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The Long And Cruel Persecution Of Billie Holiday

Updated: Apr 15

It's safe to say that Billie Holiday, (born Eleanora Fagan in 1915) had a voice that sounded like marshmallows dipped in honey and one that continues to captivate millions of people around the world.

Born in Philadelphia to Clarence Halliday and Sarah Julia "Sadie" Fagan (née Harris), both of African American descent. Sadie, just 19 at the time, had relocated to Philadelphia after being expelled from her parents' home in Baltimore, Maryland, due to her pregnancy. Facing a lack of support from her family, Sadie arranged for Eleanora to stay with her older half-sister, Eva Miller, in Baltimore.

Shortly after Eleanora's birth, Clarence left the family to pursue a career as a jazz banjo player and guitarist. There have been debates among historians regarding Holiday's paternity, as her birth certificate in the Baltimore archives lists her father as "Frank DeViese." However, many dismiss this as an anomaly, likely inserted by a hospital or government worker. DeViese, who lived in Philadelphia, may have been acquainted with Sadie during her time there.

On December 24, 1926, Sadie returned home to a disturbing scene: Wilbur Rich, a neighbour, was attempting to rape Eleanora. Sadie intervened, successfully thwarting the attack, and Rich was subsequently arrested. Concerned for Eleanora's safety, officials placed her under protective custody in the House of the Good Shepherd, where she was to serve as a state witness in the rape case. Holiday remained in this protective custody until February 1927, when she was nearly 12 years old.

Upon her release from protective custody, Holiday found herself navigating the harsh realities of life on her own. She secured a job running errands in a brothel and took on the demanding task of scrubbing marble steps, as well as cleaning kitchen and bathroom floors in neighbourhood homes. It was during this time that she was introduced to the music of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, whose records left a lasting impression on her. In particular, she was captivated by Armstrong's "West End Blues," citing the scat section duet with the clarinet as her favourite part.

By the end of 1928, Holiday's mother had relocated to Harlem, Eleanora joined her in early 1929.

As a young teenager, Holiday embarked on her musical journey by performing in nightclubs across Harlem. Inspired by actress Billie Dove and Clarence Halliday, whom she believed to be her father, she adopted the professional pseudonym "Billie Holiday." Initially, she spelled her last name as "Halliday" in homage to her father's birth surname, but later opted for "Holiday," in reference to his performing name.

In late 1932, at the age of 17, Holiday seized an opportunity to showcase her talent when she replaced singer Monette Moore at Covan's, a club located on West 132nd Street. It was here that producer John Hammond, initially drawn to hear Moore, discovered Holiday's remarkable voice in early 1933. Impressed by her performance, Hammond facilitated Holiday's recording debut at the age of 18 in November 1933, collaborating with Benny Goodman. The session produced two songs: "Your Mother's Son-In-Law" and "Riffin' the Scotch," with the latter emerging as her first hit. "Your Mother's Son-In-Law" sold 300 copies, while "Riffin' the Scotch," released on November 11, garnered sales of 5,000 copies.

By the late 1930s, Holiday had established herself as a prominent figure in the music industry. She toured with renowned musicians such as Count Basie and Artie Shaw, achieved commercial success with Teddy Wilson, and solidified her reputation as a recording artist with a string of radio and retail hits.

During the late 1930s, while in the midst of recording for Columbia Records, Holiday encountered "Strange Fruit," a poignant song penned by Abel Meeropol (the man that adopted the sons of Cold War Spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg) inspired by his chilling poem on lynching. Meeropol, a Jewish educator hailing from the Bronx, utilised the pseudonym "Lewis Allan" for the poem, which found its musical adaptation and initial performance at teachers' union gatherings. Barney Josephson, proprietor of Café Society, a progressive nightclub in Greenwich Village, came across the song and introduced it to Holiday in 1939.

Despite her apprehensions, Holiday decided to perform "Strange Fruit" at the club, fearing potential repercussions. She later revealed that the song's imagery evoked memories of her father's tragic demise, contributing to her initial reluctance to sing it. For her rendition of "Strange Fruit" at Café Society, Holiday orchestrated a solemn atmosphere, instructing waitstaff to silence the audience as the song commenced. The venue darkened during the song's haunting introduction, with all activity coming to a standstill. As Holiday began her performance, a solitary spotlight illuminated her face, intensifying the song's impact. Upon its conclusion, the lights dimmed once more, and when they returned, Holiday had quietly exited the stage.

Holiday disclosed that her father, Clarence Holiday, had succumbed to a fatal lung ailment exacerbated by racial discrimination, citing this personal tragedy as a poignant connection to the themes depicted in "Strange Fruit."

"It reminds me of how Pop died, but I have to keep singing it, not only because people ask for it, but because twenty years after Pop died the things that killed him are still happening in the South"

Holiday's popularity increased after "Strange Fruit". She received a mention in Time magazine. "I open Café Society as an unknown", Holiday said. "I left two years later as a star. I needed the prestige and publicity all right, but you can't pay rent with it."

By 1947, Holiday had reached the pinnacle of her commercial success, having amassed earnings totaling $250,000 over the preceding three years. She achieved her highest ranking in the DownBeat poll, securing the second position for both 1946 and 1947. Additionally, Holiday claimed the fifth spot in Billboard's annual college poll of "girl singers" on July 6, 1947. In 1946, she clinched the top spot in the Metronome magazine popularity poll.

However, Holiday's fortunes took a downturn on May 16, 1947, when she was arrested for narcotics possession at her New York apartment. Subsequently, on May 27, she appeared in court to face the charges.

"It was called 'The United States of America versus Billie Holiday'. And that's just the way it felt"

During the trial, she heard that her lawyer would not come to the trial to represent her. 'In plain English, that meant no one in the world was interested in looking out for me," she said. Dehydrated and unable to hold down food, she pleaded guilty and asked to be sent to the hospital. The district attorney spoke in her defence, saying, "If your honour please, this is a case of a drug addict, but more serious, however, than most of our cases, Miss Holiday is a professional entertainer and among the higher rank as far as income was concerned." She was sentenced to Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia. The drug possession conviction caused her to lose her New York City Cabaret Card, preventing her working anywhere that sold alcohol; thereafter, she performed in concert venues and theatres.

Mug shot of Holiday after being arrested in 1947

FBI files in 1949 stated that Holiday has been discredited to set an example to others. One of the agents, Colonel George White stated that Holiday's “fancy coats and fancy automobiles and her jewellery and her diamonds” generated much resentment.

Holiday's release on March 16, 1948, came as a result of her good behaviour during her time served. Upon her arrival at Newark, she was greeted by her pianist Bobby Tucker and her beloved dog, Mister. The exuberant canine, in his excitement, leaped at Holiday, causing her hat to tumble off and sending her tumbling to the ground. Describing the scene, Holiday recounted how Mister showered her with affection, prompting a misunderstanding among onlookers. A woman mistook Mister's display of affection for aggression, leading to screams, a gathering crowd, and the swift arrival of reporters. Reflecting on the incident, Holiday humorously remarked, "I might just as well have wheeled into Penn Station and had a quiet little get-together with the Associated Press, United Press, and International News Service."

Ed Fishman, vying with Joe Glaser for the position of Holiday's manager, proposed a comeback concert at Carnegie Hall. Despite Holiday's reservations stemming from uncertainty about her reception post-arrest, she ultimately acquiesced. On March 27, 1948, Holiday took to the stage at Carnegie Hall before a capacity crowd. The concert, with 2,700 tickets sold in advance, set a record for the venue at the time. Notably, Holiday's popularity endured despite her lack of recent chart-topping hits; her last record to achieve such acclaim was "Lover Man" in 1945.

During the Carnegie Hall performance, Holiday treated the audience to a repertoire of 32 songs, including classics like Cole Porter's "Night and Day" and her iconic protest song from the 1930s, "Strange Fruit." Amidst the show, a gesture of gardenias arrived, a nod to her signature adornment. Without a second thought, Holiday fastened the flowers to her head, inadvertently piercing her skin with a hidden hatpin. Unaware of the injury until blood began to trickle, she continued her performance until the third curtain call, whereupon she fainted from the ordeal.

On January 22, 1949, Holiday found herself in trouble once again, this time arrested in her room at the Hotel Mark Twain in San Francisco. Recounting her struggles, Holiday admitted to having started using hard drugs in the early 1940s. Her marital ties with trombonist Jimmy Monroe, whom she wed on August 25, 1941, did little to deter her involvement with trumpeter Joe Guy, who also happened to be her drug supplier. Despite her divorce from Monroe in 1947 and subsequent split with Guy, Holiday's reliance on drugs persisted, exacerbated by the loss of her cabaret card, which significantly impacted her earnings.

Holiday's financial woes deepened as proper record royalties eluded her until she signed with Decca Records. Relying primarily on earnings from club concerts, her financial situation worsened when her records went out of print in the 1950s, resulting in meagre royalties. By 1958, she received a paltry royalty sum of just $11, underscoring the financial hardship she faced in her later years. Compounded by her struggles with drug addiction, alcoholism, and tumultuous relationships, Holiday's health began to deteriorate rapidly.

In early 1959, Holiday received a devastating diagnosis of cirrhosis of the liver. Despite initial attempts to abstain from alcohol on her doctor's orders, she soon relapsed. By May of that year, she had shed 20 pounds, prompting concern from her manager, Joe Glaser, among others, who unsuccessfully urged her to seek hospitalisation. Eventually, on May 31, 1959, she was admitted to Metropolitan Hospital in New York for treatment of both liver and heart disease.

Holiday's plight was further complicated by the interference of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, led by Harry J. Anslinger, who had reportedly targeted her since 1939, particularly after her rendition of "Strange Fruit." Despite conflicting accounts regarding the extent of the FBI's involvement in her case, Holiday found herself handcuffed to her hospital bed, arrested, and placed under police guard following allegations of drug possession.

The last photo of Billie Holiday, taken by her bass player Milt Hinton at her last recording. She is crying while she listens to the results

As Holiday's health rapidly declined, she was administered methadone as part of her treatment, only to have it abruptly discontinued after ten days in line with Anslinger's policy. On July 15, 1959, Holiday received last rites, passing away at the age of 44 in the early hours of July 17, 1959, due to pulmonary edema and heart failure resulting from cirrhosis of the liver. Johann Hari laid blame for her demise at Anslinger's feet, accusing him of contributing to her death.

In her final years, Holiday's financial misfortunes persisted, as she was reportedly swindled out of her earnings, leaving her with a mere $0.70 in the bank at the time of her death. Her funeral Mass took place on July 21, 1959, at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in Manhattan, and she was laid to rest at Saint Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx. The circumstances surrounding her burial plot, managed by her estranged husband Louis McKay, were detailed in a NPR segment in 2012, although Michael P. Grace ll, a Catholic songwriter and theatre producer, came forward to cover the funeral expenses.

Gilbert Millstein of The New York Times, who was the announcer at Holiday's 1956 Carnegie Hall concerts and wrote parts of the sleeve notes for the album The Essential Billie Holiday, described her death in these sleeve notes, dated 1961:

Billie Holiday died in Metropolitan Hospital, New York, on Friday, July 17, 1959, in the bed in which she had been arrested for illegal possession of narcotics a little more than a month before, as she lay mortally ill; in the room from which a police guard had been removed – by court order – only a few hours before her death. She had been strikingly beautiful, but her talent was wasted. The worms of every kind of excess – drugs were only one – had eaten her. The likelihood exists that among the last thoughts of this cynical, sentimental, profane, generous and greatly talented woman of 44 was the belief that she was to be arraigned the following morning. She would have been, eventually, although possibly not that quickly. In any case, she removed herself finally from the jurisdiction of any court here below.

Upon Holiday's passing, The New York Times published a brief obituary on page 15, devoid of a byline. Despite her legendary status, she left behind a modest estate valued at $1,000, which would equate to $10,577 in 2023. Furthermore, many of her finest recordings from the 1930s had fallen out of circulation, denying audiences access to her earlier works.

In the years following her death, Holiday's legacy continued to flourish. In 1961, she was honoured with induction into the prestigious Down Beat Hall of Fame, a testament to her enduring influence on the world of jazz. Columbia Records subsequently reissued nearly one hundred of her early recordings, ensuring that her music would remain accessible to future generations.

In 1972, Diana Ross's portrayal of Holiday in the biographical film "Lady Sings the Blues" garnered widespread acclaim, earning Ross an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win. Holiday's enduring impact on the music industry was further recognised through posthumous nominations for 23 Grammy Awards, solidifying her status as one of the greatest vocalists of all time.



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