and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.”—Frank O’Hara, “The Day Lady Died,” from The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara, edited by Donald Allen (1995)
Billie Holiday passed away at age 44 from liver and heart disease on this date in 1959, in circumstances as miserable as any she had known in her turbulent life. Denied a license to perform in any New York establishment where alcohol was served, she had seen her already meager savings evaporate. So fierce was her substance abuse that she felt the need to procure drugs on her deathbed in a New York hospital, leading police to stay outside her door, waiting to do again what had become a habit for them: arrest her.
You’ll find nothing about this in the above elegy by New York poet Frank O’Hara for the Angel of Harlem. Initially, there are only two indications that his poem is about the great jazz singer: the title (an inversion of her nickname, Lady Day) and the second line about “three days after Bastille day,” or July 17—the day of her death. Thereafter comes a procession of mundane details—planning for a vacation, buying cigarettes, summer heat—until the lines above.
O’Hara is alluding to the last time he saw Lady Day, at the Cooper Square jazz bar Five Spot, just a few months before. Friend Kenneth Koch, participating in a jazz-and-poetry night, was accompanied by Mal Waldrop. Holiday, there to cheer on the pianist, was eventually prevailed upon by the sympathetic, densely packed audience to sing—and, by so doing, break the law.
The singer displayed that night a husk of her once peerless instrument: “her voice [was] almost gone, just like a whisper, just like the taste of very old wine, but full of spirit,” Koch recounted years later in Brad Gooch’s 1993 biography of O’Hara, City Poet. O’Hara, back by the bathroom, absorbed the atmosphere.
Blessed with enough talent as a youngster to weigh becoming a professional concert pianist, O’Hara probably possessed more musical acumen than virtually everyone in that crowded venue that night. Yet he did not recapitulate all he heard. In fact, what happened then passes swiftly in his final lines, much like Holiday’s life—and, as it turned out, his own. (He died seven years later: like Holiday, in his mid-forties, and like herself, in an almost bitterly bizarre fashion: struck down by a beach taxi on Fire Island.)
The poem circles back to the title in the last line: “everyone and I stopped breathing,” O’Hara writes. The audience’s mixture of awe and pity culminates in an action echoed in the most literal sense by Holiday’s death.
O’Hara’s was not the only work of literature inspired by Holiday. Langston Hughes and E. Ethelbert Miller would write poems; Elizabeth Hardwick, in Sleepless Nights, a vignette in her autobiographical novel; and Maya Angelou, a section in her memoir The Heart of a Woman. But the greatest amount of fiction penned about Holiday might have been written by the songstress herself, in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. Her opening—about her parents getting married when they were teenagers and she was three—is not true; they never married. The factual inaccuracies continue from that point.