Billie Holiday is known today as a jazz legend, and cultural icon. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, she had a string of successful singles on the Billboard music charts, including “God Bless The Child” and “Strange Fruit.” She was booking solos and leading jazz ensembles, and worked with greats – the likes of Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Frank Sinatra. What set Holiday apart from other jazz singers was her unique vocal style. Her delivery of song standards was slower, thicker.
Her songs narrated a life that was shaped by sadness, and abuse – some of it self-inflicted by drug addiction and some of it inflicted by an addiction to toxic love. The resulting bluesy style that characterized her music was so impressive that it was copied across the industry. But Billie lived a painfully beautiful existence.
She burned so bright that she burned out early. She was gone at 44.
Lady Day’s life was a cautionary tale, but Lady Day was also #thatbitch. Stuart Nicholson’s 1997 book, “Billie Holiday,” quotes a nightclub owner who described her like this:
[She] … did what she liked. If a man she liked came up, she’d go with him; if a woman, the same thing. If she was handed a drink, she’d drink it. If you had a stick of pot, she’d take a cab ride on her break and smoke it. If you had something stronger, she’d use that. …. She didn’t apologize for it and she didn’t feel ashamed….She was sensitive, she was proud…. She had a real zest for life. As a performer, she could make you fall in love, she could break your heart.… There was no other person on the face of this earth who was like her. Billie Holiday was a single edition.
A single edition.
My favorite Billie Holiday anecdote is about the fall out from her affair with Tallulah Brockman Bankhead, an actress from a politically well connected family in Huntsville, Alabama. Her father served as the Speaker of the House in the U.S. Congress until his death in 1940. The Bankhead name carried weight, but Tallulah would establish her own identity in Hollywood and on Broadway. She became known for her wit, outspokenness, and several high profile dalliances with Old Hollywood’s finest actors, including Hattie McDaniel, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich.
When Holiday’s and Bankhead’s paths crossed, their affair was reportedly intense and spanned a few years in the 1940s. Bankhead is described as being “obsessed” with Lady Day. She even sent a personal letter to J. Edgar Hoover, then head of the FBI, to get Holiday out of trouble for drug possession.
But Bankhead left Billie out of her autobiography. And, when Lady Day sent Bankhead a copy of the manuscript for “Lady Sings the Blues,” Bankhead threatened legal action if she wasn’t kept out of the memoir.
Imagine someone not wanting anyone to know you had a relationship with them when you’re Billie Holiday, a legend. And they’re Tallulah Bankhead, an Old Hollywood actress.
Billie replied with the following:
Dear Miss Bankhead:
I thought I was a friend of yours. That’s why there’s nothing in my book that was unfriendly to you, unkind or libelous. Because I didn’t want to drag you, I tried six times last month to talk to you on the damn phone, and tell you about the book just as a matter of courtesy. That bitch you have who impersonates you kept telling me to call back and when I did, it was the same deal until I gave up. But 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!
I don’t know whether you’ve got one of those damn lawyers telling you what to do or not. But I’m writing this to give you a chance to answer back quick and apologize to me and to Doubleday. Read my book over again….There’s nothing in it to hurt you. If you think so, let’s talk about it like I wanted to last month. It’s going to press right now so there is no time for monkeying around. Straighten up and fly right, Banky. Nobody’s trying to drag you.
I love this response. I think it gets right to the heart of the blues and of Billie. She wouldn’t’ be played by Bankhead. Wouldn’t be bullied. Wouldn’t be bested by her. In song and in life, Lady Day got the last word. And although fans and loved ones were upended by the loss of such a charismatic presence, who’s to say how much more time Billie needed? In 44 years, she built a mythical life, stories about which have captivated audiences for decades. Billie was a mess, and she was magnificent. A single edition indeed. One for the ages.