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The Hounding of Billie Holiday

Chris Sullivan reviews the documentary ‘Billie’, detailing how one of the greatest singers of all time was hunted by officers at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics

Billie Holiday and her dog Mister in 1947. Photo: PA Images

The Hounding of Billie Holiday

Chris Sullivan reviews the documentary ‘Billie’, detailing how one of the greatest singers of all time was hunted by officers at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics

Billie, a new BBC documentary directed by James Erskine, reveals the remarkable life story of Billie Holiday – one that was almost as remarkable as her voice.

Based on audio cassette interviews in the 1970s, the film features unique, revealing accounts from Holiday’s friends and colleagues: the drummer Philly Joe Jones, bandleader Count Basie, and bass-maestro/composer Charles Mingus.

This cache of audiotapes belonged to the journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl who, obsessed with Holiday, wanted to discover the real story behind her and so tracked down those who knew her well.

Holiday died in 1959. She hadn’t eaten in weeks, was chronically emaciated, and was eventually hospitalised after passing out one afternoon. The jazz and swing singer had drunk and smoked excessively for decades, leading to cirrhosis of the liver, as well as cardiac and respiratory problems.

Hearing the news of her hospitalisation, drugs officers – who had targeted heroin user Holiday for decades – rushed to the scene. In her room, they found 3.5 grams of heroin wrapped in foil hanging on a nail on the wall six feet away from the bottom of her bed. She denied any knowledge of it.

The officers hastily summoned a grand jury to indict her, handcuffing Holiday to her hospital bed and standing guard outside her room. 

She not only had to endure the side-effects of cirrhosis, but also the crippling pain of drug withdrawal. To ease this, she was prescribed the substitute opiate methadone, which did the trick, until Federal Bureau of Narcotics kingpin Harry Anslinger ordered his men to prevent nurses from administering any more of the drug.

Holiday’s body was too weak to endure an intense withdrawal and she died just a few days later, with armed police still skulking outside her hospital door.

Born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1915, Holiday’s childhood was not easy. 

Aged nine, she was sent to a reform school – a form of penal institution – but dropped out two years later when a neighbour tried to rape her.

Holiday then ran errands in a local brothel until she moved to Harlem, New York City, in 1929, where her mother was working as a prostitute. Aged 13, Holiday became a victim of child sex trafficking at $5 a client and, after a raid, she and her mother were sent to prison.

On her release a year later, Holiday’s journey to stardom began. 

She started singing in Harlem’s clubs and, at just 18, was spotted by jazz producer Johnny ‘Hammond’ Smith. With his help, Holiday released a number of singles – one of which, I Cried For You, became a hit.

Holiday then joined the Count Basie band, though was fired for being “temperamental and unreliable”. She next hooked up with Artie Shaw’s big band in 1938, becoming the first black woman to sing with a white ensemble. It was far from an easy ride. Holiday was verbally abused in many venues in the south and, as most hotels didn’t accommodate black people, she slept on the band bus.

In 1938, when playing at New York’s prestigious Lincoln Hotel, she was made to use the service elevator. That same year, in September, Holiday released I’m Gonna Lock My Heart and Throw Away the Key. It reached number two in the pop charts, and a music icon had arrived.

A year later, Holiday adopted a song that would become her anthem: Strange Fruit. The lyrics, which tell an uncompromising story of the lynching of a black man in the south, provoked white audiences – and remains one of the most powerful depictions of violent racism in America. Several newspapers scorned Holiday, while white people often walked out of her performances when she introduced the song. But she still insisted on singing it, stamping her mark on the American nation.

Holiday, now jazz royalty, was selling millions of records. Her behaviour, however, wasn’t tempered by fame.

“She’d say ‘pick me up at the theatre’,” recalls bassist John Simmons in the documentary. “And then I’d see her walk off with a chick. Sometimes she had three girls and she’d make them perform like a three-ring circus… She was a sex machine.”

And then drugs entered her life.

In 1942, Holiday had married hustler Jimmy Monroe, a man described by a federal prosecutor as the “worst type of parasite you can imagine”, and who turned her towards heroin. 

“Whisky didn’t get her high enough,” remarks her old friend, the comedian James ‘Stump’ Gross. “So she’d do heroin and coke at the same time and she would have a candy box full of all sorts of pills, grab a big fistful, and drink scotch at the same time. She could take more stimulants than any man I ever met and still perform.”

In 1930, Harry Anslinger, a close associate of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, had been appointed head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, overseeing a gaggle of corrupt cops many of whom were former prohibition officers. He immediately pledged to rid America of all drugs.

Anslinger despised Jazz and the people who played, danced and listened to it. “They reek of filth,” he said, firmly believing that black people created “satanic” music under the influence of cannabis. He advised his men on drug raids to “shoot first”.

Holiday had already made an enemy of Anslinger, so when he heard rumours of her drug use, he went to town. 

On 16 May 1947, his men raided Holiday’s apartment without a warrant and – when they asked to search the singer – she stripped naked and urinated on the floor. After this, Holiday was put on trial. “It was called the United States of America versus Billie Holiday,” she wrote in her memoir, “and that’s just the way it felt”.

Holiday was sentenced to a year and a day in a West Virginia prison, forced to work in the prison pigsty. But Anslinger didn’t stop there. He put a 24-hour tail on the singer and his most corrupt agent, Colonel George White, on her case. 

White followed Holiday to San Francisco in 1949 and planted opium and syringes in her hotel room. She insisted that she had not used drugs for a year. To prove it, she checked herself into a drug clinic for observation. 

White had a long history of planting drugs on women. “Where else [but at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics] could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill, cheat, steal, rape and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the All Highest?” he said after his retirement.

Billie Holiday was just 44 when she died. 

Maely Dufty – her closest friend – insisted that a conspiracy to break the singer, orchestrated by drugs police, had ultimately killed her. Holiday could no longer cope with the scrutiny, the searches and the phone tapping.

10,000 people attended her funeral on 31 July 1959. In his eulogy, the Reverend Eugene Callender said: “We should not be here. This young lady was gifted by her creator with tremendous talent… She should have lived to be at least 80 years old.”

Harry Anslinger disagreed. “For her, there will be no more Good Morning Heartache,” he wrote.

‘Billie’ is available to stream now on BBC iPlayer and will be available on BFI Player on 4 January 2021

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