BILLIE HOLIDAY, was born Eleanora Fagan on this date and later was called Lady Day; Holiday was an American singer known equally for her difficult life and her emotive, poignant singing voice. Holiday has long been considered one of the greatest jazz voices of all time.
She grew up in the poor section of Baltimore, Maryland, near the projects. According to her autobiography, her house was the first on their street to have electricity. Her parents married when she was three, but they soon divorced, leaving her to be raised largely by her mother and other relatives. At the age of 11, she reported that she had been raped. That claim, combined with her frequent truancy, resulted in her being sent to The House of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic reform school, in 1925. It was only through the assistance of a family friend that she was released two years later. Scarred by these experiences, Holiday moved to New York City with her mother in 1928. In 1929 Holiday’s mother discovered a neighbor, Wilbert Rich, in the act of raping her daughter; Rich was sentenced to three months in jail.
According to Billie Holiday’s own accounts, she was recruited by a brothel, worked as a prostitute, and was eventually imprisoned for a short time. It was in Harlem in the early 1930s that she started singing for tips in various night clubs. According to legend, penniless and facing eviction, she sang “Body and Soul” in a local club and reduced the audience to tears. She later worked at various clubs for tips, ultimately landing at Pod’s and Jerry’s, a well known Harlem jazz club. Her early work history is hard to verify, though accounts say she was working at a club named Monnette’s in 1933 when she was discovered by talent scout John Hammond.
Holiday was openly bisexual. But like the sexual lives of most women, the details are lost to history. Lyrically she rarely flirted with homoerotic material as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith raucously did, and her only references to lesbianism in her autobiography are derogatory. However, like Rainey and Smith, she had a number of relationships with women. The most famous of these was probably an affair with actress Tallulah Bankhead, which inspired a marvelously catty letter after the breakup. Bankhead was apparently unhappy with her appearance in Holiday’s memoir. Holiday responded: “”While I was working out of town, you didn’t mind talking to Doubleday and suggesting behind my damned back that I had flipped and/or made up those little mentions of you in my book. Baby, Cliff Allen and Billy Heywood are still around. My maid who was with me at the Strand isn’t dead either. There are plenty of others around who remember how you carried on so you almost got me fired out of the place. And if you want to get shitty, we can make it a big shitty party. We can all get funky together!“
Her personal life was as turbulent as the songs she sang. Holiday stated that she began using hard drugs in the early 1940s. She married trombonist Jimmy Monroe on August 25, 1941. While still married to Monroe, she took up with trumpeter Joe Guy, her drug dealer, as his common law wife. She finally divorced Monroe in 1947, and also split with Guy. In 1947 she was jailed on drug charges and served eight months at the Alderson Federal Correctional Institution for Women in West Virginia. Her New York City Cabaret Card, which was required to perform in NYC limits, was subsequently revoked, which kept her from working in clubs there for the remaining twelve years of her life, except when she played at the Ebony Club in 1948, where she opened under the permission of John Levy.
By the 1950s, Holiday’s drug abuse, drinking, and relations with abusive men led to deteriorating health. Her voice coarsened and did not project the vibrancy it once did. However, she seemed to stand as a prime example of the struggling artist, and projected a certain bittersweet dignity.
On March 28, 1952, Holiday married Louis McKay, a Mafia “enforcer.” McKay, like most of the men in her life, was abusive, but did try to get her off drugs. They were separated at the time of her death. Holiday also had a relationship with Orson Welles.
Her impact on other artists was undeniable; even after her death she continues to influence singers. In 1972, Diana Ross portrayed her in a film that was loosely based on Lady Sings the Blues, the autobiography she co-authored with William Dufty. Although the Hollywood treatment strayed far from the true story, it was a commercial success and earned Ms. Ross a Best Actress nomination. In 1987, Billie Holiday was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, in 1994, the United States Postal Service introduced a Billie Holiday postage stamp, and she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. Although her unique style has never been successfully duplicated, Billie Holiday inspired many singers and continues to be regarded as one of the jazz idiom’s most important vocalists.
Billie Holiday is interred in Saint Raymond’s Cemetery in Bronx, New York.