Queer Icon: Billie Holiday (1915-1959)

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By Cassandra Litten

Billie Holiday
(1915-1959)

A hymn would never sound as sweet as when it was sung by Billie Holiday.

Growing up, Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan) experienced being uprooted from her home, sex work, abuse, and child labor. Through these turbulent beginnings, Holiday pushed forward, sharing her talent with all who would listen. Wishing to reap the fruits of her labor, Billie Holiday eventually made her recording debut in 1933 at the age of 18.

Racism played a large role in shaping Holiday, and in 1939 she recorded the song that became her first commercial success. "Strange Fruit" was an anti-lynching poem written by Jewish school teacher and songwriter Abel Meeropol -- “black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”. Holiday’s haunting voice and the slow, meandering melody are the perfect accompaniment to the lyrics, and it’s no surprise that this song became her most iconic -- so much so that when she performed it in clubs, she had a strict set of rules: she would only close with the number; waiters were to stop service before it began; and the room would be in complete darkness while she sang, with the exception of a single spotlight on her face. There would be no encore.

Despite her newfound success, Holiday remained true to herself. According to her segment in Ken Burns’ celebrated docuseries, Jazz, “… her new celebrity did nothing to curtail the toughness for which she’d been known since girlhood. When two drunken white sailors snuffed out their cigarettes on her fur coat one night, she told them she’d meet them outside- then beat them both senseless with her fists.”

That passion seeped into her personal life as well. Openly bisexual, Holiday had several affairs with men and women, most notably with Broadway actress Tallulah Bankhead. Though the relationship ended bitterly, while they were still on good terms, Bankhead wrote a letter to FBI director and family friend J. Edgar Hoover, pleading for Billie’s release when she was charged with opium possession.

It was her drug addiction, relationships with abusive men, and drinking that led to the deterioration of her body and spirit. In May 1959, she was taken to Metropolitan Hospital in New York City due to complications from liver and heart disease. While there, The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, hounding her since at least 1939, arrested her for narcotics, handcuffed her to her deathbed, refused the methadone treatment she’d been receiving, and placed her under police guard. She died less than two months later at the age of 44.

Holiday's music transcends generations. Songs like "God Bless The Child", “Solitude”, “I’ll Be Seeing You”, and, of course, “Strange Fruit” are woven into the musical quilt of America. Her tendency toward triumph despite a world which continuously knocked her off her feet, and her unabashed, completely honest sense of self make her an icon for which the world will always be grateful.