The Billie Holiday Story Volume III


In 1957 Billie Holiday married for the third time. This time to a strongman from the mafia. He was just as abusive as all the other men in her life. Two years later she was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. She lost weight because of it, but refused to go to the hospital. Finally, in May 1059 she was taken to hospital. She would die there in the same year.

Maybe the saddest thing about this is the way she died: penniless and in pain. Johann Hari, a British-Swiss journalist claimed she died because of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics’ indictment against her for singing Strange fruit in 1939. Strange fruit was Holidays biggest hit and refers to lynched men hanging from a tree. According to Hari in his 2015 book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs Holiday was accused of drug use, and heroin was found in her room. She was tied to the hospital bed, put under guard and denied pain medication.

And then there was the matter of money. When she died in July 1959, she had 70 cents on her account. The rest was swindled away by husband Louis McKay. American public broadcaster NPR made a documentary about how he handled the funeral: most of it was paid for by broadway producer Michael P Grace II.

Billie Holiday died in Metropolitan Hospital, New York, on Friday, July 17, 1959, in the bed in which she had been arrested for illegal possession of narcotics a little more than a month before, as she lay mortally ill; in the room from which a police guard had been removed – by court order – only a few hours before her death. She had been strikingly beautiful, but her talent was wasted. The worms of every kind of excess – drugs were only one – had eaten her. The likelihood exists that among the last thoughts of this cynical, sentimental, profane, generous and greatly talented woman of 44 was the belief that she was to be arraigned the following morning. She would have been, eventually, although possibly not that quickly. In any case, she removed herself finally from the jurisdiction of any court here below.

Gilbert Millstein, Liner notes for The essential Billie Holiday

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