Eleanora Fagan was born on this very day, April 7, in 1915.
Eleanora cut school so often she was sent to live at the House of the Good Shepherd, a home for “colored girls” run by the Little Sisters of the Poor. She was returned to her mother after a year, but in 1926, 11 year old Eleanora was raped by a neighbor & sent back to Good Shepherd. But the nuns refused to keep her for long.
At only 11 years old, Eleanora earned money cleaning at a whorehouse. The madam let her listen to the records of Louis Armstrong & Bessie Smith. Eleanora was able to express her feelings with music & she began singing at various storefront churches.
As a young teenager, Eleanora moved to NYC with her mother, to pursue a singing career, instead she found work as a prostitute in Harlem.
Billie Holiday was the self-creation of young Eleanora Fagen. She began to get small gigs at out of the way clubs, & Holiday began gaining popularity with fellow musicians. After years of touring with Count Basie, Holiday was offered her first steady job at Café Society in 1938, earning $75 a week. She went on to be featured soloist at clubs all over the country, acquiring the nickname “Lady Day.” Her distinctive voice, which she used like a musical instrument, transformed jazz singing. Holiday: “I don’t think I’m singing; I feel like I’m playing a horn.”
Holiday had many love affairs with both men & women, but was known as a lesbian among many of her peers in the jazz world, where she acquired the moniker- Mister Holiday, because she was seldom seen in the company of gentlemen. Holiday: “Sure, I’ve been to bed with women… but I was always the man.” Who else can you think of who had an affair with both Orson Welles & Tallulah Bankhead?
By the late 1930s, Holiday had married small-time drug dealer Jimmy Monroe, who introduced her to opium & heroin. In 1947, she spent a year in prison for possession of drugs. After she was released, Holiday had difficulty finding work & she had a string of relationships with maniacal men & a decline into dependence on drugs, a roughening of her voice & a physical decline.
On 10 July 1959, Holiday died in hospital in NYC of cirrhosis of the liver. In a characteristically cruel turn she had been arrested on her deathbed for possession of narcotics, & spent her final days under police guard.
Billie Holiday was unlucky in life, unlucky in love & dead from drink & drugs at the age of only 44.
The life & legend of Billie Holiday seems to point to a victim, a problematic, profane & pushy woman. She was after all, a junkie & an alcoholic; she had sex with a great many men & many women. But, I like to think that Billie Holiday was a determined woman with a great appetite for life, who lived it on her terms in a man’s world. Holiday was never able to actually capitalize on her amazing talent & to live a life as a music superstar. She couldn’t break the pattern of abuse from others or herself, but that fed her genius. Her brand of self-destruction was a plea for the love that ironically her bad behavior pushed away. But that voice, that perfectly imperfect gift, will always be loved & will always break my heart.