On July 17, 1959, a shock wave was felt through the jazz industry and a somber mood filled the corridors of the New York Metropolitan Hospital. Eleanora Fagan, known by her stage name Billie Holiday, died tat the age forty-four from the effects of cirrhosis of the liver and the failure of several additional vital organs. In death the final chapter of her short and tragic life reached its foreseeable conclusion. Holiday had struggled with drug addiction and had found herself embroiled in dysfunctional and abusive personal relationships. On stage, she captivated audiences and left her mark as she became Lady Day. Her life story has been revived on Broadway as Lady Day at Emerson’s Grill starring Audrey McDonald. The play became a New York Times’ critic’s choice and earned McDonald high praise. To this day, Holiday is help up as a vocal icon for young singers seeking to imitate the class and talent of the fallen star. Behind the music, makeup and soulful voice existed another Billie Holiday, suffering in pain from physical and emotional turmoil. Donald Clarke takes us deep inside of this world with this definitive biography.
Clarke is a known writer on American music and has published several books on the subject. He still follows his passion today and continues to publish posts on his blog. His account of Holiday’s life was originally published in 1994 and then reprinted in 2000 under the title Billie Holiday: Wishing On The Moon. Regardless of which printing in which the reader decides to indulge, the story has a life of its own and the revelations about her personal life are startling and ultimately give way to empathy. At the height of her career, segregation was the law of the land and Jim Crow still held the Southern United States in a vice grip. Holiday was forced to confront this demon as was dozens of other African-American performers enlisted to perform in front of white audiences but denied entry through the front door. This regrettable social situation in America at the time plays a significant part in the path her life takes and the people that she finds herself involved.
Her story however, would not be complete without the inclusion of narcotics and their presence takes center stage as her life spirals out of control. The pressures of show business, racism and a family history of dysfunction combined to destabilize any semblance of normality that she sought to obtain. Her rise to fame and eventual downfall is beyond heartbreaking and her actions at times will make the reader recoil in disbelief. Clarke does an exceptional job of showing this side of Holiday and the truth while unpleasant is critical to understanding the inner turmoil that plagued Lady Day.
As the book progresses the reality that her life is on a collision course becomes readily apparent. The reader will be able to see the deadly conclusion as Holiday’s story unfolds. But like a runaway freight train, she is unable to stop her life from its predestined ending. The irony however is although she realized this, she makes decisions that will leave the reader speechless. The physical transformation that occurs as she ages and her demons take the best of her is one of the darkest parts of the book. Her emotional instability and ability to involve herself with men determined to break her will and take advantage over her, cast an even more detrimental cloud over her that followed her until her last days. And as she lived out her final moments in a hospital ward, the spiral continued making her death a departure and release.
Since her death, no one has been able to replicate the aura of the famed Lady Day. By no means was she the only talented performer of her time, but in death she has earned a legacy that remains intact. It is with a heavy heart that we acknowledge the loss of a great star gone before her time.