In the 1970s, journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl embarked on a deep dive into Billie Holiday’s history with an eye towards writing a more comprehensive and truthful biography than that which was available. Kuehl spend eight years interviewing the artist’s friends, relatives, peers, business associates, even an FBI narcotics agent and a prison corrections officer, accruing 200 hours of revealing tape. Timing was fortuitous in having direct access to people pivotal in Holiday’s life.
“I’d like to write something that is real,” we hear Kuehl tell one of her interviewees, “something that’s really Lady Day, so people don’t see her in any sentimental way…”
In 1978, Kuehl was found dead having fallen from a Washington, D.C. hotel window. Local police quickly declared a suicide. Her sister points out that the victim had been ready for bed, replete with a cosmetic face mask – not the guise in which a suicide seems likely. There was no note. It’s the family’s (conspiracy) theory the journalist might’ve gotten too close to uncovering sources of condoned persecution. There was also evidence that a close friendship with Count Basie was frowned upon. (Kuehl, who had been threatened, was very conscious of being a white writer in this context.)
Documentary filmmaker James Erskine has plumbed this compelling material to create a portrait which appears greatly unvarnished, focusing as much on Lady Day’s music as the horrific childhood, drug addiction, racism, and masochism on which most biopics dwell. His rule was that only eye witness testimony would be utilized. Interview excerpts are illuminating and candid. Holiday’s character is complex and credible. The film is dense with performance, some colorized (for a younger audience) some as background to interviews. We also occasionally hear Kuehl, whose story is here, though wisely takes a backseat.
Voice-over of a radio interview rides above film of the Baltimore neighborhood in which Holiday was raised. Childhood friends and cousins talk about her having been raped, then turning tricks starting at 13. We hear from a former pimp. It’s repeatedly conjectured that the artist allowed herself to be physically abused because her relationship parameters were established then.
Underage, Holiday worked at Club Hot-Cha, an after-hours spot to which limousines would arrive directly from The Cotton Club. A fellow dancer says the only vice Holiday had at the time was smokin’ reefer. “I always knew I could sing, cause I always did, but I never knew I could make money at it.” (BH) We track to her Apollo performance and discovery by music executive John Hammond.
At 22, Holiday joined The Count Basie Band. “Lester (tenor saxophonist Lester Young) made me Lady Day, my mother was The Duchess. With Count Basie, we were the royal family.” (BH) “He was her boy,” bandleader/ pianist/vocalist Jimmy Rowles says referring to Young. “When Prez played behind her, it was just like she was in her mother’s arms.” (Holiday nicknamed her friend Prez for president – the top.)
“They had the funniest way of loving each other,” he continues. “It was like brother and sister, but something else as well. (There’s no hint Young and Holiday were ever lovers) They were both like visitors to earth…She sang from her crotch…Now that I look back, I’m sorry I missed that.” As Holiday frequently greeted him wearing only her shoes, the younger man clearly had opportunity.
“She was one of the boys,” Basie recalls. “Like a man, but feminine… We played the worst, the lowest places down south. Management made Billie blacken her face. She was light, the band dark…” Another musician on the tour noted, “Billie always put an extra hamburger in her purse because she’d never know when someone would refuse to serve her… We stayed in Black hotels, but Billie often had to sleep in a car or bus…She couldn’t use public toilets.”
The artist’s signature song, “Strange Fruit,” was written by Jewish-American writer, teacher and songwriter Abel Meeropol long before the arrival of Martin Luther King, Jr. It compares lynching victims to the fruit of trees. Because of its power, the song would always end Holiday’s act – the stage dark, a spotlight on her face, then blackout.
Her record label, Columbia, refused to record it. Instead, in 1939, she was given a one-session contract release to record it for Commodore (with piano introduction by Sonny White). It eventually sold a million copies. The early civil rights movement called “Strange Fruit” a declaration of war. Time Magazine deemed it “The most unusual song ever to be sung in a nightclub.”
Barney Josephson who owned Cafe Society (the sole integrated club in the city) where the song debuted, says, “It was a shocking piece of material. She felt it very deeply…White people walked out. They said they came to be entertained.” We hear from guitarist Barney Kessel, pianists Charles Mingus and Bobby Tucker, vocalist Billy Eckstine, drummers Jo Jones and Roy Harte – who says she looked like a panther and recalls on-the-road humiliations. Bassist John Simmons declares her “a sex machine – women too.” The latter likely included Tallulah Bankhead.
“She really dug being high, but I never knew anyone with such capacity. All of a sudden whiskey was not enough. She’d use heroin and cocaine at the same time.” (Vocalist Sylvia Syms) Narcotics agent Jimmy Fletcher reveals that Holiday’s agent/lover Joe Glaser “wanted her busted. The only way to save her was to have her locked up. We tailed her night and day.” Others say Glaser’s motivation as mercenary. He was neither the first nor the last man to steal from her.
Federal Bureau of Narcotics commissioner Harry Anslinger, a known racist, proclaimed that drugs caused black people to overstep their place in society and that jazz singers created the devil’s music. When he forbid her to perform “Strange Fruit,” Holiday refused. Anslinger set up a sting during which the artist bought heroin from his agents resulting in a 1 ½ year prison sentence. “It was called ‘The United States of America Versus Billie Holiday’, and that’s just the way it felt.” (BH)
In Philadelphia, two ounces of heroin was found in Holiday’s Cadillac which police summarily shot full of bullet holes. “She had the car and a mink stole. So what? Wasn’t she entitled?!” a friend declares. The next day she was arrested. Headlines read Holiday Pleads Guilty, Gets a Year and a Day. We see period footage of the segregated prison in which the artist was incarcerated and hear from a corrections officer at the time. Holiday kept her head down, was an exemplary prisoner, and, as far as anyone knew, never sang a note.
She got out only to discover her professional cabaret license had been revoked. Concerts and a later European tour were her recourse. Bobby Tucker speaks about a Carnegie Hall concert that engendered lines around the block. “She didn’t really think she was a good singer, just a storyteller…Ella sings `My Man is Gone’ and you think he’s gone for a loaf of bread. When Billie sings it, you know that guy’s got his bags packed.”
John Levy, whom Tucker calls “a dirty, rotten, stinking bastard, a parasite…” became her manager/lover. “If she asked for $50, he’d knock her out. When she was hooked, though, she was hooked; a real masochist. Billie wanted love but also punishment.” Tucker suggests narcotics were another form of self flagellation. Levy and Holiday fought. At one point, she cracked open his head with a soda bottle.
Next came Louis McKay, a man her lawyer called “a pathological liar.” He regularly beat her up and eventually stole everything she had. Friends and peers say Holiday was often under lock and key and starved. She grew very thin. Ray Ellis was thrilled to be asked to produce one of her albums. The artist showed up “with a bottle of vodka; dissipated, under the shadow of death,” but completely professional in behavior. Clips we see after that find her slim but still vibrant.
Asked in an interview to name the song she’d call her story, Holiday cited “Don’t Explain” …I’m so completely yours/Don’t want to hear folks chatter/ Cause I know you cheat/Right n’ wrong don’t matter/When your with me my sweet…Don’t Explain…She finally filed for divorce, but died of heart failure at 44 before the papers could be signed. Asked earlier why so many jazz greats die early, Holiday said, “We try to live a hundred days in one day. I guess we all suffer.” She wanted to sing the way Louis Armstrong and Prez played – and did – with every bit of her battered heart and soul. We watch Billie Holiday’s last televised performance from London.
This is a terrific film, enlightening, visually excellent, musically a pleasure.
“Billie’s life is fascinating, but it’s the art that ultimately should stand there hanging on the wall.” James Erskine interviewed by Joshua Barajas
Rent on Amazon Prime
Photo Courtesy of the 92Y where the film previewed.