Trying to find the real Lady Day: Those who try to tell Billie Holiday's story often discover an unknowable life
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 17 May 2005)

The sign on the bus, "Lady Day Orchestra," announced in 1950 that Billie Holiday had organized a big band to go on the road. Eighteen musicians left New York for a four-week tour of one-nighters, to end in New Orleans. They would play dances and Billie would sing. It sounded promising.

But this was not a shrewd project. It was run by Billie's boyfriend-manager, John Levy, who acquired his business knowledge as a pimp. Promotion was handled by Dewey Shewey, a part-time burglar, new to the music business. He was wanted by the police, who arrested him during the tour. It turned out he hadn't done much promoting. Levy didn't know what to do. Lady Day's Orchestra was dying.

Tempers flared. Billie broke a Coke bottle over Levy's head and he knifed her, both of them requiring hospital attention. The musicians were unpaid. Somewhere in the Carolinas the bus driver, also unpaid, walked off. Billie and Levy also disappeared. The musicians, all of them black, had to find their way home through the hostile, segregated South.

Those who knew Billie's history were not astonished. Her professional life was a series of calamities, as Julia Blackburn, a British novelist who has also written books about Napoleon and Goya, demonstrates in the latest Holiday biography, With Billie (Random House).

Blackburn leans on research prepared in the 1970s by a writer named Linda Kuehl. Planning a book about Billie, Kuehl interviewed everyone from the woman trombonist on that southern tour to a nun at the Home of the Good Shepherd, the Baltimore reform school where the 10-year-old Billie was incarcerated for truancy. Kuehl tried to write a biography but failed; she committed suicide in 1979. Donald Clarke used some of her interviews in his account of Billie's life, Wishing on the Moon, in 1994. Blackburn makes them the core of her book.

There will never be an authoritative Life of Billie Holiday. The documents don't exist, and the witnesses have often lied, many of them because they were crooks. Even honest witnesses have faulty memories, inflected by narcotics; Billie herself would tell the same story several ways. So Blackburn acknowledges that the anecdotes are often contradictory, calls her book an oral history and tries to catch her subject in a web of interviews. She provides a cheerless glimpse at black show business, a place that was exciting and illuminating for those who took pleasure in its music yet perilous and frantic for those, like Billie, who lived within it.

Billie was a teenage prostitute who began singing because she felt like it and kept at it because a few night clubs paid her a little money. An untrained amateur, she turned out to be much better than any of the professionals. She impressed the world's toughest critics, the jazz musicians of New York -- among them Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Lester Young. Today most vocalists of the 1930s are all but entirely forgotten, but we still admire records she made more than 70 years ago.

Blackburn has no idea how this happened. Her knowledge of narcotics law far exceeds her knowledge of jazz history. She mentions only a few specific records, and the great players Billie worked with are discussed mostly for their place in her personal odyssey.

Male companions dominate. A pianist friend said that Billie was a fool for men: "She went through the whole zoo until she got to the leopard," which was where she remained. All her life she lived with abusive men who were also pimps. She goaded them to violence, then fought back ferociously. Her men, without exception, stole her money. A couple of them seem to have betrayed her to narcotics agents. There's no record that any were interested in her music or her health.

Possibly the most sinister was her last husband, Louis McKay, who talked about her during a 1958 phone conversation he didn't know was being taped. Billie had done something he didn't like, and as he denounced her to Maely Dufty (whose husband, William Dufty, wrote a mainly fictional autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues), McKay sounded exactly like the pimp he was. He threatened to beat her up: "Ain't going to let nobody make a fool out of me, good as I've been to this woman ... If I got a whore, I get some money from her, or I don't have anything to do with the bitch." When Sidney Furie made the film version of Lady Sings the Blues, McKay (played by Billy Dee Williams) magically became an amiable man and a stabilizing influence on her. No wonder. McKay was the film's technical advisor.

Blackburn notes that the media concentrated on her life as an addict and her several arrests, neglecting her music. But Blackburn does the same. Her book concerns a masochistic alcoholic junkie much more than it deals with one of the great musicians of her time.

When Billie was born in 1915, she was given the name Eleanor. For some unknown reason she was registered as the daughter of Frank DeViese, who then immediately vanished from history without a trace, the sort of detail that drives Holiday's biographers mad. Her actual father was a banjo player named Clarence Holiday, who in later years tried to ignore her existence because he thought having a grown-up daughter made him seem old. In childhood she was Eleanor Gough, named for a man to whom her mother was briefly married, or Eleanor Fagan, using her mother's birth name. At the Home of the Good Shepherd she became Madge because the nuns imagined new names helped inmates start new lives. Eventually she combined her father's surname with the first name of Billie Dove, a silent-movie star. After her final visit to Europe, when questioned by a government attorney for leaving the United States without revealing her status as a convicted felon, she was identified as Eleanor Gough McKay.

In 1959, not long before she died, a teenaged boy named Frankie Freedom moved into her apartment, made her meals, did her hair, and took her to the hospital when she was gravely ill. There, at 44, she died of damaged lungs, cardiac failure and cirrhosis of the liver. Frankie Freedom, whom nobody knew, was never seen again, another minor mystery in a life that remains forever unknowable.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page