The Art of Billie Holiday’s Life (2024)

Billie Holiday, like all great artists, is as distinctive, as idiosyncratic, as original off-stage and off-mike as on.Photograph by Charles Hewitt / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty

Some biographies of artists take in the whole life—preferably with equal attention to the work, and integrating the two elements to the extent that the work invites it. Others offer a bio-slice or synecdoche, centered on one particular period, relationship, or field of activity to provide an exemplary angle on the life and work. John Szwed’s brief but revelatory new book, “Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth” (Viking), which comes out this week—just under the wire for her centenary (Holiday was born April 7, 1915)—is in another category. It’s a meta-biography, about the creation of Holiday’s public image in media of all sorts: print, television, movies, and, of course, her recordings, but with special attention to the composition of her autobiography, “Lady Sings the Blues,” which was published in 1956.

Szwed, whose other books include a superb biography of Sun Ra, “Space is the Place,” reconstructs, through ardent archival research as well as his own interviews, the circ*mstances of the making of Holiday’s book. In the process, he both evaluates the first-hand significance of “Lady Sings the Blues” as Holiday’s factual and emotional account of her own life—as a record of Holiday’s experiences and ideas—and also, secondarily, treats the writing and the publication of the book as important events in Holiday’s life. She died on July 17, 1959, at the age of forty-four, and had been suffering from liver disease and heart disease. She was, as she writes, addicted to heroin “on and off” since the early nineteen-forties. Szwed says that, when she went to the hospital in 1959, “No one at the hospital knew who she was, and with needle marks on her body, she was left in the hall for hours, since the institution was not allowed to treat drug addicts.”

Holiday’s recording career was precocious: she made her first records in 1933, with a small group headed by Benny Goodman (who wasn’t yet a big-band leader). On the very first page of the first chapter, Szwed writes wisely about the timing of Holiday’s own book, nothing that at the time it was published, “jazz had moved from beingthepopular music of 1940s America to a more rarefied place in the public view.” This fact, for Szwed, mitigated the response that Holiday’s book received. The critics now defending jazz were mainly “closet high modernists who wanted no mention of drugs, whor*houses, or lynching brought into discussions of the music.” And those are among the subjects addressed, in unsparing detail, in Holiday’s book. (Among the critics who attacked the book was Whitney Balliett, this magazine’s longtime jazz critic, who wrote about it in theSaturday Review.)

The first section of Szwed’s book is one of the most briskly revealing pieces of jazz biography that I’ve read. First, he establishes the bona fides of William Dufty, Holiday’s collaborator on the book, rescuing him from charges of being a hack. Dufty was an award-winning journalist at the New YorkPostat a time when it was a leading liberal paper; he and his wife, Maely Daniele, a longtime friend of Holiday’s, welcomed her to their apartment as “a place of refuge from the police, her husband Louis McKay, reporters, and the various unsavory figures who haunted her life.” Dufty did the actual writing, based on long and detailed conversations with Holiday augmented by archival research that sparked her recollections.

Szwed sketches a handful of the book’s divergences from the independently established biographical record, starting with the legendary first sentences: “Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was seventeen, and I was three.” Szwed explains, “When Billie was born, her mother was nineteen, her father seventeen. They never married . . . She was born not in Baltimore but in Philadelphia. Some questioned her claim of having been raped at age ten.”

Holiday’s book is unstinting in its depiction of the hardships she faced. As a child, she heard from her great-grandmother about life as a slave; she grew up away from her mother, in the home of a cousin who beat her; she scrubbed floors in a “whor*house” in order to hear music on the record player; and the man who raped her when she was ten was a neighbor. She quit school at twelve and travelled to New York alone, where she worked first as a maid and then as a prostitute. Jailed and released, she moved in with her mother, who lived in Harlem. They were on the verge of eviction when Holiday, who was about fifteen, got a job singing—more or less by accident—at a local nightspot. Holiday details the roughness of the world of music, exacerbated by relentless racism—travelling through the South in the age of Jim Crow, being forced to darken her skin with makeup in order to perform in Detroit. She describes in detail her addiction to heroin, her resulting troubles with the law, and its impact on her career.

For all its confessional frankness and accusatory clarity, there is, as Szwed reveals, much more to her story—and the circ*mstances of the composition of “Lady Sings the Blues” are an exemplary part of it.

Delving into earlier drafts of “Lady Sings the Blues” and other archival materials, Szwed finds echoes of the book in other published sources to which Holiday had referred Dufty as particularly reliable. Holiday told Dufty some stories that were ultimately kept out of the book, including the agonizing home abortion that her mother forced her to undergo as a teen. But Szwed finds that the book’s most important omissions were demanded by lawyers (including one representing Holiday and McKay) and by many of the public figures who played major roles in Holiday’s life and autobiography.

In particular, Szwed traces the stories of two important relationships that are missing from the book—with Charles Laughton, in the nineteen-thirties, and with Tallulah Bankhead, in the late nineteen-forties—and of one relationship that’s sharply diminished in the book, her affair with Orson Welles around the time of “Citizen Kane.”

In 1941, Welles wanted to make a film called “The Story of Jazz,” in collaboration with Duke Ellington. It would be set in the nineteen-teens and twenties, centered on the rise of Louis Armstrong, playing himself. He wanted Holiday to play Bessie Smith. Welles’s movie, Szwed writes, was “intended to be radically innovative, mixing together different styles of jazz, using the surrealist drawings of Oskar Fischinger.” It was put off, Szwed reports, due to the start of the Second World War. When Welles went to Rio to make “It’s All True,” he thought that the jazz story could be woven into it—but his filming of “the everyday interaction of races in Brazil” soured Welles’s studio, RKO, on the entire production.

Holiday and Bankhead (whom she called “Banky”) had an intense, stormy relationship that lasted a few years. “Bankhead seemed obsessed by her,” Szwed writes, and the extent of her devotion is revealed in a section that was cut from Holiday’s book, an extraordinary story of Bankhead’s attempt to intervene personally with J. Edgar Hoover to exonerate Holiday of the drug charges that played havoc with her career. Yet they were driven apart by the same sorts of pressures that induced Bankhead to insist on being kept out of the book: Bankhead feared that her career would be destroyed by the revelation of their relationship.

Szwed makes a strong case for the autobiography’s authenticity—if not absolute veracity—as Holiday’s self-representation, or her representation of her self-image, especially in the light of all that it originally contained: “Shouldn’t an author have the right to create a self different from what readers think that they already know about her? If an autobiography is an account of a woman’s experiences, those experiences may be felt in one way as they happen, but in a completely different way later in life.” He interprets her book “as a form of autobiographical fiction” and suggests that “Holiday’s own changes or omissions were perhaps a means of preventing readers from knowing too much, of distancing herself to keep from being too closely identified with how others saw her, and especially from what the press had written about her.”

Nonetheless, he suggests that “Lady Sings the Blues” is “Dickensian”:

. . . filled as it is with miseries and rejections in a neighborhood in which houses of prostitution were the elite establishments. Her narrative of her artistic successes, tinged with bitterness toward the music business, the police, the courts, the press, and her mother, did not make for motivational reading. Nor did her revelations of her husbands as con men, pimps, and possible drug dealers sit well with her attempts to move beyond them near the end of the book.

I’d characterize the book’s Dickensian aspect more simply: it depicts a life lived in a pathologically, brazenly, unrepentantly, systematically, and casually racist country. Those are Holiday’s formative and constant experiences—racism and the hardness, the ugliness, the danger that it imposes as her unrelenting daily lot, and from which her ideas, her career, and her art are inseparable.

The Art of Billie Holiday’s Life (2024)


What was Billie Holiday's life like? ›

Living in extreme poverty, Holiday dropped out of school in the fifth grade and found a job running errands in a brothel. When she was twelve, Holiday moved with her mother to Harlem, where she was eventually arrested for prostitution.

What makes Billie Holiday unique? ›

Why was Billie Holiday significant? Billie Holiday was one of the greatest jazz singers from the 1930s to the '50s. She had no formal musical training, but, with an instinctive sense of musical structure and a deep knowledge of jazz and blues, she developed a singing style that was deeply moving and individual.

What happened to Billie Holiday when she was a child? ›

Born Eleanora fa*gan in Baltimore (or some say Philadelphia) in 1915, Holiday's childhood was marred by horrific abuse—despite the best efforts of her beloved mother, Sadie, who was only 13 when she had Holiday. Always a self-starter, Holiday began singing as a child, while cleaning neighbors' homes for money.

What was Billie Holiday's nickname? ›

Her career quickly grew as she recorded songs with Teddy Wilson and began a long partnership with Lester Young, who gave her the nickname "Lady Day." In 1938, she was invited to headline an orchestra by Artie Shaw. Holiday became the first African American woman to work with an all-white band.

Who was Billie Holiday's closest friend? ›

Today is National Friendship Day! The intensely intimate but totally platonic relationship that developed between Young and Holiday from 1934 was publicly recognized during their lifetime. In the 30s Billie Holiday and Lester Young recorded a series of memorable sides together.

What was Billie Holiday's famous quote? ›

I never hurt nobody but myself and that's nobody's business but my own.

What was Billie Holiday's favorite color? ›

Billie was 22 years old at the time. As I mentioned earlier, this article states her favorite colors as being "black, white, and green", but most of what she has in her dressing room that evening strays from this.

Why is Billie Holiday a hero? ›

During her lifetime, Billie Holiday battled internal and external demons, yet rather than give in to the pain and hardships she experienced, she used her voice to sing about and bring attention to racial injustices that she had witnessed.

Did Billie Holiday have a baby? ›

Billie Holiday - Lady Day had a lot of ups and downs before she died at the age of 44 in 1959, but no children. Instead, her legacy lives on through her timeless music.

Why did Billie Holiday change her name? ›

Thus, from seemingly nowhere, a new star was born out of Eleanora fa*gan who had long since changed her name to Billie Holiday – Billie in honor of her favorite actress and Baltimorean Billie Dove and Holiday due to her infatuation with her erratic father and the recognition the name could earn her in Harlem's nightlife ...

Why is Billie Holiday famous for kids? ›

Billie Holiday was an American jazz singer. She is considered by some to be the greatest jazz singer of all time. Holiday is also known by her nickname Lady Day. Holiday was born Eleanora Harris on April 7, 1915, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

What was Billie Holiday's life and legacy? ›

Considered by many to be one of the greatest jazz vocalists of all time, Billie Holiday triumphed over adversity to forever change the genres of jazz and pop music with her unique styling and interpretation. Holiday left employment as a maid to pursue work as a dancer in Harlem nightclubs.

Did Billie Holiday have children? ›

Billie Holiday - Lady Day had a lot of ups and downs before she died at the age of 44 in 1959, but no children. Instead, her legacy lives on through her timeless music.

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