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Bitter Crop: The Aftermath of Lady Sings the Blues

From: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
Volume 27, Number 2, Winter 2012
pp. 294-315 | 10.1353/abs.2012.0015

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This essay explores the mythmaking generated by Billie Holiday’s 1956 ghostwritten autobiography Lady Sings the Blues. In performance, sensationalistic tabloid stories and a posthumous biographical film, the post-autobiographical Billie Holiday suffered a type of cultural “identity theft” by her association with a constructed, semi-fictional persona.

At 8:30 p.m., November 10, 1956, nine musicians took their place on the bandstand at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. Though assembled on short notice, the group boasted jazz luminaries on the magnitude of trumpeter Roy Eldridge and tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, as well as rising talents like guitarist Kenny Burrell. Few singers could attract such an accomplished pickup band as readily as the evening’s feature attraction, Billie Holiday, who was attempting a commercial comeback with the publication of a scabrous autobiography titled Lady Sings the Blues, ghostwritten by journalist William Dufty.1 The ensemble shared the stage with one extra accompanist, Gilbert Mill-stein, a critic from the New York Times who had reviewed the book favorably that summer. As the crowd, the band, and Holiday herself looked on, Millstein assumed his spot behind a wooden lectern and declared: “This is Billie Holiday’s story.”

What transpired that evening went well beyond a concert or publicity tie-in to Holiday’s autobiography. Given free rein by the show’s producers to select which passages of Lady Sings the Blues to read aloud between songs (and without consulting Holiday), Millstein chose sections that fixated on her drug use and subsequent arrests. The performance, documented on a live album, continued a curious promotional effort on behalf of Lady Sings the Blues, one that relied on Holiday’s drug addiction and frequent arrests to authenticate the book’s shocking content and characterize the subject, in critic Gerald Early’s estimation, as a one-dimensional “pulp heroine” (428).

The live recording Billie Holiday at Carnegie Hall opens with Millstein declaiming Lady Sings the Blues’s opening paragraph in a strident New York baritone: “Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen. I was three. . . . I was a woman when I was six. I was big for my age, with big breasts, big bones, just a big fat healthy broad” (Holiday, track 1; Holiday and Dufty 3, 8).2 Already, Millstein commits a disturbing misreading—in the published version of this account Holiday “was a woman” at sixteen, not six; the white narrator’s outrageous projection of adult sexuality on a black child goes unspoken and uncorrected in the performance and in the album’s liner notes.3 Ventriloquizing and embodying Holiday through between-song recitations provides some unintentional, if cringe-worthy, comedy, as Millstein, in his best hardboiled voice, reads without a trace of irony or embarrassment passages such as, “[i]n a matter of days I had my chance to become a strictly twenty-dollar call girl—and I took it. . . . It wasn’t long before I had money to buy a few things I always wanted—my first honest-to-God silk dress and a pair of spike-heeled ten-dollar patent-leather pumps” (Holiday, track 4; Holiday and Dufty 25).4 If, as historian David Yaffe argues, jazz autobiographies often pander to their audiences with salacious tales of prostitution and pimping, here we have an appointed, official reader giving the audience exactly the type of content it wants, no matter how inconguous it may sound in the context of a concert.

In his own mediated version of Holiday’s story, Millstein collapses the tale of her professional rise with brisk dispatch. In the space of two minutes and six seconds, Millstein-as-Holiday leaves the call-girl business, serves a stint in jail, walks into a cabaret looking for a job, finds her voice, wins over her audience, makes her recording debut with Benny Goodman in 1933, and triumphs at the Apollo Theatre (Holiday, track 5). Interviewed for the liner notes of Billie Holiday at Carnegie Hall’s compact-disc reissue, Millstein modestly recalls how he got the job of being Billie Holiday’s narrative voice: “I had gotten to know Billie through [Columbia Records producer] John...



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