Billie Holiday

‘Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth’

Given what we know about Billie Holiday after reading John Szwed’s biography, much of Lady Sings the Blues can be read as autobiographical fiction.

Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth
John Szwed
March 2015

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 cliché 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 show-places 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 Édith 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 life-long 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.

Another way of putting it is to see Lady Sings the Blues as a form of autobiographical fiction. Much of what we read about her elsewhere tells us that this was really Billie Holiday speaking in the book. But a certain amount of withholding of certain aspects of her life or changing of facts was a form of editing on her part. Although the Doubleday editors struck out some passages in fear of potential lawsuits, Holiday’s own changes or omissions were perhaps a means of preventing readers from knowing too much, of distancing herself to keep from being too closely identified with how others saw her, and especially from what the press had written about her. She chose not to see herself as others did, and what might appear to be a private communication between the writer and the reader is ultimately as illusory as believing a singer is communicating directly to a listener in her audience.

From the beginning, Billie posed for photographers together with William Dufty, her collaborator on Lady Sings the Blues, as coauthors. Dufty gave interviews on his own before and after the book came out, addressing many issues concerning it in interviews and newspaper articles, including questions about particular facts and his own role in the writing. At the time, Harry S. Truman was publishing the first of his memoirs with Doubleday, and Dufty responded to the matter of errors or lies in Holiday’s autobiography by asking what cowriter was going to tell President Harry Truman that he should check his facts. Are the subject’s memories of experiences not sufficient to create an autobiography? Who was responsible for making the decision about truthfulness when a subject’s memories failed to square with those of others? If the uniqueness of an autobiography is that it is built on the personal memories and observations of the subject, should the cowriter or ghostwriter question the subject or urge her to change her thoughts on her own past?

Dufty said he was not going to be a fact-checker for Billie; the words were hers. But that was part of the problem, for when errors were discovered in the book or material was found objectionable, many chose to believe they were not, in fact, her words. Some have insisted that she couldn’t write, and she sometimes did apologize for not being able to write better. Yet she did compose some lyrics, and sent letters to music business people, her editor, and friends, though many to the latter were unpunctuated. Others even questioned her ability to read, and quoted her one remark about never having read her own book — which has in fact been a standard dodge of many celebrities when they don’t wish to discuss or justify a topic in a coauthored book. She had certainly read Lady Sings the Blues, since she commented on many portions of it, both in galleys, at the insistence of Doubleday, and in published form, in her letters and in comments to the Duftys and to journalists. She also read reviews of the book and complained about some of them in detail.

There was also the issue of Dufty’s being a white coauthor, an issue that has plagued African American autobiographical writing at least since Solomon Northup wrote Twelve Years a Slave in 1853, when otherwise sympathetic readers suspected that the truth of his narrative was clouded by the conventions of antislavery writing and the expectations of abolitionists. A hundred years later, some of the same doubts arose about the autobiographies of jazz musicians such as Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong, who also had white cowriters.

Some of those suspicious of Holiday’s book point out that William Dufty was a tabloid journalist, and thus a “hack.” Dufty did indeed write for a tabloid-size newspaper, but it was the New York Post, when that publication was still staffed by some of the best journalists in the city. He came to the paper with a background as a labor organizer for the United Automobile Workers, an editor of the union newsletter The CIO News, and a publicity director for Senator Hubert Humphrey. He had won awards for his Post articles on J. Edgar Hoover’s troubled leadership of the FBI, the plight of new Puerto Rican immigrants in New York City, and the failures of drug laws and medical treatment — a twelve-part series called “Drug Addicts, USA.” When he ended his career at the Post, he was assistant to the editor. He coauthored over forty books, including biographies of the Lehman brothers, Gloria Swanson, and the son of Edward G. Robinson, as well as those of an ex-model and an ex–Catholic priest. He contributed to You Are All Sanpaku, the bible of macrobiotics, and wrote Sugar Blues, two books that fed the fears of those in the sixties who saw conventional food as an enemy, books that also landed him in the company of food cultists John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Gloria Swanson, whom he later married.

Dufty met Billie Holiday through his first wife, Maely Daniele, a Jewish war camp refugee who found her way into several different lives in America — a writer, a TV talk show hostess, and a civil rights activist who booked jazz musicians and worked to get their drug charges dropped. Later she was involved with various social action groups in Harlem and the Navajo Nation. When she met Dufty, she had just divorced the former child film actor Freddie Bartholomew of Little Lord Fauntleroy fame, for whom she’d been a press agent. In 1955 Maely invited Billie to use the Duftys’ fifth-floor apartment on West Eighty-sixth Street (just as she had used some other apartments in New York City) for a place of refuge from the police, her husband Louis McKay, reporters, and the various unsavory figures who haunted her life. “I knew enough to keep my trap shut about anything she was doing in my place or anywhere,” Dufty recalled. “She was always involved in some love triangle.”

Both Billie and Bill were raised as Catholics, and Dufty felt that they shared enough Irish in their DNA, religious experiences, and senses of humor that despite their very different backgrounds they could work well together. Billie was staying with the Duftys when their son Bevan was born, and she became the child’s godmother.

In the mid-1950s Holiday was in financial trouble: She owed money to her record companies and the IRS, she was still unable to work in New York City nightclubs, and her reputation as an unreliable performer reduced the offers she received from venues in other cities and countries. Books by stars who revealed their afflictions and miseries were then selling well and breaking the hold that publicists had long had on what the public could know about them. Lillian Roth’s I’ll Cry Tomorrow and Diana Barrymore’s Too Much, Too Soon had been successful enough to be turned into movies. Several people had already approached Billie about writing her own book, the latest one a writer from Miami she’d met while appearing at the Vanity Fair Club, but Billie found him impossible to work with, as she had the others. She was especially put off by the writers at Ebony who had ghosted first-person articles under her name and, according to Dufty, had her “sounding like a freshman at Sarah Lawrence.”

When Billie returned from some performances in Florida in June 1955, Bill began handling correspondence for her, writing to bookers and club owners on her behalf and sometimes finding musicians for her gigs. While she was staying in his apartment, she read a bit of a manuscript he was working on, and they began to talk about it and her own story, and the trouble she had had with previous writers. He suggested that he could write it for her, to which she agreed, and when he asked her how she wanted to approach the project, she replied, “You’re the writer, I’m the singer. You write it.” A contract was drawn up in which she got 65 percent and he 35 percent, with his expenses “securing court records and other data for the work ” to be taken from the first royalties. Billie retained 90 percent and Dufty 10 percent of all other rights. She agreed to work jointly with him and give him her life story. Any differences between the two of them on content and style were to be resolved by the publisher. It was agreed that “no agent or broker brought about the Doubleday agreement.”

With this understanding, they began to get together at regular hours after he came home from work at the Post. Billie made it clear that she did not want to have her conversations recorded on tape. “She would always reprimand you for not paying attention. You had to go along with her way of doing things. That’s just the way she was… She had an air of total dignity, her wit was situational… she was absolutely, defensively, herself… At times it was very frustrating. She wouldn’t be in the mood and would get angry at something I said, and leave my apartment… but as she stepped into the elevator the remarks she made in anger to me would illumine a whole passage.”

Excerpted from Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth by John Szwed. Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright ©John Szwed, 2015. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.

John Szwed is Professor of Music and Director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University. As a jazz musician, he played professionally for more than a decade. He is the author of 16 books, including So What: The Life of Miles Davis, Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, and Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World.