Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday; drawing by David Levine

“The unspeakable vices of Mecca are a scandal to all Islam and constant source of wonder to pious pilgrims.” As a pilgrim to Mecca, I lived at the Hotel Schuyler on West 45th Street in Manhattan, lived with a red-cheeked, homosexual young man from Kentucky. We had known each other all our lives. Our friendship was a violent one and we were as obsessive, critical, jealous, and cruel as any couple. Often I lay awake all night in a rage over some delinquency of his during the day. His coercive neatness inflamed me at times, as if his habits were not his right but instead a dangerous poison to life, like the slow seepage from the hotel stove. His clothes were laid out on the bed for the next day; and worst of all he had an unyielding need to brush his teeth immediately after dinner in the evening. This finally meant that no fortuitous invitation, no lovely possibility arising unannounced could be accepted without a concentrated uneasiness of mind. These holy habits ruined his sex life, even though he was, like the tolling of a time bell, to be seen every Saturday night at certain gay bars, drinking his ration of beer.

My friend had, back in Kentucky, developed a passion for jazz. This study seized him and he brought to it the methodical, intense, dogmatic anxiety of his nature. I learned this passion from him. It is a curious learning that cuts into your flesh, leaving a scar, a longing never satisfied, a wound of feeling hard to live with. It can be distressing to listen to jazz when one is troubled, alone, with the “wrong” person. Things can happen in your life that cause you to give it up altogether. Yet, under its dominion, it may be said that one is more likely to commit suicide listening to “Them There Eyes” than to Opus 132. What is it? “…the sea itself, or is it youth alone?”

We lived there in the center of Manhattan, believing the very placing of the hotel to be an overwhelming beneficence. To live in the obscuring jungle of the midst of things: close to—what? Within walking distance of all those places one never walked to. But it was history, wasn’t it? The acrimonious twilight fell in the hollows between the gray and red buildings. Inside the hotel was a sort of underbrush, a swampy footing for the irregular. The brooding inconsequence of the old hotel dwellers, their delusions and disappearances. They lived as if in a house recently burglarized, wires cut, their world vandalized, by themselves, and cheerfully enough, also. Do not imagine they received nothing in return. They got a lot, I tell you. They were lifted by insolence above their car loans, their surly arrears, their misspent matrimonies.

The small, futile shops around us explained how little we know of ourselves and how perplexing are our souvenirs and icons. I remember strangers to the city, in a daze, making decisions, exchanging coins and bills for the incurious curiosities, the unexceptional novelties. Sixth Avenue lies buried in the drawers, bureaus, boxes, attics, and cellars of grandchildren. There, blackening, are the dead watches, the long, oval rings for the little finger, the smooth pieces of polished wood shaped into a long-chinned African head, the key rings of the Empire State building. And for us, there were the blaring shops, open most of the night, where one could buy old, scratched, worn-thin jazz records—Vocalion, Okeh, and Brunswick labels. Our hands sliced through the cases until the skin around our fingers bled.

Yes, there were the records, priceless flotsam they seemed to us then. And the shifty jazz clubs on 52nd Street. The Onyx, the Down Beat, the Three Deuces. At the curb, getting out of a taxi, or at the White Rose Bar drinking, there “they” were, the great performers with their worn, brown faces, enigmatic in the early evening, their coughs, their broken lips and yellow eyes; their clothes, crisp and bright and hard as the bone-fibered feathers of a bird. And there she was—the “bizarre deity,” Billie Holiday.

At night in the cold winter moonlight, around 1943, the city pageantry was of a benign sort. Young adolescents were then asleep and the threat was only in the landscape, aesthetic. Dirty slush in the gutters, a lost black overshoe, a pair of white panties, perhaps thrown from a passing car. Murderous dissipation went with the music, inseparable, skin and bone. And always her luminous self-destruction.

She was fat the first time we saw her, large, brilliantly beautiful, fat. She seemed for this moment that never again returned to be almost a matron, someone real and sensible who carried money to the bank, signed papers, had curtains made to match, dresses hung and shoes in pairs, gold and silver, black and white, ready. What a strange, betraying apparition that was, madness, because never was any woman less a wife or mother, less attached; not even a daughter could she easily appear to be. Little called to mind the pitiful sweetness of a young girl. No, she was glittering, somber, and solitary, although of course never alone, never. Stately, sinister, and absolutely determined.


The creamy lips, the oily eyelids, the violent perfume—and in her voice the tropical l’s and r’s. Her presence, her singing created a large, swelling anxiety. Long red fingernails and the sound of electrified guitars. Here was a woman who had never been a Christian.

To speak as part of the white audience of “knowing” this baroque and puzzling phantom is an immoderation; and yet there are many persons, discrete and reasonable, who have little splinters of memory that seem to have been personal. At times they have remembered an exchange of some sort. And always the lascivious gardenia, worn like a large, white, beautiful ear, the heavy laugh, marvelous teeth, and the splendid archaic head, dragged up from the Aegean. Sometimes she dyed her hair red and the curls lay flat against her skull, like dried blood.

Early in the week the clubs were dead, as they spoke of it. And the chill of failure inhabited the place, visible in the cold eyes of the owners. These men, always changing, were weary with futile calculations. They often held their ownership so briefly that one could scarcely believe the ink dry on the license. They started out with the embezzler’s hope and moved swiftly to the bankrupt’s torpor. The bartenders—thin, watchful, stubbornly crooked, resentful, silent thieves. Wandering soldiers, drunk and worried, musicians, and a few people, couples, hideously looking into each other’s eyes, as if they were safe.

My friend and I, peculiar and tense, experienced during the quiet nights a tainted joy. Then, showing our fidelity, it seemed that a sort of motif would reveal itself, that under the glaze ancient patterns from a lost world were to be discovered. The mind strains to recover the blank spaces in history, and our pale, gray-green eyes looked into her swimming, dark, inconstant pools—and got back nothing.

In her presence on these tranquil nights it was possible to experience the depths of her disbelief, to feel sometimes the mean, horrible freedom of a thorough suspicion of destiny. And yet the heart always drew back from the power of her will and its engagement with disaster. An inclination bred upon punishing experiences compelled her to live gregariously and without affections. Her talents and the brilliance of her mind contended with the strength of the emptiness. Nothing should degrade this genuine nihilism; and so, in a sense, it is almost a dishonor to imagine that she lived in the lyrics of her songs.

Her message was otherwise. It was style. That was her meaning from the time she began at fifteen. It does not change the victory of her great effort, of the miraculous discovery or retrieval from darkness of pure style, to know that it was exercised on “I love my man, tell the world I do….” How strange it was to me, almost unbalancing, to be sure that she did not love any man, or anyone. Also often one had the freezing perception that her own people, those around her, feared her. One thing she was ashamed of—or confused by, rather—that she was not sentimental.

In my youth, at home in Kentucky, there was a dance place just outside of town called Joyland Park. In the summer the great bands arrived, Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Chick Webb, sometimes for a Friday and Saturday or merely for one night. When I speak of the great bands it must not be taken to mean that we thought of them as such. No, they were part of the summer nights and the hot dog stands, the fetid swimming pool heavy with chlorine, the screaming roller coaster, the old rain-splintered picnic tables, the broken iron swings. And the bands were also part of Southern drunkenness, couples drinking coke and whisky, vomiting, being unfaithful, lovelorn, frantic. The black musicians, with their cumbersome instruments, their tuxedos, were simply there to beat out time for the stumbling, cuddling fox-trotting of the period.

The band busses, parked in the field, the caravans in which they suffered the litter of cigarettes and bottles, the hot, streaking highways, all night, or resting for a few hours in the black quarters: the Via Dolorosa of show business. They arrived at last, nowhere, to audiences large or small, often with us depending upon the calendar of the Park, the other occasions from which the crowd would spill over into the dance hall. Ellington’s band. And what were we doing, standing close, murmuring the lyrics?


At our high school dances in the winter, small, cheap, local events. We had our curls, red taffeta dresses, satin shoes with their new dye fading in the rain puddles; and most of all we were dressed in our ferocious hope for popularity. This was a stifling blanket, an airless tent; gasping, grinning, we stood anxious-eyed, next to the piano, hovering about Fats Waller who had come from Cincinnati for the occasion. Requests, perfidious glances, drunken teenagers, nodding teacher-chaperones: these we offered to the music, looking upon it, I suppose, as something inevitable, effortlessly pushing up from the common soil.

On 52nd Street: “Yeah, I remember your town,” she said, without inflection.

And I remember her dog, Boxer. She was one of those women who admire large, overwhelming, impressive dogs and who give to them a care and courteous punctuality denied everything else. Several times we waited in panic for her in the bar of the Hotel Braddock in Harlem. (My friend, furious and tense with his new, hated work in “public relations,” was now trying without success to get her name in Winchell’s column. Today we were waiting to take her downtown to sit for the beautiful photographs Robin Carson took of her.) At the Braddock, the porters took plates of meat for the dog to her room. Soon, one of her friends, appearing almost like a child, so easily broken were others by the powerful, energetic horrors of her life, one of those young people would take the great dog to the street. These animals, asleep in dressing rooms, were like sculptured treasures, fit for the tomb of a queen.

The sheer enormity of her vices. The outrageousness of them. For the grand destruction one must be worthy. Her ruthless talent and the opulent devastation. Onto the heaviest addiction to heroin she piled up the rocks of her tomb with a prodigiousness of Scotch and brandy. She was never at any hour of the day or night free of these consumptions, never except when she was asleep. And there did not seem to be any pleading need to quit, to modify. With cold anger she spoke of various cures that had been forced upon her, and she would say, bearing down heavily, as sure of her rights as if she had been robbed, “And I paid for it myself.” Out of a term at the Federal Women’s Prison in West Virginia she stepped, puffy from a diet of potatoes, onto the stage of Town Hall to pick up some money and start up again the very day of release.

Still, even with her, authenticity was occasionally disrupted. An invitation for chili—improbable command. We went up to a street in Harlem just as the winter sun was turning black. Darkened windows with thin bands of watchful light above the sills. Inside the halls were dark and empty, filled only with the scent of dust. We, our faces bleached from the cold, in our thin coats, black gloves, had clinging to us the evangelical diffidence of bell-ringing members of a religious sect, a determination glacial, timid, and yet pedantic. Our frozen alarm and fascination carried us into the void of the dead tenement. The house was under a police ban and when we entered, whispering her name, the policeman stared at us with furious incredulity. She was hounded by the police, but for once the occasion was not hers. Somewhere, upstairs, behind another door there had been a catastrophe.

Her own records played over and over on the turntable; everything else was quiet. All of her living places were temporary in the purest meaning of the term. But she filled even a black hotel room with a stinging, demonic weight. At the moment she was living with a trumpet player who was just becoming known and who soon after faded altogether. He was as thin as a stick and his lovely, round, light face, with frightened, shiny, round eyes, looked like a sacrifice impaled upon the stalk of his neck. His younger brother came out of the bedroom. He stood before us, wavering between confusing possibilities. Tiny, thin, perhaps in his twenties, the young man was engrossed in a blur of functions. He was a sort of hectic Hermes, working in Hades, now buying cigarettes, now darting back to the bedroom, now almost inaudible on the phone, ordering or disposing of something in a light, shaking voice.

“Lady’s a little behind. She’s over-scheduled herself.” Groans and coughs from the bedroom. In the peach-shaded lights, the wan rosiness of a beaten sofa was visible. A shell, still flushed from the birth of some crustacean, was filled with cigarette ends. A stocking on the floor. And the record player, on and on, with the bright clarity of her songs. Smoke and perfume and somewhere a heart pounding.

One winter she wore a great lynx coat and in it she moved, menacing and handsome as a Cossack, pacing about in the trap of her vitality. Quarrelsome dreams sometimes rushed through her speech, and accounts of wounds she had inflicted with broken glass. And at the White Rose Bar, a thousand cigarettes punctuated her appearances, which, not only in their brilliance but in the fact of their taking place at all, had about them the aspect of magic. Waiting and waiting: that was what the pursuit of her was. One felt like an old carriage horse standing at the entrance, ready for the cold midnight race through the park. She was always behind a closed door—the fate of those addicted to whatever. And then at last she must come forward, emerge in powders and Vaseline, hair twisted with a curling iron, gloves of satin or silk jersey, flowers—the expensive martyrdom of the “entertainer.”

At that time not so many of her records were in print and she was seldom heard on the radio because her voice did not accord with popular taste then. The appearances in night clubs were a necessity. It was a burden to be there night after night, although not a burden to sing, once she had started, in her own way. She knew she could do it, that she had mastered it all, but why not ask the question: Is this all there is? Her work took on, gradually, a destructive cast, as it so often does with the greatly gifted who are doomed to repeat endlessly their own heights of inspiration.

She was late for her mother’s funeral. At last she arrived, ferociously appropriate in a black turban. A number of jazz musicians were there. The late morning light fell mercilessly on their unsteady, night faces. In the daytime these people, all except Billie, had a furtive, suburban aspect, like family men who work the night shift. The marks of a fractured domesticity, signals of a real life that is itself almost a secret existence for the performer, were drifting about the little church, adding to the awkward unreality.

Her mother, Sadie Holiday, was short and sentimental, bewildered to be the bearer of such news to the world. She made efforts to sneak into Billie’s life, but there was no place and no need for her. She was set up from time to time in small restaurants which she ran without any talent and failed in quickly. She never achieved the aim of her life, the professional dream, which was to be “Billie’s dresser.” The two women bore no resemblance, neither of face nor of body. The daughter was profoundly intelligent and found the tragic use for it in the cunning of destruction. The mother seemed to face each day with the bald hopefulness of a baby and end each evening in a baffled little cry of disappointment. Sadie and Billie Holiday were a violation, a rift in the statistics of life. The great singer was one of those for whom the word changeling was invented. She shared the changeling’s spectacular destiny and was acquainted with malevolent forces.

She lived to be forty-four; or should it better be said she died at forty-four. Of “enormous complications.” Was it a long or a short life? The “highs” she sought with such concentration of course remained a mystery. “Ah, I fault Jimmy for all that,” someone said once in a taxi, naming her first husband, Jimmy Monroe, a fabulous Harlem club owner when she was young.

Once she came to see us in the Hotel Schuyler, accompanied by someone. We sat there in the neat squalor and there was nothing to do and nothing to say and she did not wish to eat. In the anxious gap, I felt the deepest melancholy in her black eyes, an abyss into which every question had fallen without an answer. She died in misery from the erosions and poisons of her fervent, felonious narcotism. The police were at the hospital bedside, vigilant lest she, in a coma, manage a last chemical inner migration.

Her whole life had taken place in the dark. The spotlight shone down on the black, hushed circle in a café; the moon slowly slid through the clouds. Night-working, smiling, in make-up, in long, silky dresses, singing over and over, again and again. The aim of it all is just to be drifting off to sleep when the first rays of the sun’s brightness threaten the theatrical eyelids.

This Issue

March 4, 1976