All of Her

Bitter Crop: The Heartache and Triumph of Billie Holiday's Last Year BY PAUL ALEXANDER. NEW YORK: KNOPF. 368 PAGES. $32.

The cover of Bitter Crop: The Heartache and Triumph of Billie Holiday's Last Year


Billie Holiday, née Elenora Fagan, is one of America’s few remaining antiheroes, the last surviving muse of the Jazz Age, and the only correct answer to Amiri Baraka’s question: Who will survive America? She survives by haunting us, and in the same way that Baraka declares himself one of Miles Davis’s children in his conversational poetic elegy for Miles, I am one of Billie Holiday’s children, I am her elegy and redemption. My mother was born a couple of months after she died in 1959, and over a decade earlier my father had formally changed his name from James Brown to Jimmy Holiday as he developed as a soul singer, realized he needed a new name, and picked the surname of a woman whose music he adored.

I am one of Billie Holiday’s children, in that I carry her chosen name with intention. Her father was musician Clarence Holiday, so her stage name was in no way arbitrary. We both have singer fathers whose specter haunts us and teaches us how to haunt back. Billie was so candid about wanting children of her own that many of her close friends, including journalist Leonard Feather, made her the godmother of theirs. She’s America’s last heroine because she haunts us with the alienation and scrutiny that ultimately killed her, and because a nation that can produce a woman stalked by fanatics obsessed with her voice and style, and by feds and jealous deviant lovers determined to undermine her favor and confidence with disgrace, is a sick nation, and Billie Holiday is both diagnostic evidence and the cure. She suffered acute illness and addiction and an unbending will to work and earn her keep despite these afflictions—the repertoire of pathologies America drives even its most well-equipped citizens to was both within her and transcended by her, an addendum to her repertoire of songs. She did not succumb to her psychic injuries by dying. She martyred herself to expose the fact that she had been hunted by the FBI for nearly a decade after she chose to sing an anti-lynching anthem; she was arrested on her deathbed for possession of heroin that a nurse likely planted on her, and then forced to leave her estate, which earned more after she was dead than when she was alive, to her estranged and vengefully abusive husband, who sat in the hospital with her practically threatening her to survive and see what happened. For Billie, death was rebirth, a refuge from the violence inflicted on her for having a body that aroused what hers did and still does, and a return to forever. I’m one of her children in namesake, temperament, and will, and when her lingering spirit is misused or tampered with, I’ve always taken it personally, as if someone is trying to make me an orphan. I am always looking for redemption for her and look askance at the many failed or half-hearted attempts at it.

Billie Holiday, Downbeat Club, New York, NY, Feburary 1947. Photo: Library of Congress/William P. Gottlieb.
Billie Holiday, Downbeat Club, New York, NY, Feburary 1947. Photo: Library of Congress/William P. Gottlieb.


I check and examine this elective affinity often; who earns the right to be envisioned in the wake of Billie Holiday and haunted by that glamoured blurring? And while I see it as an honor, many seem to regard her staying power and influence with suspicion, disdain, and dismissiveness. The constant revisions of her biography with snatches of what writers consider more accurate and valid accounts than her own, the persistent sense that whatever can be appropriated of her must be, if she is to be held onto as a commodity and an idol—it’s as if the whole world is that hawkish delinquent husband, waiting eagerly at her death bed for his big break, coaxing her to hush in her own viciously stirring vernacular, Hush now, don’t explain, then reworking the lyric to account for his indecency: you’re my joy, I’m your pain. In her husband’s case, he relishes this. It’s very sinister, to seek dominion over the fruits of another soul’s unmistakable and inimical beauty and mistake that bloodlust for love or even care when it’s definitively careless love, in the subject’s words, delivered in her slanted trembling idiom. Love bent on possessing to avenge her effortless possession of you, her ability to enliven desire and longing so well that they’re pent up and altered until, now that she’s gone, the world is so much less romantic. Does it serve her spirit or the personality of her music to relitigate her story like she’s jazz music’s black Sisyphus? And if it does, who should be allowed the privilege of navigating the endless loop alongside her? What are the motives for seeking her ghost as our companion? Why the fascination, as if the story will conclude less tragically if we tell it differently?

I’m asking myself these questions going into the reading of Paul Alexander’s Bitter Crop: The Heartache and Triumph of Billie Holiday’s Last Year, the latest effort to get a woman who loved being wrong, right, to tidy and temper her slurs with reason and linear sequence. To imagine a version of her who, when asked to remove profanity from her autobiography Lady Sings the Blues, didn’t respond: Fine, change bitch to whore. If you cannot look the woman who said that in the eye and laugh and cry with her, and know that she was not exaggerating, that she felt it a fine and complicit revision, then we aren’t haunted by the same woman. Many are hung up on who she might have been, on how the jagged contours of each interruption she faced altered her destiny, and others fixate on who she was and is, her inevitability. This particular submission to the tradition of Billie Holiday negotiates between those who objectify her and those who truly love her, pursuant of an impossible truce between impostors and real suitors. It’s a noble and worthy effort to pretend these two worlds can reconcile in a world where some unknown heir still collects royalties in Billie Holiday’s name, and cashes out whenever another sensationalized and ridiculous biopic emerges and is lauded by Hollywood, kingdom of the sensational and ridiculous award-winning biopic about a black artist who never asked for such a thing and would denounce it if they could.

We first must come to terms with this: Billie Holiday was not a masochist. She wanted to live, and she wanted to live well. She loved and wanted to be loved well in return. She worked constantly and wanted to be heard as she intended, wry, languorous, unrepentant. She listened and offered a record of what she perceived in the world as original songs, too often overlooked, like “God Bless the Child,” the only fable that I find more and less ineffable the more time I spend with it: Them that’s got shall get, them that’s not shall lose, she croons with flippant conviction, as if losers are just as willful and worthy of emphasis. Once you realize she’s not referring to the material aspect of having things, the God in the title becomes more prominent, a premonition. And the child in her gallivanting among the gods is now less of a liability. In a pleading letter to J. Edgar Hoover, Tallulah Bankhead—Billie’s friend, lover, eventual abandoner to save her own reputation—refers to her as essentially a child at heart whose troubles have made her psychologically unable to cope with the world in which she finds herself. Such a shady attempt at rescue from the law, complete with Bankhead’s sense of superiority over Billie. Her associates displayed little remorse or self-awareness for the way they exploited the fun, sexy, brilliant Billie Holiday when she could show up that way, and discarded the often abject or terrifying aftermath of all that resilience.

Perhaps the singer was in trouble a lot and wanted to be saved, helped, rescued, not jailed and chastised. She sought nonjudgmental companionship and found it in a cavalcade of ambivalent enablers who loved her insomuch as they could look away from her trouble or use it to minimize theirs. Many of them disappeared or looked away obliviously while she self-medicated with liquor and drugs. Whenever she dared to raise the stakes of her expectations of companions, they dared to walk away. Many of her colleagues in jazz were afflicted with heroin habits just as precarious as hers, and also stripped of the police credentials called cabaret cards that allowed performers to work in New York clubs at the time, but they did not sing the lines blood on the leaves, blood at the roots all over the world to integrated audiences and in a cadence that made you feel the blood dripping and hot, as if you had inflicted and suffered the wound yourself, and therefore the others did not face the same scrutiny from the narcotics czar. Nor did they receive equal acclaim, the price of fame with a conscience, with substance, becoming a convict for singing honest songs.


For the latest installment of attempts to recalibrate Billie Holiday with an emphasis on imparting something like justice to her, writer Paul Alexander has decoded her life in 1959, also a major year for jazz that saw paradigm-rupturing albums from Ornette Coleman (The Shape of Jazz to Come), Miles Davis (Kind of Blue), and John Coltrane (Giant Steps). Early in the year Lester Young, Billie Holiday’s best friend and soulmate in jazz, whom she had nicknamed Prez for his importance to the music, died of complications from cirrhosis of the liver. A distraught Billie was heard wailing at Prez’s funeral after his widow refused to let her sing. No requiem for Lester Young.

By 1959, the press seemed to latch onto the idea that the changes in Billie’s voice marked the end of her career instead of its next phase, and her efforts to remain chin-up regal and poised through these snide critical overtures flared her own severe cirrhosis and pushed her in and out of heavy drinking in spite of it. Bitter Crop is arranged as if it expects to be a film in the future, the next definitive Billie Holiday biopic, in that it’s cast in a vacuum. You wouldn’t guess what else was happening in jazz or literature inspired by jazz in 1959 unless it was happening to Billie herself—no mention of the pivotal jolt that year was for black music. There is mention of poet Frank O’Hara listening to her at the 5 Spot’s weekly jazz poetry night, where her stalwart pianist Mal Waldron was in residence, and later writing Billie a breathtaking elegy that goes from casual to gasping as he reads her death note on the cover of the New York Post on his lunch break. Throughout Alexander’s book, arrayed in staggered and staggering parts and flashbacks that stray from the conceit for context so that 1959 becomes many other years, Billie’s misadventures seem aligned with a fantasy world wherein she might have been appreciated for dues already paid and not punished for them repeatedly until her final capitulation.

We receive an accounting of her last performances, one abridged by collapse, and understated, blunt farewells to friends and chosen family. The portrait is of a woman stranded between reverence and abjection and forced to behave as if she doesn’t notice that she’s surrounded by hypocrites and opportunists. She has a few real friends, Mal Waldron, Leonard Feather, Frank Sinatra, Hazel Scott, who urges Billie to move to Paris so she can take care of her. That’s about it. Others, like protégé Annie Ross, are friends who double as opps, helping her destroy herself but watching admiringly, as if watching a great actress rehearse scenes. To be fair Billie rejects help because she knows the State is chasing her and would take any chance to entrap her on another drug conviction, so it takes falling into a sudden coma for her to receive any treatment. There are rumors of nightclub owners trying to pay her to go home and rest instead of singing, but where were the people who understood that she sang to stay alive, that she needed an in-home caregiver, visitors, the chance to not have to throw herself a birthday party and toast herself her final year? Where were the people who would give her something to live for other than mirroring their unprocessed pain back to them as her own and being eaten alive for it?

Billie Holiday with her dog Mister, Downbeat Club, New York, NY, February 1947. Photo: Library of Congress/William P. Gottlieb.
Billie Holiday with her dog Mister, Downbeat Club, New York, NY, February 1947. Photo: Library of Congress/William P. Gottlieb.


While I cherish the access to this extensively researched new writing on Billie Holiday, and note that it was undertaken with care, I wonder if it’s fair for us to keep behaving as superior undertakers of the greatest antihero in jazz. I wonder who has the right to be haunted by her and why? If you look at her this way, we might contend with vacant authoritative inflections, you see the complete, humanized (terrible word that invades too much subtext) Billie Holiday. The other attempts, including her own, were nice tries, but look at how the culmination and denouement of her life coincide like veering black swans in a soft-pink sky to the tempo of “Good Morning, Heartache,” interpreted by her of course. She’s dead, but we still need her to sing to us to make the shambles she left behind meaningful and tolerable, so that we can make it through. I close the book not resenting it, even impressed by Alexander’s vision, but disappointed nonetheless, because every attempt to do right by Billie Holiday still positions her as more scapegoat than hero, slyly scolding every instance of self-mythologizing and even self-eulogizing that Billie Holiday performed during her forty-four years visiting earth, to fact-check and study her into smithereens when her whole ethic was the bent note, the truth you arrive at by misremembering and snagging it on fiction so they both bleed and blend and undo one another. Maybe I’d rather understand why she thought her invented self was more flattering, safer. What if our obsession with her in the forms it currently assumes has become redundant and reductive, even from this new sleeker, less faltering vantage? I’m not saying it’s not virtuous to try and access our heroes through details of their lives; I’m saying these might not be details but ideas of details, just like her own were, and they make me a little restless because when will she be free of all of our careless, patronizing love?

I close the book fantasizing about spending a day with my long-gone other mother, Billie Holiday—not a year but one long day, cooking, talking, sinning, singing. I think she’d confide in me that you can ripen past bitterness even as its acrid dark chases you into the afterlife, and you can spawn there into a new day, and whatever they say about you beyond that is on them, about them. Give her her embellishment, give her the ugly beauty of her circumstance, give her her intense physical beauty, give her her children, let the rest exhaust itself. Maybe all these books and films are the people doing what she did, playing and singing until they collapse under the weight of the fixation, unable to crack it into something easy to understand, interminably unsettled and forced to make peace with it or be stunted and upheld by it, as she was, both. And reprieve is: one day done right, done well, lived fearlessly, can outrun all the years. 

Harmony Holiday is the author of Maafa (Fence Books, 2022) and Life of the Party (Semiotext(e), 2024).