Award-winning director Lee Daniels is best known for films like “The Butler” and the Oscar-winning “Precious.” In his latest film he turns his attention to singer Billie Holiday.
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” tells how the jazz legend ended up on the wrong side of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics because of her song “Strange Fruit,” which the bureau wanted to suppress.
Lee Daniels spoke with Michel Martin about the shocking true story and his own struggles with addiction. # lee daniels
Director Lee Daniels: Why the U.S. Govt. Wanted to Silence Billie Holiday-
Eleanora Fagan known professionally as Billie Holiday, was a jazz and swing music singer with a career spanning 26 years. Nicknamed “Lady Day” by her friend and music partner Lester Young, Holiday had an innovative influence on jazz music and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo. She was known for her vocal delivery and improvisational skills.
1939: “Strange Fruit”
Holiday was in the middle of recording for Columbia in the late 1930s when she was introduced to “Strange Fruit“, a song based on a poem about lynching written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx. Meeropol used the pseudonym “Lewis Allan” for the poem, which was set to music and performed at teachers’ union meetings.
It was eventually heard by Barney Josephson, the proprietor of Café Society, an integrated nightclub in Greenwich Village, who introduced it to Holiday. She performed it at the club in 1939, with some trepidation, fearing possible retaliation. She later said that the imagery of the song reminded her of her father’s death and that this played a role in her resistance to performing it.
Holiday said her father, Clarence Holiday, was denied medical treatment for a fatal lung disorder because of racial prejudice, and that singing “Strange Fruit” reminded her of the incident. “It reminds me of how Pop died, but I have to keep singing it, not only because people ask for it, but because twenty years after Pop died the things that killed him are still happening in the South”, she wrote in her autobiography
Holiday’s popularity increased after “Strange Fruit”. She received a mention in Time magazine. “I open Café Society as an unknown,” Holiday said. “I left two years later as a star. I needed the prestige and publicity all right, but you can’t pay rent with it.” She soon demanded a raise from her manager, Joe Glaser. Holiday returned to Commodore in 1944, recording songs she made with Teddy Wilson in the 1930s, including “I Cover the Waterfront“, “I’ll Get By“, and “He’s Funny That Way“. She also recorded new songs that were popular at the time, including, “My Old Flame“, “How Am I to Know?”, “I’m Yours”, and “I’ll Be Seeing You“, a number one hit for Bing Crosby. She also recorded her version of “Embraceable You“, which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2005
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Holiday had mainstream success on labels such as Columbia and Decca. By the late 1940s, however, she was beset with legal troubles and drug abuse. After a short prison sentence, she performed at a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall, but her reputation deteriorated because of her drug and alcohol problems.
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday”
On May 16, 1947, Billie Holiday was arrested for possession of narcotics in her New York apartment. On May 27 she was in court. “It was called ‘The United States of America versus Billie Holiday’. And that’s just the way it felt,” she recalled. During the trial, she heard that her lawyer would not come to the trial to represent her. “In plain English that meant no one in the world was interested in looking out for me,” she said.
Dehydrated and unable to hold down food, she pleaded guilty and asked to be sent to the hospital. The district attorney spoke in her defense, saying, “If your honor please, this is a case of a drug addict, but more serious, however, than most of our cases, Miss Holiday is a professional entertainer and among the higher rank as far as income was concerned.”
She was sentenced to Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia. The drug possession conviction caused her to lose her New York City Cabaret Card, preventing her working anywhere that sold alcohol; thereafter, she performed in concert venues and theaters.
On May 31, 1959, Holiday was taken to Metropolitan Hospital in New York for treatment of liver disease and heart disease. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, under the order of Harry J. Anslinger, had been targeting Holiday since at least 1939. She was arrested and handcuffed for drug possession. As she lay dying, her hospital room was raided, and she was placed under police guard. On July 15, she received the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church. She died at 3:10 a.m. on July 17, of pulmonary edema and heart failure caused by cirrhosis of the liver.
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