On this day in 1948,
Lady Day herself was released early from Alderson Federal Prison in West
Virginia for good behavior. Billie Holiday, the legendary jazz and blues singer,
had been arrested for narcotic possession a year earlier on May 16, 1947.
One of Billie’s trademarks was the white gardenias she wore on the left side of her hair during performances. (x)
Eleanora Fagan was
born April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia. It wasn’t until the late 1920s as a young
singer in Harlem when she would take on the name Billie Holiday as her stage
name – a combination of her favorite actress Billie Dove and the man presumed
to be her biological father, Clarence Holiday. After several years of singing
in various New York nightclubs, Billie was signed to Brunswick Records in 1935.
She collaborated with various hotshot musicians and pianists at the time,
including Teddy Wilson and Artie Shaw. Billie enjoyed a whirlwind career
throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and with songs like “What a Little Moonlight Can
Do,” “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Strange Fruit,” and “I’ll Be Seeing You,” Billie
was not only one of the most influential musicians of her time but she was also
one of the most popular celebrities in America. Although people relied on
Billie’s music for crooning, soulful depictions of heterosexual relationships,
the woman behind the celebrity façade was known to have many relationships with
women. The most well-known of Billie’s same sex affairs were with heiress Louise
Crane and actress Tallulah Bankhead.
Billie Holiday is photographed at Club Ebony with jazz trombonist Dickie Wells (left) and actress Tallulah Bankhead (right), who Billie had a torrid love affair with in the late 1940s. Courtesy of Jet Magazine, 1951.
introduced to opium early in her career, Billie would struggle with drug
addiction for the majority of her life. One night after a show in Philadelphia the police raided the hotel Billie and her band were staying in, later charging
Billie with possession of heroin. On the advice of her managers at Columbia Records,
Billie declined legal representation and was sentenced to serve a year and a
day in Alderson Federal Prison. After being released early for good behavior,
Billie joyously returned to her home in New York City. She later recalled being
greeted by her beloved dog Mister, him jumping on her and knocking her hat off,
and “lapping me and loving me like crazy!” Her manager Ed Fisher devised the
idea for Billie to perform a comeback show and on March 27, 1948, Billie sang
to a sold out crowd at Carnegie Hall. The American public loved Billie Holiday
with a voracity that was hard to conquer despite the hardships she faced in her career.
“Portrait of Billie Holiday” photographed by William P. Gottlieb at her famous comeback performance held in Carnegie Hall mere weeks after she was released from prison. (x)