Review: ‘Billie’ (2020), an oral history of Billie Holiday’s life

February 25, 2021

by Carla Hay

Bobby Tucker and Billie Holiday in “Billie” (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

“Billie” (2020)

Directed by James Erskine

Culture Representation: The documentary “Billie” features a group of white and black people, who were associated with Billie Holiday, discussing the life of the legendary jazz singer, who died at the age of 44 in 1959.

Culture Clash: Holiday battled drug addiction, and several people who knew her say that she was a target of the FBI.

Culture Audience: “Billie” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a raw and authentic look at Holiday’s life, as told by people who knew her best.

Billie Holiday in “Billie” (Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)

The insightful documentary “Billie” (directed by James Erskine) is a highly unusual non-fiction film because most of it is based on previously unreleased audio interviews that were conducted in the 1970s. Billie Holiday is the subject of the documentary, and there’s expected archival footage of her in her film. But the interviews are by numerous people who knew her best who wouldn’t be able to be interviewed today, because almost everyone is now deceased.

Holiday, who died of heart failure and cirrhosis of the liver at age 44 in 1959, was an iconic jazz singer who was also one of the first African American entertainers to record music speaking out against racial injustice. She was a highly talented and unique star, but she also complicated and deeply troubled. Her highs, lows and everything in between are detailed in the film, but there’s still a sense of mystery about Holiday that remains to this day. (It’s one of the reasons why biopics about Holiday portray her in very different ways.)

The audio recordings in “Billie” come from the archives of New York City-based journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl, who died by falling from a hotel in Washington, D.C., on February 4, 1978. She was 38. The official cause of death was ruled a suicide, but her younger sister Myra Luftman (who is not interviewed on camera) says in the documentary that Kuehl probably died from foul play because of the research that Keuhl was doing for the book.

Kuehl was an experienced arts journalist who wrote for The Paris Review and The New York Times Sunday magazine. She began working on the Holiday biography in 1971 and interviewed an impressive number of people. (The documentary has lots of images of cassette recorders and reel-to-reel tap machines in operation, to give a visual representation of these interviews.) She was a perfectionist, according to her sister, which is why it took so long for Kuehl to work on the uncompleted book.

According to Luftman, her sister Kuehl was threatened by people close to Count Basie, who became close to Kuehl when she interviewed him for the book. Kuehl was twice-divorced with no children, while Basie was married with children. Although Luftman couldn’t be sure if Basie and her sister had a sexual affair, she thinks those threats might have had something to do with Kuehl’s death.

Kuehl died after attending a Basie concert in Washington, D.C. Luftman says that a big clue for her that it wasn’t a suicide was that Kuehl had a cosmetic face mask on, which was her habit when she got ready for bed. An epilogue at the end of the documentary mentions that because of the destruction of police records, “investigations into Linda’s death made during the film proved inconclusive.”

In the documentary, Luftman explains why her sister wanted to write a Billie Holiday biography: “Even thought they came from totally different backgrounds, I think she really identified with Billie. I think she felt the pain of someone’s struggles. She did not see [Billie Holiday] as the victim, which is the way she had been portrayed.”

Holiday co-wrote her 1956 memoir “Lady Sings the Blues” with William Dufty, and the book became the basis of the 1972 feature film of the same name, starring Diana Ross, who earned an Oscar nomination for her role as Holiday. The “Billie” documentary gives added depth to Holiday’s memoir, since it includes the perspectives of people who talk about things that Holiday didn’t want to talk about in her book. One thing everyone agrees on is that Holiday grew up rough and grew up fast, which undoubtedly shaped the person she became later in life.

Holiday’s birth name was Eleanora Fagan, and she was born to teenage parents in Philadelphia on April 7, 1915. Sarah Julia “Sadie” Fagan (a maid) was 13 when she gave birth to Eleanora, and Clarence Halliday (a musician) was 15. Eleanora’s parents got married when she was 3 years old, and she was raised primarily in Baltimore. Her parents split up not long after getting married, and Halliday became an absentee father who remained out of his daughter’s life.

John Fagan, a cousin of Holiday’s, says in the documentary of their upbringing in East Baltimore: “It was a nice community to live. It was a different kind of poor … We were happy with what we had.” Mary “Pony” Kane, a childhood friend of Holiday’s, remembers that Eleanor was foul-mouthed, even as a child. Eleanor’s favorite curse words were “motherfucker” and “cocksucker.”

By all accounts, Eleanor started working as a housecleaner/maid before she was a teenager. She also began hanging out at a brothel, which is where she first heard jazz music. But the time she was 13, she was a prostitute. Her cousin John says, “During them times, she had to survive. She wasn’t like a slut. She just looked fast.”

However, Holiday’s former pianist Memry Midgett says in the documentary that Holiday’s prostitution past haunted her throughout her life. Midgett says that Holiday would “talk for hours about how she started in prostitution when she was 13 years old. At the time, she had her own girls on the street. She was terribly worried about whether or not God would forgive her.”

Skinny Davenport, a pimp who knew Holiday in her prostitution days, describes how the hookers in the neighborhood were treated: “Knock ’em down, kick ’em in the ass. They loved it.” Several people in the documentary describe Holiday as a “masochist” who never knew what it was like to have a healthy love relationship when she was adult. Considering all the trauma that Holiday had when she was a child (she was also raped more than once when she was a teenager), it’s no surprise that she ended up way that she did.

In 1928, Holiday and her mother moved to New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. And by the age of 14, Holiday was singing professionally in nightclubs. In an archival radio interview, Holiday says, “I always knew I could sing, but I didn’t know I could make money out of it, until I was working in a little joint called The Hot Cha.” Pigmeat Markham, an entertainer who knew Holiday in her early days as a performer, remembers that Holiday had “stagefright.”

Detroit Red, a dancer work worked with Holiday at The Hot Cha, remembers: “At that particular time, the only vice she had was smoking [marijuana] reefers.” Later, Holiday became an alcoholic and addicted to cocaine and heroin. Her drug problems led to her multiple arrests at the height of her fame. It’s implied that her addiction issues were inherited, because Sandy Williams, a bandmate of Holiday’s father Clarence, describes Clarence as a “happy-go-lucky guy” who “loved his booze” and was often drunk.

Shortly after she became a professional singer as a teenager, Holiday began working with musician/producer John Hammond, who introduced her to Benny Goodman in 1933. Hammond says of Goodman, “He slept with Billie. I was one of the people who didn’t.” Holiday was the first black singer to work with Goodman in those racially segregated times.

Holiday’s career reached a new level when she began singing for the Count Basie Orchestra. Basie’s saxophonist Lester Young is credited with giving Holiday the nickname Lady Day. Holiday’s mother Sadie (who took an interested in her daughter’s career) was nicknamed Duchess. Along with Count Basie, “we were the Royal Family,” Holiday said in an archival interview. She said of Young, who would become her constant companion: “I returned the compliment and called him the President.”

In a 1972 interview, pianist Jimmy Rowles had this to say about Holiday and Young’s relationship: “They had the funniest way of loving each other. It was brother and sister, but it was another thing … He was one of the strangest people on Earth. He was like a visitor, but she was too.”

Holiday’s time with Basie and his band ended on a sour note when she left. Depending on whom you believe, she either quit or was fired. In the documentary interview, Hammond says, “There was a real problem between Billie and Basie. She wasn’t making enough money. This was one of the principal reasons why she left the band.” Hammond estimates that Holiday’s salary with Basie was $125 a week, at the most.

However, drummer Jo Jones has a entirely different recollection of why Holiday parted ways with Basie. Jones insists: “She didn’t leave the band. She was fired by John Hammond.” Jones says that Hammond fired Holiday because she refused Hammond’s demands to sing blues music.

Kuehl is heard in the interview going back and forth with Jones and Hammond to get their reactions to these conflicting allegations. Jones gets very angry in the interview when he hears that Hammond has denied firing Holiday, while Hammond expresses bewilderment in reacting to Jones’ claims that Hammond fired Holiday.

Meanwhile, Basie doesn’t offer much insight about Holiday in his interview commentary, because he claims he didn’t really know what was going on when she was in his band. (It’s hard to believe he didn’t know.) When asked if the stories were true that Holiday had to darken her skin when performing with Basie and his band, because she was so much lighter-skinned then they were, Basie also claims ignorance about that issue.

Whatever the real reasons for Holiday’s exit from the Count Basie Orchestra, her next career opportunity was one that was groundbreaking but controversial at the time. She was the singer for Artie Shaw and His Orchestra, who were all white. Shaw, bassist Sid Weiss, guitarist Al Arola, guitarist Les Robinson and friend Mae Weiss all mention in their documentary interviews that many racist people back then refused to accept a black female singer performing with a group of white musicians.

On tour, especially in the U.S. South, they encountered a lot of vicious racism. She also got a lot of abuse and harassment from racists they encountered. Holiday was accustomed to being the only woman in a band, but with Artie Shaw and His Orchestra, she felt the pain of racial segregation, since she couldn’t she wasn’t allowed in “whites only” public places with the rest of the band, such as restaurants and hotels. The problems became too much for her, and she quit working with Artie Shaw and His Orchestra.

Being a solo act gave Holiday the freedom to record what’s considered the most important and most controversial song of her career: “Strange Fruit.” Written by Abel Meeropol under the alias Lewis Allan, and released in 1939, the song is a poetically brutal commentary on racial injustice, particularly in describing the lynching of black people in the South. “Strange Fruit” was banned from radio airplay in certain areas, and many venues forbid Holiday from performing the song.

Music producer Marty Gabler says in the documentary that Columbia Records didn’t want to release “Strange Fruit” because of “the social content and because of how unusual it was to do a protest song.” “Strange Fruit” is considered historically important because it was one of the first social justice songs released by a mainstream performer prior to the U.S. civil rights movement. Protest songs became more prevalent in the 1960s, but Holiday was a pioneer.

Cafe Society owner Barney Josephson says that it wasn’t unusual for white customers to walk out of the club and complain if Holiday performed the song. Josephson sums up the usual complaint that he got was: “We came to your nightclub to be entertained. We don’t call this entertainment.” Jazz musician Charles Mingus says “Strange Fruit” was very impactful because it shows that Holiday was “fighting for equality before Martin Luther King. The song she chose exposed discrimination, [by] putting it on stage.”

Jazz/swing singer Billy Eckstine says that one of the biggest racial inequality problems that black artists had to deal with was that their music was being controlled and judged by white people. “Get a load of the critics, the people who judge our music. There never was a black critic in swing music. Because of the power structure, [black people] never had a chance.”

As Holiday’s fame grew, so too did her notoriety for being a drug addict. Several people in the documentary say that New York City doormen (especially on 52nd Street) would regularly supply her with drugs. Joe Guy, a trumpet player in her band, was also one of her main drug connections. Holiday’s boxer dog was used as a way to transport drugs underneath the dog’s collar. Although she was a heavy user of marijuana, alcohol and cocaine, Holiday was most associated with her use of heroin and other opiates.

Several people in the documentary literally say in one way or another, “She loved to get high.” And they talk about how she had an unusually high physical tolerance for drugs that was stronger than men who were physically a lot bigger than she was. Sylvia Syms, a singer and longtime friend of Holiday’s, comments on Holiday’s drug addiction: “She really dug being high, but I never saw anyone with such a capacity.”

It’s mentioned several times in the documentary that Holiday’s well-known drug problem and the controversy over “Strange Fruit” led to a conspiracy to bring her down, with the FBI involved. Jimmy Fletcher, an African American who was a narcotics agent for the FBI at the time, says that Holiday’s agent Joe Glaser worked with the FBI to arrest her in a drug bust “for her own good.”

According to Fletcher, “He [Glaser] confided in me that he wanted to save her. And the only way to save her was to have her knocked out by the government.” George H. White, who was a narcotics agent at the time, says Holiday’s lavish lifestyle also made her a target for the FBI and other law enforcement: “Billie flaunted her way of living.”

A 1947 shootout with cops in Philadelphia led to Holiday’s first arrest for narcotics possession. She was sentenced to one year and one day in prison. The documentary includes archival news video footage of Joan Allen, a correctional officer who worked at the federal rehabilitation facility in Alderston, West Virginia, where Holiday served her prison time.

Allen shows the cell where Holiday stayed and describes Holiday as “quiet and certainly no trouble ever. She was a generous person, I’d say, in thought anyway. She never bothered anybody.” And to the best of anyone’s knowledge, Holiday didn’t sing while she was incarcerated.

Even though she performed a historic sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall after she was let out of prison in 1948 (at the time, Carnegie Hall was a venue for classical and opera music, not jazz), the damage to her reputation was done. She lost her cabaret license to perform in New York City nightclubs, thereby limiting her income options. Her second drug bust came in San Francisco in 1949, but she didn’t get any prison time for that arrest.

Dr. James Hamilton, a psychiatrist who interviewed Holiday when she was in prison, had this diagnosis of her. “She’s a psychopath.” While interviewer Kuehl can be heard gasping in shock when she hears this description, Hamilton elaborates that Holiday was “impulse-driven, strong, talented but not a dependable individual.” He noted that he thinks that Holiday’s inability to control her impulses made her psychopathic.

As for Holiday’s love life, several people in the documentary say that Holiday was openly bisexual. In a 1971 interview, Ruby Davis, who was Holiday’s roommate before the singer was famous, says that Holiday’s nickname was Mr. Billie Holiday “because she was seldom seen with fellas … Her mother put it in her mind to be careful [of men] because they’ll always break your heart, just like Billie’s father.”

Harry “Sweets” Edison, a trumpeter in the Count Basie Orchestra comments on Holiday: “She was like a man, but feminine.” John Simmons, who was her bass player and lover, calls her a “sex machine.” Music conductor Ray Ellis also comments on Holiday’s sex appeal: “I was in love with Billie, not necessarily Billie, but somebody. That voice. It turned me on.”

Although Holiday had several male and female lovers, only one woman is mentioned in the documentary as being one of her paramours: actress Tallulah Bankhead. Some people in the documentary allude to Holiday being fond of sex orgies. And it seems that Holiday didn’t want to settle down with anyone who was considered “nice” or “normal.”

Irene Kitchen, one of Holiday’s friends, mentions musician Sonny White, who was briefly Holiday’s fiancé, as “nice, quiet, a very good musician … Her mother and I hoped that she would marry him. Jimmy “Flashy” Monroe [a pimp who became a trombonist in Holiday’s band] broke them up. The next thing I know, she was using coke.”

Monroe would become Holiday’s first husband, whom she married in 1941. By all accounts, he was abusive and a heavy drug user. By the time that Holiday was arrested in 1947, she listed her marital status as “separated.” She and Monroe got divorced the same year.

Her romances didn’t get any better. John Levy became her manager and lover, even though he was married at the time. He reportedly ripped her off. Maria Bryant, a singer and friend of Holiday’s, calls Levy a “dirty, rotten, stinking bastard.”

In 1945, Holiday moved on to Louis McKay, who would become her manager and then her second husband. They got married in 1957. The documentary includes stories of people witnessing McKay (who’s been described as a mafia enforcer) being physically abusive to Holiday. Earl Zaiding, who was Holiday’s lawyer, calls McKay a “pathological liar.”

There were reports that McKay was very controlling and unscrupulous when it came to Holiday’s finances. At the time of her death, she and McKay were separated and not divorced. She had $750 to her name when she died, according to the documentary. Because McKay was still legally married to Holiday when she died, he inherited Holiday’s estate and future earnings.

Milt Hilton, a bass player who worked with Holiday during her last music recording sessions, remembers: “She was in pretty bad shape.” He took many of the widely published photos of her during these last sessions. A frail-looking Holiday is shown holding a glass of alcohol. Other people interviewed in the documentary include trombonist Melba Liston and singer Carmen McCrae.

The documentary doesn’t uncover any new visual footage of Billie Holiday. The songs that she sings in performance clips include “Strange Fruit, “Blues Are Brewin'” (with Louis Armstrong), “Fine and Mellow,” “My Man (Mon Homme),” “I Loves You Porgy,” “God Bless the Child” and “Don’t Explain,” the song that Holiday said represented her the best. There’s also a clip of her role as Endie in the 1947 film “New Orleans.”

Because “Billie” is told in chronological order of her life, the documentary has a very easy narrative to follow. Tony Bennett, who says he briefly knew Holiday, sums up the way a lot of people feel about Holiday: “She told her own story, just by being herself. She had a wild life.” He adds, “I want to know why all girl singers crack up. When they reach the top, something tragic happens.”

Greenwich Entertainment released “Billie” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on December 4, 2020.