The Incomparable Lady Day
By Julia Blackburn
New York: Pantheon, 2005, 354 pp., hardcover, $25.00
Julia Blackburn's With Billie offers new insight into Billie Holiday's familiar tale: The young girl born to teenaged parents comes of age in working-class Baltimore and is sexually abused and sent to a home for wayward girls before she is twelve years old. Upon her release she is embraced by a surrogate family of pimps, prostitutes, and hustlers. Among them, in a brothel, she finds her voice by singing along with recordings of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. Following the thousands of black Americans who migrate to Northern cites, she lands in Harlem. In less than a decade, she transforms herself from Eleanora, the chubby working girl, to Billie Holiday, the promising singer, and finally to the glamorous Lady Day, one of the greatest artists to grace the world stage. Plagued by a succession of bad, abusive, exploitive men and a destructive, all-absorbing heroin addiction, she dies at the age of 44 after being arrested for drug possession on her hospital bed. With Billie is unique among the numerous biographies, documentaries, and one Hollywood film that travel this familiar terrain in that it offers first-person narratives by people who knew Holiday throughout her tumultuous life. As such, it fleshes out the characters and figures that lurk in the shadows of earlier biographies. In so doing Blackburn, a novelist who constructs the narratives from an archive of taped interviews, both underscores the familiar and provides a wealth of new information.
The story of the archive itself is almost as fascinating as any information that it contains. In the early seventies, a young white woman named Linda Kuehl began to research a biography of Billie Holiday. She recorded 150 interviews with people who knew Lady Day. She collected materials ranging from letters, contracts, and legal documents to shopping lists and one revealing taped telephone conversation with Holiday's last husband, Louis McKay. Overwhelmed by the enormous size of her task, Kuehl had difficulty submitting a readable draft and soon lost her contract with Harper & Row publishers. In January 1979, she committed suicide by jumping from the ledge of a Washington, DC, hotel. Kuehl's family remained in possession of the material she'd collected until it was purchased by a collector in the early 1990s. Since then, it has provided source material for a number of biographies and one documentary about Holiday. However, unlike the extraordinary Mary Lou Williams archive at Rutgers University's Institute for Jazz Studies, the Holiday material is not widely accessible nor is it freely available to scholars. Because it has been in the hands of a private collector, the material has been available only at his discretion and often at a price. Blackburn writes that the collector "kindly allowed me access to the archive."Â She has done a fine job of organizing the material into 28 coherent narratives; interspersed throughout are her own commentaries on the context of Holiday's life. Blackburn's talent as a novelist transforms the material from the taped interviews into tightly constructed scenes that give some sense of Holiday but reveal even more about the speakers themselves and their social world--which was not unlike Toulouse-Lautrec's Paris. Interspersed chapters that seek to connect the narratives and provide a lose chronology are less successful than the profiles but provide necessary historical and logistical information. Throughout With Billie, Holiday herself remains shrouded in mystery, because she does not speak directly to the reader as the others do. The contours of her character emerge from the portraits painted by each individual. Blackburn calls into question the reliability of some narrators with her descriptions of them. There is Elmer Snowden, a musician-friend of Holiday's father Clarence, who says he was like a father to her. Seventy-one at the time of his interview, he tells Kuehl that no one believes he is that old because he can still "get almost as much at seventy with the young girls who hung around the bandstand."Â He resembles many of the men in the book who seem to have hit on Kuehl or at least let her know of their sexual prowess. A number of the interviewees are intoxicated or high when they give their version of Lady Day. Others are just mean. Fanny Holiday, Billie's stepmother, says the young teen was a "fat thing with big titties"Â whom she had to prohibit from "doing it in my home...I couldn't teach her nothing. Couldn't do nothing with her. She didn't look no thirteen. She looked like a growed up woman." In contrast, vaudeville comic Pop Foster remembers a sixteen-year-old Billie who "did a little prostitution"Â but who "wasn't a loud girl; she was kind of a shy girl, quiet in a way, unless somebody flustered her."Â Blackburn reveals a great deal about Holiday's music- and marijuana-filled early days in Harlem. Holiday spent her time with other artists in the after-hours haunts where musicians and people of the night socialized. The entertainers, especially other musicians, provide the most interesting portraits of Lady Day, the artist. Comedian and dancer James "Stump" Cross recalls, "There were so many musicians who loved her. They were playing through their hearts and crying out to Lady!"Â And while she was known for her love affairs with pimps and hustlers, Cross notes, "behind all of them there were these virtuoso piano players that loved her secretly...Men who used to cry when she sang."Â Their tender accompaniment to her singing seems to have been a reflection of the their love for her. One of the few actually to have been her lover, the pianist Bobbie Henderson, is perhaps the only of her romantic partners who can be described as "warm,"Â "kind,"Â and "gentleÂ." He remembers Billie at sixteen as a singer of rare musical sophistication who was interested in what he was doing musically. When he played something subtle for other musicians, Lady responded, "Hey do that again. Just what you did."Â He loved to play for her because "you could go anywhere and she'd be there, man. Perfect time and perfect diction."Â Claire Lievenson, an actress and friend of Holiday's in the thirties, recalls Holiday's record collection, which included opera as well as jazz. She'd sing along with Rhapsody in Blue and Porgy and Bess. Irene Kitchens, the pianist and composer who had been married to pianist Teddy Wilson, says, "She had a remarkable ear and didn't know one note of music, not one note. She had opera and stuff like that on her machine. Afternoon of a Faun. She loved Afternoon of a Faun."Â Cross says, "She knew the verses to every song that everybody ever sang! She'd sing anything, Carmen, anything that knocked her out."Â Characteristic of the kinds of contradictions that pepper the pages of With Billie, in contrast to Kitchen, Cross asserts, "She'd look at a music sheet. Put it down. Walk away. Have a drink. And come back three minutes later and sing the whole thing! She was singing arias, in her style."Â Blackburn's book is filled with stories of the husband/manager/pimps to whom Holiday gravitated. Interestingly, Blackburn provides evidence that a number of new figures must be added to the list of men who used and abused Holiday. Among them is the well-known agent Joe Glaser, a powerful figure with mob ties, who created opportunities for Holiday, slept with her, and turned her over to the feds. Two of the most compelling narratives in the book are from the very federal agents who harassed her: Jimmy Fletcher was a black federal narcotics agent who infiltrated the underworld and befriended Holiday. Blackburn correctly surmises that Fletcher "was aware that in Billie's case it was her fame, her color and her peculiar mixture of defiance and vulnerability that got her into such deep trouble." Although Fletcher knew that "Joe Glaser...had a string of whorehouses and a fondness for under-age girls,"Â as well as a proudly proclaimed taste for "nigger pussy"Â [Glaser's phrase], Glaser was not the subject of the FBI's pursuit. Instead, when Glaser "decided his client needed to be taught a lesson,"Â he was able to have the "colored agent"Â Fletcher assigned "to work on getting a case against Billie Holiday."Â Glaser engineered her arrest and saw to it that she would do time by "making sure she had no legal representation when she was brought before the judge."Â Furthermore, Fletcher recalls, "the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the FBI and the local police departments had been keeping files on her from the beginning and she was being constantly pursued by various agents who were keen to make a lovely big case against her and were 'covering her ground, keeping her under observation night and day.' "Â On top of this, he says, all the agents were "nuts about her sexually."Â Narcotics agent Colonel George White was responsible for Holiday's famous arrest in 1949, which led to her serving time at Alderson federal prison. White notes that Holiday was not considered an important target, since she had never been a dealer or an informer." He reveals that she was a "sometime addict"Â "who was known to have used marijuana, heroin, cocaine and opium and who was hurting nobody but herself in the process."Â However she was "a very attractive customer,"Â and "she could provide the Bureau with some very good publicity."Â Corroborating what Holiday herself often said, White says that when she was arrested, "Holiday showed no signs of being addicted to heroin or to any other narcotics."Â The irony, revealed perhaps for the first time in Blackburn's book, is that in spite of the arrest and the publicity, Holiday was more of an alcoholic than junkie. Still, it is the image of the drug-addicted Lady Day that follows her even in death. The miracle is that in the face of constant surveillance, being hunted like an animal, beaten, and exploited, Billie Holiday continued to love and be loved and produce art of exceptional quality throughout her life. Cross says it best (although he is somewhat mistaken about Duke Ellington's origins): She was like Count Basie and Duke Ellington. They were lowly born people who rose above all this thing into a beautiful niche that they cut out for themselves, and there's Lady and Count Basie and Duke Ellington and they stood in that little niche, with elegance. Farah Jasmine Griffin is author of If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday.