By Julia Blackburn
Pantheon. 354 pp. $25
Here are some people who might love -- or be improved by -- "With Billie," a wonderful new biography of Billie Holiday:
Fans of Billie. Aficionados of jazz. Students of African American culture. Lovers of the bizarre and the strange. Psychiatrists. Psychologists. Feminists. Gender studies folks. People who love the craft and mystery of wonderful writing as well as wonderful writing itself. Those who yearn for an unreachable, enchanting past. Political activists. Lawmakers. Lawbreakers.
And here are some people who shouldn't read "With Billie" because they might get upset:
Those who are put off by descriptions of sex, strong language, drug use and drinking. Those who are too tenderhearted to read about rank injustice and awful poverty, even if it is intermittently laced with glamour and triumph.
There's quite a story behind the writing of "With Billie." Back in 1972, a woman named Linda Kuehl got it into her head to write a biography of the singer. She conducted more than 150 interviews and evidently decided to use the results in a conventional way, with the interviews as source material. But she couldn't make the book work and, perhaps at least partially because of that, seemingly committed suicide. The papers went to a private collector.
About 30 years later, Julia Blackburn also decided to write a biography of Holiday. She purchased the papers: tapes, transcripts, medical reports, private letters. Blackburn, who's written both novels and nonfiction books, tried again to bring order to all this chaos, and once again it didn't work. "That was when I decided," she writes, "this book must be a documentary in which people are free to tell their own stories about Billie and it doesn't matter if the stories don't fit together, or even if sometimes they seem to be talking about a completely different woman."
And with this tack, Blackburn did it; she pulled off a miracle of organization and editing, then transformed the whole thing by the magical (if occasional) addition of her own outrageous, melodious voice. How, for instance, does she establish the "street cred" to write about Billie, who besides being one of the great American vocalists of the 20th century, was also a sometime prostitute, regularly beaten by a string of dubious husbands and pimps -- a woman who did time in reform school and jail and had a daunting string of drug arrests? This way:
"When I first heard Billie Holiday's voice, I had just turned fourteen. I was at a party and everyone was much older than me and very drunk. . . . There were two prostitutes at the party." She goes on to describe a couple of guests dancing naked, and mentions that her mother was hostess of this party: "we had become two women: one young, the other no longer young. My mother never said she would look after me if there was trouble and it never occurred to me that she might."
Blackburn can write about Holiday without judgment or even undue adulation; however strange the life Billie lived, Blackburn had more than a passing acquaintance with that kind of experience. What follows is a series of monologues, culled from the Kuehl interviews and buttressed by Blackburn's additions.
An extraordinary set of voices make themselves heard here, from the somewhat famous to the very obscure. This volume is the antithesis of a celebrity biography. Rather, the text illuminates the lives of an African American demimonde, a host of just plain poverty-stricken, psychologically orphaned ex-slaves and their children who had nothing -- absolutely nothing -- but managed to make something amazing out of that daunting void.
Holiday was raised (sort of) by her mother, who was busy most of the time earning money on her back. Raped when she was 9, Billie was described as a "minor without proper care and guardianship" and sentenced to spend a year at the local reform school. Then she was out again, penniless, hanging out mostly with whores and pimps. As an old guy named Skinny "Rim" Davenport remembers, "All the fellas was pimping. . . . The girls used to trade with the white cats, because the black cats didn't have no money. The black cats had nothing."
During that time, Billie began singing. "She liked to sing," Davenport recalls, "and she used to sing every night, and every night she'd go to different places and she'd tell people where she'd be and they would follow her." Those places! Good-time houses, whorehouses, drinking clubs, musicians' clubs, reefer pads, after-hours clubs, corn joints (where they drank corn whiskey), shooting galleries (where they did drugs). She led a life lived at night, with a string of those fancy boyfriends and some good girlfriends, too, created from the material at hand.
Billie went to New York and became famous. She sang with Count Basie and was best friends with the legendary saxophonist Lester Young. Then marijuana (legal until 1937) was outlawed, and the police were all over her from then on. Her last years were increasingly lonely and beleaguered. Her voice deteriorated. She was deserted by many of her friends. Was it because she persisted in singing "Strange Fruit," the classic lament about lynching that was written just for her? Or was it because her whole life was a defiant statement to white authority: "Yes, I'm black and quite fat, and I was raped when I was 9. But guess what? I made it in this country, and I'm just as good -- if not better -- than you."
Julia Blackburn is far too cool to come to any conclusions. She just lets Billie's life glow.