[Dixielandjazz] FW: "With Billie" reviewed

Bill Haesler bhaesler at bigpond.net.au
Sat Jun 25 17:45:09 PDT 2005

Dear Fred,
This review, via the Australian Dance Bands list, will be of interest.
Particularly because of our current correspondence on the subject.
The review is very long and a bit confrontational, but worth the read.
I wonder why the reviewer chose to lift so much from the book for what is
almost an essay.
I was going to post it to the DJML but, on reflection, decided not to.
The subject matter, as outlined in the review, dwells too much on Billie's
sordid private life and would certainly upset some of the more 'sensitive',
right wing, conservatives on the list. I would be probably be reprimanded
for peddling 'filth', and shot, for being the messenger.   8>)
Kind regards,

------ Forwarded Message

Street Diva
"With Billie" by Julia Blackburn. Pantheon, 354 pp., $25.
by Arthur Kempton
New York Review of Books, July 14, 2005

  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
  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
  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
  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
  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
  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.
  By then, Holiday was twenty-eight and the toast of New York, where she was
celebrated as the "Queen of 52nd Street." She'd moved on to a dope-fiend
bass player named John Simmons, and had begun to recoil at the approaches of
strangers who presumed to think that because they knew something of her they
knew who she was. "She got to the point," Simmons said, "where she thought
everyone was trying to use her and so she said 'Fuck the world!'" She'd
decided by then, Blackburn says, "that nothing really changed, no matter how
successful she became."
  In 1947, at the height of her career, Billie was "a sometimes addict"
being hounded cross-country by federal narcotics police. She was making
about $50,000 a year, and keeping next to none of it. At the time, she was
living with another "hop head," the trumpeter Joe Guy. She and Guy eluded an
attempt to arrest them in Philadelphia, but a couple of weeks later, in New
York, a small amount of his heroin was found by law enforcers outside the
window of their room at the Grampion Hotel.
  Holiday wasn't present and wasn't charged, but was held anyway, as a
material witness. Under questioning, she took responsibility for the drugs
that had been found in their hastily vacated Philadelphia hotel room, thus
sparing Guy. Disdaining a lawyer -- on advice of the same manager who'd sold
her out to the Bureau of Narcotics -- she was in a courtroom within hours to
enter a guilty plea, asking only that the judge send her to a hospital for
  In fact, Holiday was never the hope-to-die heroin addict she was made out
to be. Cannabis and alcohol were truly her drugs of choice. "Billie's
heroinaddiction was never particularly dramatic," Blackburn suggests. "Few
people ever saw her injecting and it seems that whenever she stopped using
heroin, ... she always managed to avoid the usual traumas of withdrawal...."
Nevertheless, she was sentenced to a year and a day in a federal reformatory
for women. Joe Guy was tried and acquitted. Her career was never the same,
or her state of mind. "A lot of people go to jail," Bobby Tucker told Linda
Kuehl, "but Billie took it personally."

When she came out of prison in 1948, she felt herself the target of
any crimebuster who needed to look busy in public. Once she became a
federal parolee, the local authorities revoked her license to work
any place in New York City where alcohol was sold. In the center of
her commercial universe, she was only allowed to sing in theaters
and concert halls and so was forced into full-time itinerancy to
make a steady income.

  That year, she hooked up with John Levy, an "Italian-looking," yellow
Lincoln Continental-driving, opium-addicted, self-described "half-Negro,
half Jew" from Chicago. One of her piano players characterized Levy as a
"sadistic pimp," then added, "and Billie admired pimps." Levy became her
"manager," and kept her humping, kept her high, and kept her broke, since he
was handling all her business and he was the one her employers paid. "If she
asked him for fifty dollars," another of her piano players recalled, "he'd
say, 'Don't ask for money in public,' and he'd knock her down literally,
with his fist in her face, in the stomach, anywhere."
  Four days into 1949, federal agents broke in on the couple in their San
Francisco hotel room, catching Billie in the act of trying to flush away the
opium and pipe John Levy had put in her hands. Clad in white silk pajamas,
Levy, an inveterate police informer, bargained, while she "sat there...sober
and clear-headed...very quiet and passive." He avoided prosecution and fled
California, leaving Holiday in San Francisco to finish her engagement there,
and face her trouble alone.
  "We could have indicted Levy if we had wanted to," the district attorney
there reportedly told her lawyer, "but Billie Holiday is the name and we
want to get some publicity." She appeared for trial, two months later, with
an eye blackened by Levy, and "no trace of drugs...in her system." Holiday's
lawyer contended that Levy had conspired with a federal agent in her arrest,
and produced a photograph of the two men chatting amiably at a table in the
local night spot where she was working at the time of the raid. "[Levy]
was turning Billie over," he suggested. "[He] wanted to get rid of her. He
had cleaned her out of money...."
  In court, she "act[ed] dumb," Blackburn reports, and "simply said that
John Levy was her man and she loved him so." She beat the case.
A month and a half later, when she was back in town, working at the same
place, she was arrested again on the charge for which she'd already been
acquitted. "The police and other government agents were always at her
shows," Blackburn says, "...heckling, threatening, raiding her dressing
room, making embarrassing enquiries at her hotel and spreading rumours at
the clubs where she was booked to sing."
  "I came out [of jail] expecting to be allowed to go to work and to start
with a clean slate," Holiday told Ebony magazine. "But the police have been
particularly vindictive, hounding... and harassing me.... They have allowed
me no peace...." According to Bobby Tucker, "Billie's sense of insecurity
was worse than ever. She was amazed that people hadn't forgotten her, but
she was afraid they had only come to see what a woman prisoner looked like."
  No matter her states of mind or being, Billie stayed out on the road,
grinding away. John Levy once told Carl Drinkard, Holiday's piano player du
jour, "You gotta keep your foot up them bitches... otherwise they get lazy
on you...." 
  "Throughout the 1950s," Blackburn writes, "Billie was... on the move more
or less all the time. Three weeks in San Francisco, one week in Los Angeles,
back to New York for a single performance...." She was home for only four
months of 1950 and 1951. John Levy had bought with her money a house among
those of the other stars of jazz who'd settled in St. Albans, Queens, and
held it in his name. He wasn't there much when she was, since he was busy
gambling, tending his night club, juggling "property deals and at least two
other women...." They were no longer together when Levy died of a brain
hemorrhage late in 1956. Upon hearing of his death, Billie declared it "the
best Christmas present I ever got." By then, she'd moved on to her terminal
husband, Louis McKay. He was "the real true man she always dreamed of," Carl
Drinkard believed. "He could knock her unconscious with a single blow...."
  "For Billie," the "other" John Levy -- this one a bassist -- concluded,
"her manager must be her man or her husband." Louis McKay became her man and
manager in 1951. They were married six years later. Some said McKay was a
bit better than preceding others, but he was nothing like the helpmeet Billy
Dee Williams portrayed in the movie version of Billie's "autobiography,"
"Lady Sings the Blues."
  Blackburn reproduces "a slightly shortened version" of the transcription
of a telephone conversation that was secretly recorded early in 1958. The
participants were Louis McKay and Maely Dufty, the wife of Billie's
ghostwriter Bill, and herself a manager of jazz musicians. McKay was just
back in town, and looking for his wife. Apparently, she'd misspent some
money he gave her. He was ranting, and his interlocutor was goading him on
under the guise of calming him down. "You know I got the wire," he fumed, at
one point in their exchange. "I know what this woman done.... Fuck the seven
hundred dollars.... I want some of her ass this morning for playing me
cheap. If I got a whore, I get some money from her or I don't have nothing
to do with the bitch...."
  Basing her account on Holiday's accompanist, Blackburn has Billie
wondering ruefully why she'd known "so many men... who were good and
kind and gentle... but instead... had been drawn irresistibly to the
hustlers and the pimps; she had chosen to be cheated and beaten and
humiliated, and shared with other women and discarded when she was no longer
  To Carl Drinkard the reason seemed clear enough. "She'd grown up in that
pimp-whore environment," he said, "[and] felt and believed that if a woman
was making money, the man should have it...." If she hadn't been able to
sing, Holiday would likely have been whoring, or thieving, or jailing for
most of a short life, like thousands of other hard-knocked and tenderhearted
females who came from the same places she did, and never got out. However
far she got beyond the low places she was bred to, Billie could never view
life from any other outlook than the one she'd acquired when higher ground
seemed unreachable.
  But for all the hard men she submitted herself to, the softer men with
whom she engaged in a "little light housekeeping," and numberless others she
merely laid down with, her truest love was never her lover. The most
important of Holiday's relationships was the one she had with Lester Young,
a player of the tenor saxophone who was among the twentieth century's great
masters. They met in New York in 1936, where he lodged for a time with
Holiday and her mother. They worked and recorded together regularly during
the late Thirties. 
  Young was an eccentric: idiosyncratic and bohemian, down to his dress and
bearing. A colleague, the pianist Bobby Scott, described his walk as having
"something Asiatic about it, a reticence to barge in. It was in keeping with
the side-door quality of his nature." But, as with the tale-telling about
Holiday's addictions, legends about Young's peculiarities have ripened into
myth, and masked such of his authentic characteristics as discipline, wit,
intelligence, and perceptiveness. Fiercely private, inclined to melancholy,
his sensibilities, like Billie's, were easily abraded by contact with the
  There was no one of whom she ever spoke more highly, or fondly, or
to whom she was more loyal, or liked as much. Blackburn
characterizes them as being "like a brother and sister who shared
many character traits." Claire Lievenson, a neighborhood
pharmacist's wife who befriended Billie in the mid-Thirties,
remembered that "when they saw each other they wouldn't kiss, but
their faces would just light up." Holiday used to call Lester
Young "the greatest motherfucker she ever met." Blackburn quotes
Jimmy Rowles, a pianist who'd played with both Young and Holiday
over the years, describing what it had been like between them
whenever "they'd bump into each other."
  "Lester would say, 'How are you, Miss Lady Day? Lady Day?' Puffing out his
pale cheeks and bobbing up and down in a long dark coat, a milk glass full
of old Schenley bond proof whiskey clasped in his hand, and the flat black
porkpie hat fixed to his head as if it grew there.
  "And Billie would say, 'Hey, Buppa Baby, you motherfucker!' and
they'd be smiling and weaving and touching...."
  On records, the interplay between her voice and his horn can seem
like a private conversation between two halves of a Platonic whole.
"Sometimes I would sit down and listen to myself and it would sound like two
of the same voices," Young once said of those recordings. "[He] used to know
all the words to all the verses of a song," Blackburn asserts, "thinking
with them as he played."
  Holiday told Bill Dufty, who wrote her autobiography, "Lester sings with
his horn. You listen to him, and you can almost hear the words." She said
that when she sang, nobody but Young could "fill up the windows" behind her
voice. Their collaboration was a form of intimate congress. In art and life,
they moved through each other's interior spaces with the ease and grace of

  "With Billie" ends with an evocation of Holiday's three-and-a-half-minute
performance of a signature song, "Fine and Mellow," on a television program
called "The Sound of Jazz," accompanied by an all star cast comprised mostly
of old friends. Blackburn relies on the accounts of writer Nat Hentoff and a
couple of the participants, in setting the scene at rehearsal on the day
before the broadcast in early December of 1957. "Even Lester Young had made
it," Blackburn writes, "although he was sitting by himself on a bench and
wearing carpet slippers because his feet hurt... looking much older than his
forty-eight years." The trumpeter Doc Cheatham noticed that Young "just kept
to himself, sat apart. He was very quiet and sad that day." By then, he was
sick, doing bad, willing himself out of life. He hadn't used alcohol before
he knew Billie; now, a bit more than twenty years later, he was almost
finished drinking himself to death.
  During the show, when Young's turn to solo came, the camera moved to his
face, and, as Blackburn says, "Lester looks as though he has been crying for
weeks, his eyes are so swollen and puffy." Once, years before, "Stump" Cross
had been struck by "the look in his eyes when he played for her.... He'd
play his whole soul." That night, Young's brief solo was slow and spare, the
silences between notes seeming to throb with ache. As he was playing, the
camera mostly gazed at Billie gazing at him.
  All the meanings her face bespoke can never be known, but it can be said
that she bore him a look of unspeakable tenderness. "Sitting in the control
room I felt tears," Nat Hentoff wrote, "and saw tears in the eyes of most of
the others there." Later, when asked about Young by a magazine writer,
Billie pledged her allegiance: "Lester's always been the President to me.
He's my boy." 
  Both Lester Young and Billie Holiday died in 1959, within four months of
each other. He went first, right on the edge of winter and spring. Back in
New York from a last-gasp engagement in Paris, he sat in an armchair by the
window of his room at the Alvin Hotel "for half a day and half the night and
drank a bottle of vodka and most of a bottle of bourbon. Then he went to bed
and died at around 3 a.m...." Billie wanted to sing at his funeral, but his
wife "stopped her, saying that she might make a fuss and cause trouble."
  She'd become as famous for her troubles as her singing. "I have no
understudy," she reportedly said, wearied and resigned near the end of her
life. "Every time I do a show I'm up against everything that's ever been
written about me." By then, she'd been three years saddled with what she'd
ostensibly written about herself in an "autobiography" that both she and her
ghostwriter would later characterize as largely fiction. Laced
withtitillating revelations, "Lady Sings the Blues" quickly became a best
seller, and has never since been out of print.[*]
  Billie died at forty-four, from the effects of liver cirrhosis. While she
was in the hospital for the last time, a nurse who may have been an
undercover policewoman reported the discovery of a "suspicious white
powder." Holiday was arrested and denied bail. A police detail was posted
day and night to guard at the door of her room. Her deathbed arraignment
marked the fourth time since she'd gotten out of prison in 1948 that Billie
had been detained on vaporous drug charges. Plans were made to transfer her
to a prison ward as soon as she was well enough to move, and a court date
was set for which she was never able to appear.
  Cardinal Spellman denied a request to hold her funeral mass at St.
Patrick's Cathedral. No matter how high she rose, from the viewpoint of
official America, Billie Holiday would always be regarded as a
lawbreaker and never a citizen. She left behind most of what there is to
know of her authentic self in the grooves impressed into the shellac and
vinyl on which her voice was preserved. Her recordings disclose the innate
refinement of the street urchin who became an artist famously expressive of
tender feeling, and a woman whose "first and last word was always 'bitch.'"

[*] For as long as he lived, William Dufty railed against Doubleday, its
publisher, for offenses done to his book. Written in a month, based on
newspaper articles and a few days of conversation he had with Holiday, "Lady
Sings the Blues," though nominally an "as told to" autobiography, was very
much Dufty's creation. She didn't see a copy, didn't know what was in it,
until weeks after "her" book was in stores.
  Dufty set out to write a confessional, and suggested the dope-fiend angle
as a commercial "gimmick." But he later complained that Doubleday's
prissiness about language deprived him of Billie's authentic voice. Then,
after she got arrested again within days of the original publication date,
"instead of cashing in," as Dufty put it, the publisher "panicked and, on
the advice of lawyers, hacked the book to pieces, taking out anything which
they felt might cause trouble." According to Blackburn, the book's editor,
Lee Barker, agreed with Dufty, saying that as a result of these cuts "almost
everyone of note disappeared [from it] without a trace."

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