April 7, 1915 – Billie Holiday:
“Sure, I’ve Been to Bed with Women… but I Was Always the Man.”
The United States vs. Billie Holiday(2021), based on the book Chasing The Scream: The First And Last Days Of The War On Drugs by Johann Hari, is directed by Lee Daniels, and stars Andra Day. The film has received mixed reviews, Day’s performance has received praise, and she is nominated for the Academy Award and won the Golden Globe Award. It focuses on time in the 1940s, when Holiday is targeted by the U.S. government as it tries racializing the war on drugs, by stopping her from singing her controversial song Strange Fruit. The movie features the always intriguing Natasha Lyonne as Tallulah Bankhead. It is currently streaming on Hulu.
Hollywood never seems to get Holiday’s story quite right. There is also Lady Sings The Blues (1972), which is very loosely based on her 1956 memoir. Diana Ross plays Holiday, alongside a cast including Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor, and the great Scatman Crothers. The film was nominated for five Oscars, including for Ross (she lost to Liza Minnelli for Cabaret). It fails as a biography, yet it is a very entertaining movie because of the truly fine screen performances, full of power and pathos and enormously engaging and sympathetic work by Ross. Motown released a double-album soundtrack with Ross’ recordings of Holiday songs from the film. The album went to Number One on the Billboard Hot 200 Album Charts for two weeks in April 1973.
Better is Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar And Grill, a play with music by Lanie Robertson, about some of the events in the life of Holiday. It opened on Broadway in 2014 with Audra McDonald as Holiday. McDonald is fabulous, and she received a 2016 Emmy Award nomination for an excellent television film version of the play.
By the late 1930s, Holiday had married a small-time drug dealer who introduced her to the joys of opium and heroin. Around this time, Holiday attended one of Tallulah Bankhead’s Harlem rent parties where there was plenty of booze and cocaine. The two talented women had combustible sexual chemistry and by the mid-1940s, when they were both famous, Holiday and Bankhead were together whenever their schedules allowed.
In 1947, Holiday entered the Alderson Federal Reformatory For Women in West Virginia to serve a “one day and a year” sentence after being found guilty of drug possession.
Four months after her release in 1948, Holiday was appearing in New York City with Count Basie and his band at the start of a national tour. At the same time, Bankhead was appearing on Broadway in Noël Coward‘s sparkling comedy, Private Lives. After the curtain came down, Bankhead would show up for the closing set of Holiday’s show every night of the run.
A few months later, Holiday played a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall. She led, not just other vocalists, but all other Jazz artists as the Most Popular in reader polls, including Downbeat magazine. Her popularity was unusual because she didn’t have a current hit record.
Because Holiday’s probation did not allow her to perform in nightclubs where liquor was being served, she was forced to earn her living doing grueling tours on the road. Bankhead traveled with her whenever she could.
Bankhead was with Holiday at a Hollywood nightclub when a fight broke out and Holiday was arrested and charged with possession of opium. Bankhead paid for Holiday’s bail and hired a psychiatrist after she threatened suicide. Bankhead wrote a letter to FBI head J. Edgar Hoover in support of Holiday:
“As my negro Mammy used to say: ‘When you pray, you pray to God don’t you?’ I had only met Billie Holiday twice in my life and feel the most profound compassion for her. She is essentially a child at heart whose troubles have made her psychologically unable to cope with the world in which she finds herself, poor thing, you know I did everything within the law to lighten her burden.“
Bankhead published a memoir, Tallulah: My Autobiography in 1951 with not a single mention of Holiday. In 1956, Holiday’s own memoir Lady Sings The Blues was set for release and before publication, Bankhead received a copy of the manuscript. Holiday’s book was not so discreet. Bankhead’s lawyer sent a warning letter to Holiday’s editor. When the book was finally published, Bankhead was only mentioned as “just a friend who sometimes came around to the house to eat spaghetti“.
Growing up, little Eleanora Fagan cut school so often that she was sent to live at the House Of The Good Shepherd, a home for “colored girls” run by the Little Sisters Of The Poor in Philadelphia. She was returned to her mother after a year, but in 1926, 11-year-old Eleanora was raped by a neighbor and sent back to Good Shepherd. But the good sisters refused to keep her for very long.
When she was only 12, Eleanora earned money cleaning at a whorehouse. The madam let her listen to the records of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith while she worked. Eleanora loved the music and was able to express her feelings with music and she began singing at various storefront churches.
As a young teenager, Eleanora moved to New York City with her mother to pursue a singing career, but instead, she found work as a prostitute in Harlem.
Billie Holiday was the self-creation of young Eleanora Fagan. She began to get small gigs at out of the way clubs. As Holiday, she began gaining popularity among her fellow musicians.
After years of touring as a vocalist with The Count Basie Orchestra, Holiday was offered her first steady job at the famed Café Society in 1938, earning $75 a week. She went on to be the featured soloist at clubs all over the country, acquiring the nickname “Lady Day”. Her very distinctive voice, which she used like a musical instrument, helped transform jazz singing. Holiday:
“I don’t think I’m singing; I feel like I’m playing a horn.“
Holiday had many love affairs with both men and women, but was known as a lesbian among her peers in the Jazz world, where she acquired the moniker “Mister Holiday” because she was so seldom seen in the company of gentlemen. Who else can you think of who had affairs with both Orson Welles and Tallulah Bankhead?
All of her life, Holiday had difficulty finding work and she had a string of relationships with maniacal men, a decline into dependence on drugs, a roughening of her voice and physical decline.
In July 1959, Holiday took her final bow while in a Manhattan hospital, taken by cirrhosis of the liver. In a characteristically cruel turn, she had been arrested on her deathbed for possession of narcotics and spent her final days under police guard. There has long been a rumor that she had all of her money in the world, just $750, hidden in her vagina as she lay dying and handcuffed to a hospital bed. Her last words were “codeine” and “bourbon”.
Holiday was unlucky in life, unlucky in love, and dead from drink and drugs at just 44 years old.
The life and legend of Billie Holiday seems to point to her as a victim, a problematic, profane, pushy woman. She was after all, a junkie and an alcoholic; she had sex with a lot of men and many women. But, I like to think that Holiday was a determined woman with a great appetite for life, who lived it on her terms in a man’s world.
Holiday was never able to capitalize on her amazing talent and to live a life as a musical superstar. She couldn’t break the pattern of abuse from others or herself, but that also fed her genius. Her brand of self-destruction was a plea for the love that, ironically, her bad behavior pushed away. But that voice, that perfectly imperfect gift, will always be loved and will always break my heart.