Billie Holiday deserves better
Men continually failed Billie Holiday when she was alive. They’re still doing it.
Before the tragedies of Britney Spears or Whitney Houston, there was Billie Holiday.
There’s a cruel blueprint to the way American society treats many of its most beloved female stars: It consumes them, uses them up, demands they reflect grand, sexist delusions of goodness and propriety. When they inevitably fail to satisfy this appetite, they are blamed, shamed and mocked for their troubles.
The 20th-century emblem of this dark side to female celebrity can be found in Holiday, the subject of a new biopic written by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by Lee Daniels. The United States vs. Billie Holiday, currently streaming on Hulu, stars Andra Day as the gardenia-adorned singer and songwriter.
The film itself is a scattershot mess of trauma-sploitation, revealing the greatest weak spots in the biopic genre: the compulsion to tick through the chronology of a person’s Wikipedia entry without much regard for the larger intricacies of their personality and personhood. The biggest flaw of The United States vs. Billie Holiday, besides its commitment to substituting shocking violence for character development, is that it cannot decide how its leading lady sees herself. Instead, it relies on the perspective of Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), the Black FBI agent who tailed her for many years, a made-up journalist named Reginald Lord Devine (Leslie Jordan) and the many men who abuse Holiday over the course of her 44 years.
The film’s source material is Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, in which Hari details Harry J. Anslinger’s obsessive quest to shut Holiday up, particularly when she began singing the anti-lynching protest song, “Strange Fruit.” Anslinger was the head of the Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. His campaign to either catch or frame Holiday with drugs was part of a greater crusade against jazz and Black advancement in American society. Or, as Hari told the NPR podcast Throughline, “He was so racist that he was regarded as a crazy racist in the 1920s.”
The United States vs. Billie Holiday isn’t the first to struggle with these issues. For decades, both documentary and narrative works have foundered when it comes to illustrating how the events of Holiday’s life shaped her. Instead, they tend to compartmentalize them.
Diana Ross’ Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues (1972) is characterized by a beautiful, helpless pity, not unlike Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The tininess of Ross’ frame, and the delicate, bell-like quality of her voice reinforce the idea of a woman who is thrown about by men and forces bigger and stronger than her, and diminishes the singer’s agency.
In Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, Audra McDonald plays Holiday giving a performance at a cabaret in Philadelphia about four months before her death. McDonald’s Holiday gets progressively more intoxicated through the performance, even taking a break to shoot up, then coming back to the stage with her track marks in full view because she’s failed to pull up the sleeves on her fingerless opera gloves. McDonald delivers a number of startlingly realistic stumbles, but what endures about her interpretation is how much care McDonald takes to incorporate Holiday’s 10-year-old self in the body of a grown 44-year-old woman. It’s a compassionate exploration, yet dark and unsettling all the same.
The 2019 Throughline podcast explains how the federal government’s drug war actually began with Holiday because of Anslinger’s racist antipathy for jazz and its growing popularity. A 2001 BBC documentary called Billie Holiday: Sensational Lady, which was part of a larger series called Reputations, features interviews with many of her surviving male bandmates, but seems to come to the conclusion that Holiday was a talented singer who ruined her life with drugs and didn’t want to be seen as a victim. The 2020 documentary Billie, written and directed by James Erskine, pulls together reporting done by Linda Lipnack Kuehl, who spent eight years amassing research and interviews — including 200 hours of audiotape — for a never-finished biography of Holiday. Kuehl died by suicide in 1978, though her sister appears in the documentary and asserts that she believes her sister was murdered.
The question that none of these works fully answers is, given how much she was carrying, how did Holiday survive as long as she did? Attempting to answer that question is just as significant to understanding her life and art as Holiday’s many traumas and the ways she confronted or avoided them.
A bitter commonality materializes in many of these works, one that vibrates along a similar wavelength to retrospectives of the lives of Spears and Houston. All three women came of age publicly in a society that is deeply racist and misogynistic. Those realities shaped the contours of their fame and the respite, illicit or otherwise, that they sought from it. But it’s not until years, sometimes decades after the heart of their misery, that they’re afforded some grace from the judgment and violence that contributed to their public breakdowns. Thanks to the documentaries Whitney (2018) and The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears and the public discussions that followed, there’s now some acknowledgment of the way such scrutiny and premature sexualization can unravel a person.
But what of Holiday, who died from heart failure in 1959?
Holiday was continually failed by the men in her life. By the father she never knew. By the man who raped her as a child. By her husband Jimmy Monroe, who was a pimp and slapped her around. By Louis McKay, another husband who did the same while taking her money. By her agent Joe Glaser, who turned her in to the feds. By her manager and boyfriend John Levy, who narced on her in 1944. By John Hammond, the bandleader who fired Holiday, because, according to her pianist and friend Jonathan “Jo” Jones, he wanted her to sing the blues and “be his musical mammy.” By swing king Benny Goodman and her white bandmates who slept in hotels and ate in restaurants while Holiday had to sleep on their tour bus and rely on them to bring her plates when she was denied accommodations because she was Black. By Count Basie, who wanted Holiday to darken herself with makeup to sing with his band because he thought she was too light-skinned.
According to Hari, when she was still a child, following the rape that occurred when she was 10, Holiday was accused of prostitution and punished for the assault by being sent to a Catholic reform school.
And yet there wasn’t much grace granted to Holiday in the 2001 BBC documentary. Jazz critic Stanley Crouch — a crank who resented Toni Morrison’s choice to write about Black women — afforded Holiday so little, in fact, that I wanted to reach through the screen and punch him. In Sensational Lady, Holiday’s bandmates and Crouch perpetuate the idea that her addictions and their probable source were a mysterious flaw that cannot fully be understood, even as they annoyed and inconvenienced the men with whom she worked. It couldn’t have been that bad, they rationalize, because when men struck Holiday, she often struck them back.
The male sources in these documentaries characterize Holiday’s relationships with abusive men as situations that she chose because she enjoyed pain and drama. Holiday had a long-lasting and close friendship with saxophonist Lester Young, who gave her the nickname Lady Day and who called her mother The Duchess. She called him Prez. But these men repeatedly undercut the role Young likely played as a confidant and kindred spirit. Their explanations for why the relationship between Lady Day and Prez remained platonic is simply that Young wasn’t her type because he was too nice and didn’t beat her.
“I don’t think she’s the kind of person for whom we should feel sorry, really, because she always was able to express herself artistically,” Crouch says in Sensational Lady. “A lot of people who become drug addicts or alcoholics, that’s all they are.”
In Billie, a friend describes Holiday as a “masochist” who pursued physical abuse, and says she witnessed a time when McKay “knocked her across the street.” But she also says that McKay was obsessed with trying to control the singer, who she saw, her friends, even what she ate. It’s as though no one can quite square how a woman as self-directed and poetically profane could be in abusive relationship after abusive relationship except by choice and explicit preference. I just don’t buy it. These conclusions sound like they’re coming from people who don’t understand the nature of intimate partner abuse and instead are blaming the victim. The characteristics and goals of McKay’s control over Holiday are typical of abusers. According to Billie, the singer tried to divorce McKay in time to prevent him from inheriting her estate before she died, and ran out of time. Sensational Lady is more explicit, and asserts that Holiday stuffed her last bit of cash (about $750) in her vagina to keep anyone, McKay especially, from getting to it while she was hospitalized.
Despite the fact that Sensational Lady and Billie assert that an adult man raped Holiday when she was 10, and that she began performing sex work with her mother when she was 13, few if any of the subjects interviewed appear to recognize how such experiences could perpetually reverberate through a person’s life, or affect her relationships and the treatment she perhaps thought she deserved. Given the many ways she was repeatedly betrayed, it’s hard to imagine how Holiday was able to trust anyone. Having one such formative experience can be crushing. And Holiday had many.
In Billie, Holiday’s cousin, John Fagan, with whom she grew up, tells Kuehl that men “played on her body”— a colloquialism for sexual abuse common to the era in which Holiday grew up.
“People played on her when she was a kid?” Kuehl asks.
“Of course,” Fagan responds. “The menfolk.”
Erskine also presents an interview with a pimp named Skinny Davenport, who knew Holiday. Kuehl asks Davenport how women felt about him beating them to “keep ’em in line.”
“They loved it — be so proud of a black eye,” Davenport said. “That’s the way they liked it, baby. You had to treat ’em rough, that’s the way they liked it.”
It’s clear that Holiday, born in 1915, grew up in an environment in which violence toward Black women and girls was regarded as commonplace, something that happened with such regularity that when interviewed about it, Davenport recalls the memories of beating women with nostalgic laughter. I think many people, especially the men closest to Holiday, needed to believe that Black women — Holiday included — liked being hurt, and that they sought it out, because it prevents them from having to consider the full breadth of violence that has been enacted upon Black women and the ways they were complicit in perpetuating it.
This cycle happens over and over with female artists. Houston spent years as the butt of jokes, pilloried as a messy public slob with no willpower, while the question of the cruelties that might have fed her drug abuse went largely unchallenged.
We know that Holiday bristled at the word “victim.” “Victim,” as a label, inspires pity, and pity is a useless response to situations that demand action. A song like “Strange Fruit” is not a song begging for pity. It is a call to arms. But just because Holiday didn’t want to be seen as a victim doesn’t mean that she didn’t suffer. The thing that made Holiday an artist and not a “victim,” so to speak, is that she insisted upon sharing the truth of her experiences. She spoke up for herself and for Black people repeatedly, sharing the melodic ache of refracted truths, bent just enough to drag behind a bass line.
The musician Billy Preston, who died in 2006, once spoke to the New Yorker’s David Remnick about another famous-but-enigmatic Black woman, Aretha Franklin.
“I don’t care what they say about Aretha,” he said. “She can be hiding out in her house in Detroit for years. She can go decades without taking a plane or flying off to Europe. She can cancel half her gigs and infuriate every producer and promoter in the country. She can sing all kinds of jive-ass songs that are beneath her. She can go into her diva act and turn off the world. But on any given night, when that lady sits down at the piano and gets her body and soul all over some righteous song, she’ll scare the s— out of you. And you’ll know — you’ll swear — that she’s still the best f—-n’ singer this f—ed-up country has ever produced.”
The same could easily be said of Holiday, who, like Franklin, was impossible to ignore because she had a reputation for singing songs as though she lived them. Holiday is the voice of Jim Crow, emblematic of the double-barreled violence African American women faced and continue to face, both from the state and from the people they rely on for love and community and protection.
“Strange Fruit” made it impossible to look away from or accept the horrors of lynching. Holiday’s famed and evident misery should have made it impossible to look away from the sexual violence that shaped her life and work. But the scale and devastation of lynching are understood and documented in a way that the private and ongoing violence of rape is not. It’s easier to laugh at or blame a woman for being a mess in public than it is to understand what led to it.
We know how Holiday escaped her most horrifying realities — there are plenty of images, both real and re-created — of her brandishing a drink, taking a drag off a joint or a cigarette, injecting herself with heroin. What remains a mystery, still, is how on earth she got through those realities at all when so many seemed invested in seeing her symptoms, and so few really saw or heard her hurt, leaving Holiday as “the remnant of a one-sided love affair” with a public that never stopped demanding all of her.