Billie Holiday was a famous jazz singer in the 30’s and 40’s.
She was known for the distinct way she sang and the powerful emotion she put forth while singing. She had a very difficult life and she coped with her experiences by turning to heroin and alcohol. Billie Holiday’s drug addiction ruined her career and ended her life. Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan April 7th, 1915, Philadelphia PA, and died July 17th, 1959. She grew up hard with her mother in Philadelphia, and her father Clarence Holiday, who was a jazz musician, was basically never there (Biography.com). At 9 she started skipping school and was sent to a reform school for black girls called the House of the Good Shepherd (Reset.me).
She was one of the youngest girls there. She was sexually assaulted at 10 and she was blamed for the crime, and later at 15 she was assaulted a second time, but the attacker got three months. When she returned from reform school she started singing in the log Cabin Club at age 16. She hated the name Eleanora and decided to name herself after the actress Billie Dove. Later on, she met Artie Shaw and Count Basie and toured with both bands (Hari). While touring with Basie Holiday was paid a career-high of 14$ a day. In Count Basie’s orchestra, Holiday met the saxophonist Lester Young who gave her the famous nickname of “Lady Day” and eventually became her best friend.
With Artie Shaw’s band Holiday began to see the racism that permeated the US. Holiday also had another experience in which she was forced to wear black face paint, so she wouldn’t appear white under the spotlights while performing with her black band (Biography.com). Here are several of Billie Holiday’s most famous musical hits: Strange Fruit, God Bless the Child, Riffin the Scotch, What A Little Moonlight Can Do, Miss Brown To You (Hari). Strange Fruit, in particular, was a famous piece, because of the controversy surrounding it. Originally a poem by Abel Meeropol under a pseudonym about a lynching in the South, it caused Holiday’s record company, Columbia, to drop her, and was banned on many radio stations, which only fed the flames of its popularity (Reset.me).
Holiday also had a bevy of lovers, husbands, and boyfriends, including Louis McKay, James Monroe, and Joe Guy. Billie Holiday suffered through many things in her life: neglect, abuse, and familial death, and all of these things pushed her to use heroin and drink heavily. Holiday always drank but when she married James Monroe, she picked up smoking opium from him (Biography.com). After a nasty divorce, Holiday became infatuated with a jazz trumpeter named Joe Guy, a heroin dealer himself, and there she began shooting up with him. After Holiday’s mother’s untimely death she began to drink much more heavily and injecting more to deal with the grief. After another damaging breakup (with Joe Guy), Holiday married another man named Louis McKay (Reset.me).
McKay was a mafia enforcer and was extremely abusive (Reset.me). McKay’s abuse led Holiday to inject almost daily.
At one point, Billie did a show with her ribs taped together as a consequence of McKay’s abuse (Reset.me). Many, many times did Holiday try to quit heroin, but each time she relapsed, calling herself “No Guts Holiday” as she went back to dealers (Reset.me). During these short-lived withdrawals, Holiday shut herself in her house, refusing to let anyone come for days on end before she went back to the dealers. Holiday saw several other jazz stars shoot up and whenever she saw them she begged them not to do it, to not become like her (Biography.
com). Billie Holiday’s drug addiction screwed up her life in many ways, such as being pursued by the government, losing sources of income, and ending her life. The head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, was hell-bent on catching Holiday for possession of narcotics, and he did catch her multiple times (Reset.me). Anslinger sent a black agent named Jimmy Fletcher, who was allowed to carry copious amounts of heroin in order to bust Holiday.
Jimmy Fletcher eventually became a good friend of Holiday’s and busted her for possession by pretending to be delivering a telegram. That arrest took away Holiday’s license to perform at nightclubs/cabarets which removed a major source of income for her (Biography.com). When Louis McKay was married to Holiday both were arrested for possession of heroin in Mexico (Hari). As a punishment for that arrest Holiday was sent to a reform hospital (Reset.me).
In that reform hospital, Holiday was forced to go completely cold turkey, was given no access to the outside world, and work in pigsties. Holiday began to have heart and liver complications from the booze and drugs. Holiday was arrested one final time for possession on her deathbed. Billie Holiday died in Metropolitan Hospital Center in New York City with 750$ taped to her leg and 4$ in the bank. Billie Holiday had one of the most difficult lives a star has ever had and she dealt with her life by drowning it out with depressants.
Holiday was an extremely troubled, but also an incredibly talented artist, and life did give her much to be happy about except maybe her dog. Billie Holiday’s drug addiction messed up her career and ended her life.