When I was a homesick, expat sixth grader in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, I irritated all of my new friends by never shutting up about my hometown, Baltimore. I actually wrote a paper in which I boasted that I shared a native city with both “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Billie Holiday, the greatest jazz singer in history.
I was half right.
This week, while reading an advance copy of Paul Alexander’s “Bitter Crop: The Heartache and Triumph of Billie Holiday’s Last Year,” I got the shock of my life: Lady Day was raised in and around Fells Point, but was actually born in a Philadelphia hospital when her mother briefly worked there. Although this book is not the first to break the news, it was news to me. Yet my confusion was apparently understandable.
“She thought she was [from Baltimore], too!” said Alexander, whose book about the singer hits shelves Feb. 13. “The funny thing about it is that she kept telling people she was born in Baltimore, because from her birth in 1915 to 1954, she thought she was. In her mind, she was from there.”
In the nearly 65 years since her death at 44, Holiday has been a constant source of creative inspiration, including two Oscar-nominated movies and a Tony-winning musical, all of which partially or completely bungled details of her life, Alexander said.
“She struggled to have her voice be heard, fighting against the chauvinism and racism of the day and triumphing,” the author said. “What really gets me is that she has been portrayed as a victim, with the men in her life always trying to save her. But she was able to dominate the music industry for decades. She saw herself as a triumph.”
Alexander’s previous biographies have included works about Sylvia Plath and J.D. Salinger, both of whom had rich, complicated lives but became people whose legacies survived and even thrived after death.
“There is a similarity between Plath and Billie Holiday, in that they were both these powerful women who really wanted to explore and project their voices while they were alive, and because of the art they created, their voices have lived on longer than when they were alive,” Alexander said. “The difference is that Plath was unknown and it was posthumously that she was really established. With Billie, we all knew how great she was while she was living. After her death, it was established how iconic she had become.”
Alexander also wanted to balance the tenor of earlier, “very hostile” writing about Holiday that he thought glided over her genius as a song stylist. “I tried to bring empathy to her story. I don’t whitewash it. But if you can’t understand or have any sympathy for her, you don’t need to be writing about her. She was clearly a genius, and to portray her as otherwise was unconscionable.”
He tells her whole life story, but focuses on her final year, which he believes was the most dramatic and the source of her best album. Alexander includes exacting and precise details while weaving an emotionally charged portrait of a supremely complicated woman whose appetites for music, love and gin dimmed her voice but never her desire to use it.
During that fateful year, Holiday was trying to find work after she was banned from playing New York nightclubs that sold alcohol because of her previous drug conviction. She’d set out for Europe, hoping to be embraced there, while trying to divorce her husband Louis McKay, an abusive lout who “abandoned her and kicked her dog. Who kicks a dog?” Alexander said.
She was also ignoring her declining health, hastened largely not by heroin, as some stories would tell, but by cirrhosis of the liver brought on by a lifetime of heavy drinking. Even as her friends begged her to get help and see a doctor, she wouldn’t. “She literally passed out before she would let them get her serious medical care. She tried to smoke in an oxygen tent,” Alexander said.
Besides the surprise about Holiday’s birthplace, I was stunned by another detail that proves the ridiculous nature of racism and Hollywood. When this woman, who had been described frequently in the press of the day as a “Negro singer,” wrote her biography “Lady Sings the Blues,” the top two candidates to play her were Lana Turner and her friend Ava Gardner, who Holiday claimed she introduced to her eventual husband Frank Sinatra. Turner and Gardner were both lovely, but absolutely not Black.
When the movie was eventually made years after Holiday’s death and starred Diana Ross, Alexander said it bore little resemblance to the truth because the rights were controlled by the dastardly McKay, transformed on film into “a knight in shining armor” played by Billy Dee Williams, the era’s most suave human. This came to pass because Holiday, who died without a will, left McKay as her sole heir. (Public service announcement: Please write a will immediately.)
“She was always being abandoned. Her last song was called ‘Left Alone.’ She wanted a husband in her life. That was the accepted image in the 1940s and 1950s in America. You have to have a significant other,” Alexander said. And that other had to be a man, and not one of Holiday’s many female lovers — which included Broadway actress Tallulah Bankhead, according to Alexander’s book. “Face it. She couldn’t be like ‘By the way, this is my girlfriend, Billie Holiday. You couldn’t come out and say that,” Alexander told me. “But her friends all knew. It wasn’t a secret.”
One of Alexander’s challenges in separating fact from fiction was that Holiday had greatly embellished aspects of her own story, and not just the parts she had been misled about. For instance, she’d told stories about cleaning Baltimore rowhouse steps for money in her youth, something there’s no evidence for. Instead, she worked for two different madams in the city, who were her template for glamour in their beautiful gowns. “It’s where she learned about show business and started singing for the first time in those houses and clubs around town,” Alexander said.
By creating her own legend, Holiday was following the fashion of other larger-than-life figures like Bankhead, Greta Garbo, Howard Hughes and others. “There’s something about these glamorous entertainment figures in that they invented themselves. ‘I can just create the life I wanted to have led,’” he said.
The life Holiday did lead was punctuated by giddy highs and lows, including the apparent vendetta the federal government had against her. As Alexander described in his book, they’d sent her to prison when she’d requested being confined to a hospital to get well, and then literally arrested her on her deathbed for not reporting that she was leaving the country, a requirement neither she, her agent nor her attorneys knew about.
Alexander suspects the motive for that was the familiar deadly cocktail of racism, sexism and puritanical control. It may also lay in the lyrics of Holiday’s signature song “Strange Fruit,” about the chilling evil of lynching. She insisted on singing it overseas, laying open the sins of her homeland to the world. “It was a conscious decision to make, to criticize America and all that racism has made in her life,” he said. “It was a bold political statement.”
“Strange Fruit” was the closer of a three-song set she did on “Chelsea at Nine,” a London-based television show, shortly before her death. “The last words she ever said on television were ‘bitter crop,’” from which Alexander takes his title. “She knew exactly what she was doing.”
It’s this defiant, in-control artist who sang her way from Baltimore bordellos to the stages of London that Alexander wants people to meet.
“My takeaway is really simple,” he said. “She was not a failure. There were a lot of setbacks she had to deal with, but she helped change the direction of American music. How is that a failure?”