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Book Excerpt: The final years of Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday during the sessions for 'Lady in Satin,' 1958.
Billie Holiday during the sessions for 'Lady in Satin,' 1958.

[Editor's note: This excerpt contains profanity that may not be appropriate for younger readers.]

Billie Holiday was booked to play in Alaska by her boyfriend Louis McKay in 1954, and she didn’t have proper clothing for the cold climate; she didn’t even have a coat. When she performed, Billie would get up and sing a song like “Willow Weep for Me” with very long pauses. Her teeth would be chattering backstage in her dressing room, and she was badly malnourished.

Billie was haunted by the memory of her mother Sadie. Her accompanist Memry Midgett remembered, “She seemed to worry a great deal about her treatment of her mother and she became depressed. . . . She felt that she had not done as much for her mother as she should have. . . . I never got the impression that she loved her mother, only that she felt guilty.”

Billie couldn’t relate to people unless she was manipulating them in some way, because she knew what people were. With Midgett, who was a young woman in her early twenties, Billie wanted proof that she cared, and then more proof, and then it would be, “Why do you care about me? Must make you as bad as me.” She told Midgett that she had been a female pimp herself at age thirteen, likely one of her fantasies of power.

Midgett encouraged Billie to get rid of both McKay and her manager Joe Glaser, and Billie would think about it, but she just couldn’t bring herself to improve her situation. One time Billie was all ready to part ways with Glaser, but then found that she couldn’t walk down the escalator stairs to go in to see him. She just stood there and told Midgett that she couldn’t, that she was too weak. But Midgett also saw that Billie knew her worth as an artist. Billie would wait for the audience to be totally quiet; she did not care about pleasing them, as Ella Fitzgerald did. She was there to express herself, and that audience could take it or leave it.

Pianist Jimmy Rowles was annoyed that Norman Granz wouldn’t allow more rehearsal time for Billie’s recording dates, and he also didn’t like that Ella would get sixteen instruments but Billie would record with just a combo, something that surely Billie herself took note of. But she had mellowed about Ella in conversation at this time, acknowledging what a fine singer she had become to her friend Alice Vrbsky, praising the way Ella used her “instrument” now. That girl who had asked for her autograph in 1935 had come a long way, and Billie knew it.

In an unaired radio interview from 1956, Billie says she is “crazy about Ella and Louis Armstrong, they’re my favorites.” Billie was very modest about her own achievements when interviewed by Mike Wallace, saying that she was expert “in my little way” but not as impressive as some performers she had known like Ethel Barrymore and her friend Tallulah Bankhead.

When Billie played in Vegas, she was not happy to perform for a segregated white audience. She was in very ill health now and often appeared dazed, and McKay made fun of her behind her back, according to her accompanist Corky Hale. When they were arrested on a drug charge in early 1956, Billie married McKay so that she wouldn’t be able to testify against him in court.

To make some money, Billie had been working on an autobiography with journalist William Dufty, and it was published as Lady Sings the Blues in 1956. She was godmother to Dufty’s son Bevan and loved being with him, and Billie sometimes talked about wanting children, but it was not in the cards. One time Billie asked Rosemary Clooney if she could be godmother to one of Clooney’s children and charmingly explained, “It takes a very bad woman to be a good godmother.”

There is a delightful and lengthy rehearsal tape of Billie from May of 1956 where she talks a lot of her trash, like a Richard Pryor character, and her hoarse laugh is very winning. When they rehearse “Everything Happens to Me,” an early Frank Sinatra song, Billie says that everybody does it “pretty,” which is an Ella word, but she wants to try it “funky.” Billie is in a very good mood on this tape, fun and vital and alive with ideas, musical and otherwise.

“Me and my old voice . . . it’s not legit!” she says merrily, and she cries at one point, “I’m gonna walk by your house and throw a stink bomb!” When Jimmy Rowles mentions “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and says that’s a good one, Billie isn’t having it: “I hate that song!” she insists, even though she had been singing it for twenty years. Billie is heard playing with her godchild Bevan, and she sings “Some of These Days” for him. And then she very unexpectedly sings another Sophie Tucker hit for her godson, “My Yiddishe Momme,” doing it full out and in a high register.

This rehearsal tape is a revelatory insight into Billie, and it goes against her tragic image. The woman on this tape has a ready laugh, and she knows how to have a good time and how to entertain herself and others. Listening to this recording is like spending an afternoon with a very upbeat and funny Billie, and it provides a needed balance for all the sad stories told about her.

The happy side revealed on this tape is all the more heroic given what Billie always had to put up with. There was talk about a movie of her memoirs, but in the press they started mentioning Ava Gardner or even Lana Turner playing her on screen, and Billie hit the roof when she heard this, going into a tirade over it with her friend Annie Ross. “Even if they get a white actress, the character she plays will still be colored,” said an exasperated Billie in July of 1957. “If they change that, there’s no story.”

At the end of 1957, Billie appeared on television with Lester Young to sing “Fine and Mellow,” and she takes in Young’s solo on a fathoms-deep level that radiates out of her radically open and unprotected face. She is the reigning monarch of cool here, the stoned Queen of Jazz, living on sheer sensation.

Billie left Granz’s Verve to sign with Columbia, where she had made her greatest recordings in the 1930s. She was listening to the albums that Frank was putting out, and they were inspiring both her and her soulmate Lester Young creatively. Frank himself praised Billie in the highest terms to Ebony magazine in 1958: “With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the US during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius,” he said. “It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years.”

Billie’s voice had declined into a wobbly rasp at this point, and so she had a musical idea. Why not record with a more-than-slightly corny orchestral backing as a contrast to this rough voice? Billie had heard what she wanted on an album called Ellis in Wonderland, and so she contacted arranger Ray Ellis to work with her on an album that would be named Lady in Satin.

Columbia record executive Irving Townsend was surprised by her request. “It would be like Ella Fitzgerald saying she wanted to record with Ray Conniff,” he said. Conniff was an arranger who was working with Johnny Mathis, and Ellis was also working with Mathis and with Sarah Vaughan, singers who made elaborately pretty sounds.

Ellis was excited to work with Billie, but when he met her he was taken aback by how run-down she looked. Billie was getting reactions now like Ella got in 1935 when she had been out on the streets for a bit. Though Billie always had a place to stay, hard living had taken its toll. She wore her hair in a ponytail now, and she was painfully thin. Lady in Satin became an improbable triumph for Billie partly because she picked some new songs for it, busting out of her “my man willow weep for me” rut, and she chose her tunes because of their lyrics, not their melodies. Her rendition of “I’m a Fool to Want You” rivals Frank’s because he was singing about one specific person while Billie is singing more about an abstract concept, and she uses the ruins of her voice expressively here, with low rasps that sound like a death rattle, an actual dying fall, all tone gone. Ellis’s Disney cartoon flourishes behind her make for such a total contrast that they somehow protect her and give Billie that lush feeling that she had always craved.

Billie knew that her voice was a wreck, and Townsend said she drank heavily to combat this knowledge during the sessions for Lady in Satin, but the drinking only made it worse, and she was imbibing straight gin, which made it particularly deadly. Billie recorded these songs even later at night than Frank liked to, at midnight and later. Ellis said that she often didn’t know the songs. Billie had been used to doing variations on her somewhat small repertoire for years, and so exploring new tunes was difficult for her, but it wound up being rewarding.

You've Changed

Her version of “You’ve Changed” is a heartbreaker, and she wept while she sang it, whereas Frank sometimes broke down and cried after he was done with a torch song. Ellis had taken Billie to the Colony record store to look for one more song for the album, and this is when she had picked “You’ve Changed.” The process was difficult. She was cursing out everybody in the joint, Ellis said, and cursing her dead mother Sadie, who hadn’t been there for her and then was there too much and in the wrong way and now was gone for good yet ever-present—the great unresolved love-hate of Billie’s life.

A tour of Europe was a disaster. She got booed off the stage in Milan, and she was finally reduced to taking part of the door fee at a small club in Paris called the Mars. In early 1959, Billie was harassed over an obscure law that required convicted drug addicts to notify customs when they left the country. Frightened that she might be sent to jail again, Billie submitted to a grilling by three district attorneys in Brooklyn and came through it by acting meek with them.

Billie sang “Strange Fruit” on TV in England, taking on the full pain of it as she had so many times before, carrying the crushing weight of it even though she was obviously ill. She recorded a second album with Ellis that was botched when the producers adjusted the speed a quarter-pitch faster on some tracks, which makes her sound like a child star imitating a wrecked Billie Holiday.

On this album she references Frank by name and does two of his tunes, “All the Way” and “I’ll Never Smile Again,” but she really seems to enjoy an old Bing Crosby hit, “Just One More Chance.” Billie has some good ideas here, and it’s not her fault that the album doesn’t work. One of the last lines on the last song on this misbegotten record is “Mama needs Daddy.”

Lester Young died in March of 1959, and Billie was wounded when his family wouldn’t let her sing at his funeral. She said to Leonard Feather that she would be next, and she likened herself to a ghost. Billie was very lonely now. “There were so many people flocking around her when she was at her height,” said Annie Ross. “But when she became ill they didn’t flock around no more.” When Billie needed to rent an apartment, she did so as Eleanora Fagan because Billie Holiday was too notorious.

Ross would come around, her friend and assistant Alice Vrbsky was loyal, and her ghostwriter William Dufty tried to help her. Her legs and stomach were swollen, and she barely ever ate. She had cirrhosis of the liver, and this affected other parts of her body. Finally Billie had to be taken to the hospital, and she wound up at the Metropolitan Hospital in Harlem. Her lawyer Earle Zaidins brought the second Ellis album to play for her, and they joked that she could do a live album from the hospital and call it Lady at the Met.

Billie still liked to laugh. She phoned Zaidins in the middle of the night to tell him that a dripping tap was driving her crazy. “I wouldn’t mind, but it don’t swing,” she joked. Billie even signed a contract to appear in a movie called The Flaming Nude, in which she was to sing a song called “Tired and Disgusted.”

On June 12 she was arrested in her hospital bed after a nurse said she found drugs in Billie’s room, or evidence of drug use. They took away her radio, her record player, the flowers people had sent her, and her telephone, and guards were posted at her door, as if this dying woman were a threat to the public.

It was at this point that Frank made a visit to his friend and mentor. He and his valet George Jacobs saw a line of picketers outside the hospital with signs reading, Let Lady Live, and when he got inside to see her, Frank praised Lady in Satin and tried to talk to Billie about all the things she could still do. Frank spoke of how she had taught him how to phrase lyrics, and Billie modestly said, “I may have showed you how to bend a note, Frankie, that’s all.” But surely Billie was proud of the effect that she had had on Frank’s singing.

Billie then leaned in and whispered to Frank, “Will you cut the shit, baby, and get me some dope?” Frank hated drugs and hated anything to do with them, but he adored and respected Billie, and so he tried his best for her. Frank offered money to the doctors at the hospital to get Billie what she needed, but they were afraid of Mayor Robert Wagner, who was on a campaign against drugs and was capable of cutting off their funding if they were caught helping Billie. Frank tried to contact Wagner himself, but he couldn’t get through. Finally Frank resorted to buying the heroin for Billie himself through a New York drug dealer, but he couldn’t get it past the cops. Frank could have gotten into serious trouble himself, but he loved Billie that much.

Dufty and a press agent named Dorothy Ross made frantic calls to everyone they could think of to help her legally. When they got to Frank, he told them that Wagner hated him. They contacted Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Sidney Poitier, and none of them responded. They also contacted Ella, and she also did not respond. Ella had been harassed herself by the police for no reason at all. She never took drugs and barely drank, and the police had done their best to humiliate her. And so she did not want to get involved in this situation with Billie.

It’s worth wondering if Ella ever heard the negative things that Billie would say about her singing in the 1930s and ’40s. Those kinds of things often have a way of getting back to the person being talked about. If Ella heard these things, did she also know that Billie had changed her mind, as she so often did, and that she was praising Ella’s singing now? Praise doesn’t travel as fast as negativity.

Ella idolized Billie, but she had seen her idol decline and make a fool of herself in public when they shared the same bill. Ella knew that people were constantly comparing her to Billie, as if listeners had to choose between them, and she was healthily competitive; she was now at the top of her field, whereas Billie was fading away. Ella was not as complicated a person as Billie was, but her feelings about Billie must have been mixed, troubled, and difficult for her to sort out. When she got that call from Dufty, it likely pained Ella greatly to decide to stay out of it.

McKay visited Billie and wanted to try to get the film rights to her memoir. He read the twenty-third psalm to her, and after he left Billie commented to Dufty, “I’ve always been a religious bitch, but if that evil motherfucker believes in God, I’m thinking it over.” They were giving her methadone, and her health started to improve, but then she declined again when the methadone was stopped after ten days because the doctors couldn’t legally continue to give it to her.

Just One More Chance

Billie got her record player back and kept listening to herself singing that old Bing song “Just One More Chance.” Eventually she started to slip in and out of consciousness, and Dufty saw that her will to live was very strong but her body was giving up on her. On July 17 of 1959, Billie died. She was forty-four years old. After her funeral, Billie was buried in the Bronx, and it was reported that McKay had Sadie’s grave opened so that Billie could be buried on top of her, but the cemetery later said that Sadie’s remains were moved to Billie’s grave in 1961.

This excerpt from Bing and Billie and Frank and Ella and Judy and Barbra appears courtesy of the author, Dan Callahan, and the publisher, Chicago Review Press.

Dan Callahan is the author of Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman, Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave, The Art of American Screen Acting, and The Camera Lies: Acting for Hitchcock, as well as the novel That Was Something. Callahan studied acting at the Stella Adler Conservatory at NYU and has been the arts editor of Show Business Weekly, book review editor at Culturedose.com, and associate editor at Siman Media Works. He has written film and theater reviews for Time Out New York, Film Comment, Sight & Sound, Nylon, the Village Voice, New York Magazine, and many other publications. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.