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Street Diva

With Billie

by Julia Blackburn
Pantheon, 354 pp., $25.00


In the spring of 1947, Jimmy Fletcher heard from his bosses at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics that it might be a convenient time to visit Billie Holiday at home. Her manager, a former fight-fixer, whoremonger, and running dog in Al Capone’s pack, had offered up the celebrated Negro “torchchanteuse” and notorious dope fiend as grist for Harry Anslinger’s publicity mill.

Anslinger, the bureau’s first and only commissioner, was the public face of America’s war on drugs, and he hustled as hard, if not as well, as his envied rival J. Edgar Hoover. Splashy arrests kept the congressional purse holders mindful of who stood between America’s schoolchildren and the ravening scourge of narcotics. For doers of the commissioner’s bidding, Billie Holiday was “an attractive customer,” a reliable source of repeat business.

Fletcher was a veteran black undercover operative who knew Holiday from long years of going around. It fell to him, and a colleague named Cohen, to bring her in. They rousted Billie out of bed in a Harlem residence hotel, and found nothing they were looking for, either in her rooms or among her belongings. Agent Cohen suggested then that a policewoman be brought in to inspect their suspect’s body cavities. They could look for themselves, Billie allowed, if they’d agree to leave without her if she proved “clean.” Ignoring their demurrals, she stripped bare, straddled the toilet bowl, and urinated. Cohen tried to close the bathroom door. Choosing shamelessness over complicity in her own humiliation, she pushed it back open, “forcing both of them to see her nakedness and her defiance.” She never averted her stony eyes from the faces of her onlookers.

Fletcher knew then that he was in the presence of a thoroughbred—a true-to-the-game “mud-kicker” in the parlance of the streets she came from—who could take life’s worst without a snivel. “She sealed herself closer to me that morning,” he remembered. “She sealed our friendship.”

But fondness couldn’t trump his calling. Within a couple of weeks, Fletcher had managed her arrest in New York, on a flimsy drug charge that cost her a year in a West Virginia prison. But at least he felt badly about it, more than could be said of other men she knew better and who used her as currency to exchange with Fletcher and his like for favors, or their freedom.

The very qualities Jimmy Fletcher saw in her and admired on that occasion were regularly disclosed in the performances that won for Billie Holiday the audiences she turned into cult followers during more than a quarter-century of playing the high-class joints, the low-class joints, and even some of the honky-tonks in America’s cities and bigger towns. In the four and a half decades since her death, “Lady Day,” though venerated in a smaller church, has become almost as much of a cultural icon as Marilyn Monroe, and nearly as written about.

The latest addition, With Billie, authored by the British writer Julia Blackburn, has been assembled from a cache of recorded interviews and documentary scraps left behind by Linda Kuehl, a devotee with a book contract, who spent most of a decade talking to anyone she could find who’d known the singer at any point in her life. Twenty-six years ago, Kuehl plunged out of the window of a Washington hotel room, leaving behind a suicide note and two shoe boxes of “carefully named and numbered” audiotapes, partially transcribed.

These passed through her family’s custody into the hands of a private collector. Lately, they have been culled, “untangled,” rethreaded, and worked by Blackburn into a tapestry of tales told by persons who worked, hung out, and grew up with Billie Holiday. Blackburn does her best to sort out people’s versions of truth with a biographer’s sense of duty to the facts, while drawing inferences with a novelist’s license. Now and then, she may take a step too far into speculating on states of mind, but Blackburn’s way of working her raw material into a narrative gives an impressionistic portrait of her subject which conveys about as much that was true of Billie Holiday as can be had on a printed page.

All accounts of Holiday’s life—including her own—are mostly just stories like these that have gotten themselves certified as history: apart from government records and newspaper reports, goods of casual provenance. Even at the source. “Billie had always invented huge chapters of her life,” Blackburn writes, “telling stories that made emotional sense, even if they bore no relationship to the facts.”

More of the truth of her story was revealed when she sang other people’s songs. “She had a very small voice,” said Bobby Tucker, a pianist who accompanied Holiday during several years of her late prime, “but she could tell a story, that’s what she could do, and she had a thing about how she felt.” He guessed that “thing” he was trying to describe “might be her pain.”

Blackburn casts light on the origins of that pain in Holiday’s shambled childhood. Born in Philadelphia in 1915, raised in Baltimore, her mother’s hometown, the girl Eleanor, of variable surname, lived her first eight years mostly in the care of an uncle-in-law’s mother. Adjudged a chronic truant and unsupervised child, she spent her ninth year in a reformatory.

About a month after her release, she stopped going to school altogether. Raped by a neighbor at eleven, she used to get drunk on corn whiskey and accost men in the street, then run away, taunting and cussing them until one could be provoked into chasing, catching, and beating her. At fourteen, she joined her mother in New York, where they lived in a Harlem brothel. Within several weeks of Eleanor’s arrival, she and her mother were picked up in a police raid.

Facing a judge “notorious for giving harsh sentences [to]…what she called ‘wayward minors,’” too-grown-too-fast Eleanor was found guilty of being a “vagrant and dissipated adult.” She served six months, chiefly among convicted prostitutes, in the city’s workhouse on Welfare Island. When she got out, she “did a little prostitution,” waited tables, and sang for money thrown on barroom floors.

At sixteen, she was “a fat thing with big titties,” who’d worked her way up to singing in a Harlem saloon for two dollars and tips “in the same [common] dress every night.” Around that time, she changed her name to “Billie Holiday,” after the actress Billie Dove and her father, Clarence, a guitarist with Fletcher Henderson’s band.

As soon as she started working in bars, she’d kept the steady company of musicians, drinking, coupling, and smoking weed. “Lady was always part of the band,” the tap dancer and comic James “Stump” Cross later observed. She graduated from the noisome chaos of the street into the irregular rhythms of life as a working musician without any mediating institution but jail in between. She was an unruly ghetto child, a “tackhead” with a transcendent gift.

A dancer who knew her then attested that even as a fleshy kid “in tacky dresses,” Billie “already had something in her voice that struck the public like lightning.” Before she turned twenty, she’d acquired a following among cognoscenti and show people drawn uptown to see her at the Hot Cha Club. Holiday was barely twenty-two when she vaulted out of Clark Monroe’s “downstairs place on 134th Street and Seventh Avenue” onto the road with Count Basie. A year later, she bore the brunt of integrating Artie Shaw’s band on its Southern tour.

At twenty-four, during a nine-week engagement at Café Society, Holiday stirred New York’s left-leaning intellectuals and claimed the notice of a wider world when she introduced “Strange Fruit,” an anti-lynching song thought subversive by official America’s Red-scared, especially Hoover. When it came out in the spring of 1939, her recording of “Strange Fruit” was a fair-sized hit, and eventually sold close to a million copies.

Once she became a star in the early Forties, Blackburn notes, Holiday “gave [money] away as fast as she earnt it.” In her autobiography Billie described the Harlem apartment she shared with her mother as a “combination YMCA, boardinghouse for broke musicians, soup kitchen for anyone with a hard-luck story, community center, and after-hours joint where a couple of bucks would get you a shot of whiskey and the most fabulous fried chicken breakfast, lunch or dinner anywhere in town.”

Among its clientele was Babs Gonzales, an avant-garde scat singer who never did much business. “Any musician could go there and eat and get money for the subway or to go to the movies,” he recalled, “and if she was out of town she would leave money with mother.” “[Billie] always respected musicians,” one of her bass players told Linda Kuehl. “She was always trying to keep a hard front… [but] she was generous to a fault.”

She romanced everybody in the band, so far as friendship was concerned,” fellow Basieite Harry “Sweets” Edison remembered. “Because she was your friend.” Billie was ever one of the boys, even when she could afford to wrap herself in $17,000 worth of blue mink. “No matter how much of a star she was,” a childhood friend reminisced, she never had an entourage, preferring the fellowship of players and the caterers of her bad habits. “She’d go down in the slums, in the bars, and she’d have her mink… and she’d just throw it on the chair and sit down with a little booze and buy for everyone else. And say ‘bitch’ and ‘motherfucker’…and…tell jokes in different voices….”

And always, “behind the pimps and the parasites,” “Stump” Cross remarked, “were these virtuoso piano players that loved her secretly.” She had an affinity for piano players, and a knack for picking them. One said he loved to play for her because “you could go anywhere and she’d be there….” “[Billie] could find a groove wherever you put it. Wherever it was, she could float on top of it.” In 1939, she’d told an interviewer, “I don’t think I’m singing…I feel like I’m playing a horn.”

Holiday once advised an awestruck, twenty-year-old pianist who was playing with her for the first time, “You don’t have to worry about my music. If you can play ‘The Man I Love,’ you can play for me….” Her accompanists enjoyed their working conditions, because even though she “didn’t know one note of music,” Billie was every bit the musician they were.

If she favored piano players as road partners and confidants, she mostly chose lovers from other sections of the band, and husbands of the outlaw caste. The first of these was Jimmy Monroe, “a suave sort of cat…a very fair-complexioned, nice-looking, frail type,” a hustler lately returned to Harlem from several years in Paris. He was married to an actress when Billie met him, and reputedly pimping whores on the side. It’s said he introduced Billie to smoking opium and sniffing cocaine. She broke with her mother over Monroe, which soon became a source of regret, since the marriage lasted less than a year. Monroe left for California with “most of Billie’s money,” which he apparently used to “set himself up with a stable of women there.” In 1942, he was arrested for drug smuggling, and sentenced to a year in prison. She paid for his lawyers, but divorced him as soon as he got out.

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