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Excerpt from 'Billie Holiday'

"Billie Holiday: The Myth and the Musician" by John Szwed (Viking, April 2015) . Credit: Viking

When Billie Holiday's "Lady Sings the Blues" was published in 1956, it received a surprising amount of attention for a jazz singer's autobiography. It was written in a direct and often streetwise style, and its apparent openness and honesty was shocking to many. The book was widely reviewed, but often condemned for just those qualities.

By 1956 jazz had moved from being the popular music of 1940s America to a more rarefied place in the public's view. It was on its way to becoming a minority music in every sense of the word. Its stars could still occasionally be found in the news, but it was now being guarded by a new breed of critics who were promoting jazz as America's only true art form. Most of the writers were closet high modernists who wanted no mention of drugs, whorehouses, or lynching brought into discussions of the music. To them the content and even the style of Holiday's book seemed misguided, and they saw the financial motivation for it as a personal affront. It was more than they wanted to know about Billie Holiday. Ralph Gleason in the San Francisco Chronicle questioned the "pseudo-frankness laced with profanity that made it sensationalized reading, and the blind resentment that made it compelling." The Saturday Review's Whitney Balliett questioned the "high decibels in which the reader is given only a superficial picture of the author and virtually nothing about her art." Harvey Breit in The New York Times regretted that the tragic sense she so powerfully demonstrated in her songs was lacking in her book. Her integrity and sincerity were not enough to move a sensitive reader: "The hard surface of her manner prevents Miss Holiday from pausing in her narrative to discuss, say, a song, a delivery, an esthetic response, a disinterested observation." Orrin Keepnews in Record Changer criticized the book as a betrayal of the whole cause of jazz and of those who fought the "constant negative battle to keep jazz from being so completely publicly misunderstood." When Holiday wrote, "I guess that I'm not the only one who heard their first good jazz in a whorehouse," she was speaking the truth, but it was a cliche that a generation of jazz writers had attempted to forget. Linda Kuehl's unpublished judgment of the book was the harshest. "She was writing for money to support a drug habit, and for publicity to make it appear that she was off the habit and to get her back her cabaret card." (The cabaret card was a license required of all performers who worked in showplaces that served alcohol, and one for which they were fingerprinted and photographed when they applied for it. Holiday had lost hers in 1947 after conviction on drug charges and had not appeared in a New York City nightclub for the previous eight years.) Nat Hentoff was one of the few willing to accept the book as a cautionary tale and observed in Down Beat magazine that it would "help those who want to understand how her voice became what it was -- the most hurt and hurting singer in jazz."

Later, attentive readers began to discover that some of the events and dates in the book were wrong, or, worse, possibly fabricated, and "Lady Sings the Blues" has been clouded by doubt ever since. The trouble began in the first paragraph: "Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was seventeen, and I was three." Readers shook their heads in dismay at the vision of little Billie as a flower girl at her parents' wedding, but her account was not correct. When Billie was born, her mother was nineteen, her father seventeen. They never married and had never lived together in a little house with a picket fence on Durham Street in Baltimore. She was born not in Baltimore but in Philadelphia. Some questioned her claim of having been raped at age ten. Music world insiders took issue with some of her rough comments about fellow singers and managers. A number of songwriters were angry over her claims of partial authorship of their work.

As time went by, newly discovered evidence supported some of her claims. But the fundamental questions remained: Why should an autobiography cause so much discomfort and suspicion? What could be reasonably expected from an autobiography? Shouldn't an author have the right to create a self different from what readers think they already know about her? If an autobiography is an account of a woman's experiences, those experiences may be felt in one way as they happen, but in a completely different way later in life.

What was perceived by some as lies or exaggerations in Holiday's book were largely matters of interpretation, childhood memories, and slips of fact, not the sort of self-serving rewritings of personal history common in many autobiographies of the famous. French chanteuse Edith Piaf, for example, lived a life that paralleled Holiday's own in its poverty, alcoholism, and abuse by men. Piaf also developed a persona of tragedy and sorrow that radiated from her songs, wrote two autobiographies that apparently fabricated stories of childhood blindness and lifelong destitution, and answered charges that she was a collaborationist by claiming heroics in helping prisoners escape from the Nazis.

One response to the question of truth in Holiday's book was to regard hers as different from other autobiographies. Robert O'Meally, in "Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday," viewed what she had written as "a dream book, a collection of Holiday's wishes and lies," a book that had to be interpreted in that light, as one of many faces she presented to the public. As a vocal artist, O'Meally suggests, she had approached songs as a series of "confrontations," in which she creatively reshaped the musical material and the traditions that lay behind it. The power she discovered in doing so became her way of capturing an audience's attention and belief. More recently, Farah Griffin, in "If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery," asked how those who believe the book was written entirely by her coauthor can also accuse her of lying.


From "Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth" by John Szwed, to be published on March 31, 2015, by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by John Szwed.

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