Street Diva

Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday; drawing by David Levine


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.


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.