like thalt-I for a while. The day Billie sang at the Log Cabin they were not only hungry but also about to be thrown out on the street because the rent was overdue, and Sadie was still too sick even to walk. But Billie had walked from 145th to 133rd without a coat and was trying to dance. She asked the pianist to play Trav'lin All Alone because "that came closer than anything to the way I felt."

I'm so weary and all alone
Feet are tired like heavy stone,
Trav'lin, trav'lin, all alone.

Who will see and who will care
Bout this load that I must bear,
Trav'lin, trav'lin, all alone.

Jerry Preston hired Billie for eighteen dollars a week, and she sang every night from midnight to 3 A.M. By 1933 a lot of people had come to hear her at the Log Cabin. She acquired an agent and began to work at various clubs; she made her first record and was paid thirty-five dollars for the effort. People expected a lot for thirty-five dollars in those days. The owner of an employment agency reported receiving a request for "a'nice colored woman' who could cook and typewrite for thirty-five dollars a month."

Many people who had heard Billie would try to pin down her "style." When critics asked her how she did it she was quite specific: Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong were her only influences-she had always aimed for "Bessie's big sound and Pops' feeling." But no one could really describe her singing. A disc jockey told the manager of the Apollo Theater, "It ain't the blues. I don't know what it is, but you got to hear her." When he did he hired her, and Billie sang at the Apollo, which has always been an achievement. Her first performance was at 10 A.M., she had been up all the night before singing at a club, and she was so scared she was shaking. Later she remembered the audience: "They were wide awake early in the morning.They didn't ask me what my style was, who I was, how I had evolved, where I'd come from) who influenced me, or anything. They just broke the house up."

But whether or not people liked your music didn't always determine that you'd eat. What little money there was around was spread so thin it amounted to nothing. Danny Barker, a guitarist of the time, remembered how it was:

The depression for musicians in New York - man, it was a bitch! I was working, I remember, in the Lenox Club, and there was a ten-piece band, eight chorus girls, four waiters, two bartenders, two managers, a doorman, a porter, and a "whiskey man."
The hours were like from ten in the evening to five in the morning.... At the end of the night they would pull a table into the middle of the floor and spill out the receipts of the night on the table and give everybody an equal share. Some mornings we'd make seventy-five cents, other mornings we'd get twenty-five. Everybody cooperated, because there was nowhere else to go and, in fact, nobody had nothin'.

Even Billie's earnings didn't amount to much. To help out, Sadie sold fried chicken dinners at their apartment, but she was not the world's best businesswoman-she had a tendency to forget the charges. Sadie loved people and had great faith in them, she was a very good person and always ready to see goodness in others too. Billie adore her and never really minded Sadie's overgenerosity. She described their home as "a boardin house for broke musicians, soup kitchen for anyone with a hard-luck story, community centre, and after after-hours joint.... All you had to do was tell Mom you were a musician and give her a little story and she'd give you everything in the house that wasn't nailed down."

A houseful of musicians did help Billie to understand why she sang the way she did. She paid attention to the discussions about music and the cutting contests, she sat in on jam sessions after regular work was over. There were many fine musicians in New York at that time and she made a lot of friends. Billie liked to sing with saxophonist Lester Young: "I used to love to have him come around and blow pretty solos behind me," It was Lester who gave gave Billie her title, People had been calling her "Lady" ever since at the Log Cabin she had refused to take customers' tips off the tables without using her hands, (This was a well-established custom in bars. Some of the blues singers of the twenties had also refused - Bessie for one. Billie tried - she had even bought fancy underwear for the purpose-but she kept messing up. Finally one man called her a "punk kid" because she kept dropping the twenty-dollar bill he had set out for her. Afterwards he had a change of heart and put the money in her hand. From then on Billie decided that anyone who wanted to give her a tip could just hand it over. The other girls at the Log Cabin used to taunt: "Look at her, she thinks she's a lady." So Lady she was, and when Lester added the "day" out of Holiday, Billie became Lady Day. In return she titled Lester the President, or Pres, because she thought he was "the world's greatest." "Lester sings with his horn," Billie said, "you listen to him and can almost hear the words," Lester convinced Lady Day and Sadie, whom he had named the Duchess, that life was dangerous for a young man alone, even the President, So they gave him the room og the air. shaft. "It was wonderful having a gentleman around the house," Billie recalled. "We were the Royal Family of Harlem.

Earning a living was still so uncertain in New York that when Billie was offered fourteen dollars a day to tour with Count Basie's band she accepted, Besides, Lester would be along to look out for her, and she thought traveling would be fun. But it turned out to be less romantic than she'd anticipated. They traveled everywhere by bus, sometimes covering five or six hundred miles between engagements.

The fourteen dollars was barely enough to pay for necessities and for hotel rooms, where instead of sleeping they "took a long look at the bed." Mostly they slept - or tried to. They played the South, the Midwest - for black audiences and white. They didn't have time to rehearse and they didn't always have the proper horns or equipment. It was sosmething like the T.O.B.A. but modernized - the railroad had been replaced by a "Blue Goose" bus. Most jazz musicians were city people like Billie; many were northerners. The South was a different place still, and there were lessons to be learned in it. As the minstrels had discovered a century before, musicians were not always welcome. Earl "Fatha" Hines, the pianist said that going South was "an invasion" for them.

Things happened all the time. They made us walk in the street off the sidewalk in Fort Lauderdale,and at a white dance in Valdosta, Georgia, some hecklers in the crowd turned off the lights and exploded a bomb under the bandstand.... Sometimes when we came into a town that had a bad reputation the driver would tell us-and here we were in our own chartered bus-to move to the back of the bus just to make it look all right and not get anyone riled up.

With only the scenery out the window and each other for company, they enjoyed themselves when they could:

We were always seeing new territory, new beauty. In those days the country was a lot more open and sometimes we'd run into another band and just park the buses by the road and get out and play baseball in a field.

And how they could:

There was always a little tonk game [cards] on the bus at night. The boys put something for a table across the aisle and sat on Coke boxes and hung a light from the luggage rack on a coat hanger. ... They played most of the night, and it was amusing and something to keep you interested if you couldn't sleep.

Billie once spent twelve hours on her knees throwing dice, on the floor of the bus from West Virginia to New York - and won $1,000 to take home to her mother.

Count Basie was originally from the New York area, stranded in Kansas City in the late twenties, he had found musicians who shared his sympathies and he had stayed on. What the Basie group with them out of their home was a skill they had been perfecting long before they took to the road. A lot of music had been played in Kansas City during the early thirties. Musicians were able to play often, and many people went there just to be part of what was going on. Before Billie sang with Count Basie her group experience had been at jam sessions, or with studio orchestras that depended on written out "arrangements" to keep, each band member carefully playing his part in place, The Basie band's style of group improvisation appealed to her because it avoided the kind of copying which she knew could lead to a lack of feeling. Though they did use arrangements, these were "edited" by Basie; solos were improvised and a tune rarely played the same way twice. Billie remembered later how the sixteen of them worked up arrangements of pop songs for her: "The cats would come in, somebody would hum a tune. Then someone else would play it over on the piano once or twice. Then someone would set up a riff [rhythmic pattern], a ba-deep, a ba-dop. Then Daddy Basie would two-finger it a little. And then things would start to happen." The band, according to Billie, knew about a hundred songs without music and from memory. Those among them who did read music, as she pointed out, "didn't want to be bothered anyway." But this deceptively casual approach was after all an approach by people who could do it. They knew their instruments, they knew music, and they knew each other:

We'd get off a bus after a five-hundred-mile trip, go into the [recording] studio with no music, nothing to eat but coffee and sandwiches....
I'd say, "What'll we do, a two-bar or four-bar intro?" Somebody'd say make it four and a chorus - one, one and a half.
Then I'd say, "You play behind me the first eight, Lester," and then Harry Edison would come in or Buck Clayton and take the next eight bars. "Jo, you just brush and don't hit the cymbals too much."
... If we were one side short on a date, someone would say, "Try the blues in A flat," and tell me, "Go as far as you can go, honey."

Musicians were especially impressed with Billie's sense of time, Bobby Tucker, who played piano for her, explained it:

One thing about Lady, she was the easiest singer I ever played for. You know, with most singers you have to guide 'em and carry 'em along - they're either layin' back or else runnin' away from you.
But not Billie Holiday. Man, it was a thrill to play for her. She had the greatest conception of a beat I ever heard. It just didn't matter what kind of a song she was singin'. She could sing the fastest tune in the world or else something that was like a dirge, but you could take a metronome and she'd be right there. Hell! With Lady you could relax while you were playin' for her.
You could damn near forget the tune.

Though Billie never "forgot" her tunes, she always altered them: "I hate straight singing," she said. "I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it." Her ways were surprising and effective, almost always making more of a tune than its composer had. For popular songs Billie had a light but sharp sarcasm, "a mixture of clarity and caricature," someone called it, as in "Ooo-ooo-ooo / What a lil moonlaight can do-oo-oo." When she felt that a song was worthy of serious attention she treated it with great care, emphasizing the beauty she found there. When it came to the blues, she simply sang, straight out in her clear, controlled voice, and let the feeling come through. The timbre or tone of her voice varied. At the bottom of the scale she would be hoarse, sometimes growly like a saxophone, higher up she'd sound like an oboe, at the top she could ring like a bell.

Billie was someone to look at too, and she was careful about her appearance because she believed it important. That was an elegant time; women were supposed to be "glamour girls" and Billie liked to appear onstage in a beautiful gown with her hair done and her make-up just so despite having traveled on a bus for days. She tended to be round rather than slender, and when she sang she'd tilt her head back a little and snap her fingers softly. People writing about the way she looked then tended to be vague - it was the strange and haunting quality of her voice that captured them. It was through her voice that she established her "personality." As an old friend pointed out, that voice was "really Lady," for singing was the only way she could show her real self. But Billie found it difficult enough just to be herself without interference. She stayed with Count Basie's band for two years and finally quit when they were playing an extended engagement in Detroit, which was "between race riots then," as she remembered it. Among other things, the manager of the theater insisted that Billie blacken her face so audiences not mistake her light skin for white and get upset about her sitting onstage with sixteen black musicians.

Her next tour, in 1937, was with sixteen white musicians in Artie Shaw's band, and though they looked after her she again couldn't be herself without causing trouble. This time there was even more of it. In the South there were big scenes when Billie wanted to eat; she remembered one musician yelling at a waitress who had refused: "This is Lady Day. Now you feed her I" Sleeping and finding a bathroom presented the same problem and at least one time she was in pain for months because of inadequate medical attention. But Billie preferred the South's clarity ("What's Blackie going to sing?" a Kentucky sheriff asked) to the North's hypocrisy. When at last the band had enough of a reputation to play New York, they appeared at a hotel from which radio broadcasts originated. The hotel refused to let her be heard on coast-to-coast radio, the biggest deal in those days. But the refusal came slowly. First the management gave her a separate room, then showed her how to come in the back door, and finally cut her off the air.

Artie Shaw's band hadn't been any musical milestone for Billie; in fact a Downbeat critic had suggested that her talents were being wasted: "Artie has a swell group but they don't show off Billie any." By 1939 Billie had decided not to sing with any more dance bands-which is what most of the "swing" bands were-because there were always too many managers telling everyone what to do. The managers were there because jazz-or what sometimes was passing for it-had become big bands, big sound, big business by the late thirties. As far back as the twenties white musicians had learned to play jazz, some of them well. By the time swing was the thing, they were getting the jobs that paid, at the radio stations and in the recording studios. Black musicians could play together, certainly, but they couldn't make a living. Their own people still had little or no money to pay them, still were hungry and out of work: "Last winter," a newspaper columnist reported in the late thirties, "while men stood idly and starvingly by, two and one-half miles of Harlem's beloved boulevard-Seventh Avenue-was repaved by a crew of all whites." In Harlem the Depression lasted a long time.

So Billie went to sing to the very rich and their famous friends who could pay to hear her. At Cafe Society, a new nightclub in Greenwich Village, the management had promised to do away with segregationist policies. Billie was very successful there and became a celebrity, though an underpaid one. Her engagement lasted two years-seven nights a week-at seventy-five dollars a week. She came to know some of white society's attitudes, and especially resented the assumption that all black-white relationships were of a sexual nature-it was degrading to be accused of having an affair every time she went out for a drink with a friend.

Billie left Cafe Society a star and went next to where all the other stars were then - California: Hollywood, Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley. A lot of movie people used to come to listen to her sing. Bob Hope defended her once when someone began to heckle her, and Clark Gable fixed her car. Billie had a good time in California; it was very glamorous and added that kind of air to her. She said she came home from Hollywood knowing more about clothes and make-up but still as poor as ever. She had to come all the way back to New York by bus. Travelling cross-country by bus in the 1940s meant one travelled on a series of buses subject to different state laws. No doubt Billie had to ride in the back at least part of the way home. That was the thing about being a black celebrity-one was invariably two people: the star on the stage and the black person who lived in the world. A trumpeter told how this conflict made him feel:

When I was with Artie Shaw, I went to a place where we were supposed to play a dance and they wouldn't even let me in the place. "This is a white dance," they said, and there was my name right outside, Roy "Little Jazz" Eldridge, and I told them who I was. When I finally did get in, I played that first set, trying to keep from crying.
Man, when you're on the stage, you're peat, but as soon as you come oft, you're nothing.

When Billie returned to New York she got a job as an intermission feature at a nightclub on Fifty-second Street, known then as Swing Street, and soon she became one of its main attractions. Working on The Street, she recalled, was like a homecoming every night. Some nights there were as many as five trumpets and five saxophones on the stand all at once, In any of the big bands of the thirties this would not have been remarkable, but Swing Street clubs were small and intimate, most of them having clubs were small and intimate, most of them having started out as speakeasies during Prohibition.

Though downtown was where the money could be made, Harlem was still where musical decisions were made, at Minton's Playhouse and at Clarke Monroe's Uptown House, places where all the musicians used to jam. Billie had often worked the Uptown House and naturally she came there to see her friends. It was around this time that she met Jimmy Monroe (Clarke's younger brother). He had been around, even in Europe, he was handsome and he was, as Billie said, "a big deal." They eloped in 1941 and Billie was triumphant - her mother had disapproved, she had claimed he'd never marry her. Jimmy Monroe had good taste and "class," but he too had a "past" and Billie felt that made them equals. He also had a mistress he never gave up and a habit he showed no sign of giving up either, when Billie found out about it. But she wanted to be with him, wanted to have a successful marriage. She was now in her late twenties, she wanted to be happy, and she wasn't. She had quarreled with her mother over Jimmy, and it looked like she had made a mistake, It was at this time she began to use hero!. Jimmy gave it to her first, got it for her when after a while she was hooked. She never had any idea of what a habit would mean until she found herself in Los Angeles, alone because Jimmy had gotten into trouble, faced with the problem of having to provide herself with drugs. Billie said she felt like a baby who was hungry but too helpless to do anything about it but cry, and it didn't help that she knew it was all her own fault.

There was a lot of heroin around musicians in the forties, but even those who eventually died of a habit swore it never did their music any good, that though they may have thought they were playing better, as Charlie Parker explained, they actually weren't. "If you think you need stuff to play music or sing, you're crazy," Billie said. "It can fix you so you can't play nothing or sing nothing." At least some of the addiction can be blamed on the confusion of the times: there was a painful amount of coming and going as World War II affected everyone's life.

Billie spent those years saying goodbye to lonely soldiers, and to everyone else who was leaving her then. Her father died of pneumonia, alone and untreated in a Jim Crow hospital in Texas. Her marriage was finished. The Street was disappearing gradually too, along with the friendship and the learning atmosphere that had been its attraction. Drugs meant pushers, who preyed on audiences even more than musicians - a serviceman on leave was an easy mark for hustlers. Club owners deserted Fifty-second Street for Broadway, where everything was much bigger and they could make more money. Billie earned $1,000 a week on Broadway, but most of it went for junk. She was living with trumpeter Joe Guy then, whom she had met when she had first begun to need someone who "could be a big help," as she put it, in getting her drugs. With a thousand a week and a steady supply, Billie was "one of the highest paid slaves around."

It was after her mother died that Billie's life somehow lost its direction. Perhaps, as one friend suggested, it was Sadie who had held her up all the time: "Her mother fed her well and loved her so. Maybe that's what helped to carry her before. Maybe after she lost her mother, she kind of goofed." She recalled coming home with Billie and Joe Guy from the funeral: "She was telling him over and over again, "Joe I don't have anybody in the world now except you." She needed someone to say that to. She felt completely alone."

Billie felt guilty too, thinking she'd worried her mother to an early grave by becoming an addict. In 1946 she entered a hospital that for $2,000 promised complete privacy and medical attention while she kicked her habit. Her mother would have been proud. But there was no Sadie now, to provide the kind of trust and support any ex-addict needs. There were only club owners and managers, all sympathetic and helpful but in the long run having their own attitudes about drug addiction. Soon after Billie had paid all that money she realized that someone had betrayed her confidence, perhaps the hospital-she never knew. But she knew the Narcotics Bureau was after her, waiting for her to make a mistake. An addict was a criminal to be pursued, and an ex-addict was the same. Agents tailed her for a year, from New York to California and points between. It was the United States of America versus Billie Holiday from then on for the rest of her life, a series of pas de deux in a long slow dance of death.

In May, 1947, Billie was arrested for possession of narcotics. Sick and alone, she signed away her right to a lawyer and no one advised her to do differently, though Joe Guy and another man arrested along with her went free on technicalities. Billie was convinced that no one could help her, even if someone had wanted to. Her agent only suggested that it was the best thing that could have happened to her, her lawyer refused to come down to Philadelphia for the trial, and she was too wealthy to qualify for legal aid. She was terribly sick and had been given morphine when she appeared in the courtroom. Billie had been promised a hospital cure in return for a plea of guilty; instead she was convicted as a "criminal defendant," a "wrongdoer," and sentenced to a year and a day in the Federal Women's Reformatory at Alderson, West Virginia.

At Alderson, which was segregated, Billie had to endure cold turkey withdrawal. She was further "cured" by performing useful cleaning chores, hauling coal, keeping pigs, and setting tables. She was not allowed to receive any of the letters and gifts that arrived from people all over the world who wanted to remind her that they loved her. She could have used more love and less work-her early life had taught her enough about scrubbing floors. She also needed to reconsider her addiction with some sort of guidance, but this was not given. As she said later, "With all the doctors, nurses, and equipment, they never get near your insides at what's really eating you." Billie never once sang during the ten months she was in jail. When asked to, her answer was that she was there to be punished, and that was that.

Despite her temporary "cure," Billie's encounter with the law had disastrous results. She held on to her sense of shame, to the idea of herself as a "wrongdoer." "When I die," she said in her book, "they're going to start me off in hell and move me from bad to worse." (Billie, like her mother, was Catholic.) But the worst punishment came in the world to which she returned. She was denied a "cabaret card," the New York police permit that is required for any engagement over four days in a club where liquor is sold. None of the nightclubs where Billie used to sing could hire her. Friends tried to help-she gave a successful Carnegie Hall concert (singing thirty-four songs, ten days after she left Alderson , after not having sung for ten months). A Broadway show was organized around her and it was well received but it closed after three weeks. But Billie's singing belonged in the intimate atmosphere of a nightclub and she preferred to work in clubs. Her manager could do nothing, since legally she could not work New York.

But illegally was something else again. Billie met a man named John Levy and opened at his Ebony Club; obviously he had his own kind of police permit. Levy worked Billie hard for a while. She made a lot of money, most of which he kept, although he also kept her in minks and Cadillacs with telephones and all the other luxuries. When she decided she had had enough of luxury he tried to frame her by getting her arrested on a phony dope charge while they were in San Francisco in 1949. The fact that John Levy was a liar and a police informer and that Billie Holiday was clean at the time made little difference. It was Billie who had to endure once more the notoriety, the headlines "Billie Holiday Arrested on Narcotics Charges" - and most of all, people's contempt. She had grown very wary of public acclaim anyway; when crowds showed up at her performances she was not at all sure they hadn't come just to see how high she was.

With the help of friends who made sure she had a very good lawyer, Billie proved her innocence and was acquitted, but it took months, and money. It took her a while to get free of Levy too. She solved the work problem by playing clubs in every major city except New York, but she referred to herself as a DP-a "displaced person," the name given to refugees after World War II. As far as New York was concerned, she was Billie Holiday, Junky, and she had been kicked out. Between engagements out of town Billie lived alone in a New York hotel after her involvement with Levy, until she married Louis McKay. (She had first met McKay when she was sixteen, but they did not have an ongoing relationship, as the 1972 movie, Lady Sings the Blues, suggested. He is said to have mistreated her.) With Louis, Billie toured Europe, where she was greeted with enthusiasm and respect; she in turn was impressed with the European attitude toward jazz.

When Billie played her yearly concerts at the Apollo and at Carnegie Hall everyone came out in full force either to hear her sing or to see whether she was still together. Each time a new record was issued it was compared with her early ones, and she was often judged to be imitating herself, to be working with the wrong musicians, the wrong arrangers, etc. Most everyone liked to believe that Billie made her best records when she sang with Count Basie and the other geniuses of swing. It's hard to disagree, for she was, like all of them, an incredible horn in those days. Billie's later records, usually in a much slower tempo, are a different music. They are the songs of a woman alone and lonely and without much sympathy. No one blows pretty solos behind her like Lester did. Sometimes there are unintelligent voices in the background going oo-oo-oo with none of the wit Billie had on "Ooo-oo-oo what a lil moonlight can doo-oo-oo." Nevertheless, these are the songs of Lady Day too, and if the sorrow sounds a little heavier it was because she'd been carrying it a while. "I remember when she was happy-" Carmen McRae said in 1955, "that was a long time ago."

Billie and Louis both were arrested in 1956. Billie knew by this time that if the Narcotics Bureau wanted to get her it only had to be arranged, the evidence "found" and she could be convicted on her past record. In her book she pleaded that the addict be treated rather than punished. She knew how little good punishment had ever done to help her. And her stated purpose in revealing all that she considered shameful in her life was to warn young people away from heroin. "If you think dope is for kicks and for thrills, you're out of your mind.... The only thing that can happen to you is sooner or later you'll get busted, and once that happens, you'll never live it down. Just look at me."

Billie never was able to stop using heroin completely, though she tried very hard. Some people thought she could have tried harder: "That girl's life... was just snapped away from foolishness." But there were others who knew and loved her. Lena Horne and Billie had been friends since Cafe Society days, and she understood how life had been spoiled for Billie:

Billie didn't lecture me - she didn't have to. Her whole life, the way she sang, made everything very plain. It was as if she were a living picture there for me to see something I had not seen clearly before.
Her life was so tragic and so corrupted by other people-by white people and by her own people. There was no place for her to go, except finally, into that little private world of dope. She was just too sensitive to survive.

Billie survived long enough to sing a few days at the Five Spot, a club that opened in downtown New York in the fifties. Her last appearance was at the Phoenix Theater in New York in May, 1959. On May 31 she was brought to a hospital unconscious, suffering from liver and heart ailments, the papers said. Twelve days later someone allegedly found heroin in her room. She was arrested while in her hospital bed and police came to guard her, to make sure this now thin, suffering woman could not get away from the law one more time. But she escaped the judgment of the United States of America versus Billie Holiday for a higher judgment, on July 17.




THE DAY LADY DIED


It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don't know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days

I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn't even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan's new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don't, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfield Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face
on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

 
FRANK O'HARA, 1959


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