By the late 1930s, Billie Holiday (1915-1959) 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 NYC 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 play, 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 of warning to Holiday’s editor. When the book finally published, Bankhead was only mentioned as ”just a friend who sometimes came around to the house to eat spaghetti”.
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 NYC 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. She was born this day, 103 years ago.