Billie Holiday as Spiritual Guide


“We lost another one.” was the collective response a year ago as news broke the versatile and durable actor Philip Seymour-Hoffman was dead. The smack spike still buried in his arm, Hoffman tragically became a denizen of our unofficial hall of supremely gifted but chronically haunted luminaries.

The list of those household names is heartbreakingly long, spanning art forms, subcultures and eras. Suspended in our common sensibility, the mere mention of their names evokes in us still a mystified sadness tempered only partly by time: Hemmingway; Plath; Hendrix; Elvis; Belushi; Marvin; Cobain; Michael; Whitney; Winehouse; Robin.

But if there exists an archetype for the brilliant yet chronically troubled American famous, it must be Billie Holiday. An unwanted child of mean streets – blessed with uncommon talent and wry wit, yet plagued by her times and own undoing – she remains a spiritual study in the price creativity so often exacts.

Eleanora Fagan (Holiday’s birth name) was born into the abject poverty of a Philadelphia ghetto one hundred years ago this month. Historians are certain of little more than that she was repeatedly shuttled between Philadelphia and an older half-sister’s home in a poor section of Baltimore. Sadie Fagan, Eleanora’s mother, was barely 19 when she gave birth. Her father was believed to be a 15-year-old jazz guitarist named Clarence Holiday. (Eleanora’s only other consistent references to family were claims her maternal grandfather was one of 17 children born into Virginian slavery and her great-grandfather was an Irish-born plantation owner.)

The tortured middle and later periods of Holiday’s childhood are better documented: She dropped out of school at age 11, was raped on at least two occasions and by age 14 had been jailed along with her mother for prostitution.

Through it all Eleanora Fagan possessed a strong singing voice – her golden ticket into Harlem nightclubs where she sang for tips. She was 20 when she caught the attention of John Hammond, a writer and producer for several black jazz singers.

Under Hammond’s tutelage Fagan began recording with Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. (It was at this point Holiday took her stage name, combining those of a popular actress and her father’s. She was also dubbed “Lady Day” by a fellow musician.)

Holiday would go on to help form the vanguard of late-’30s and early-’40s jazz – a period often referred to as the genre’s early golden age – churning out the mainstream classics “Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be?),” “Body and Soul,” “Summertime,” and a grim song about Southern lynching penned by a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx, “Strange Fruit.”

But lurking behind Holiday’s soaring success was a shadow world of heroin, booze and emotional instability: over the course of the next 20 years she married; had numerous affairs; divorced; was repeatedly physically abused; served eight months in a West Virginia prison for possession of narcotics; and in 1952 married her last husband, Louis McKay, widely believed to have ties to New York mafia bosses.

By the time she reached her mid-thirties Holiday’s voice began to register the hard living. She compensated by altering her delivery – an adaption that for a period revived her career at home and abroad. She likewise managed a final studio recording and live concert in early 1959, but time was running out on Billie Holiday. Not even her small circle of friends could persuade her to stop the self-abuse. After months of chronic pain, she was admitted to a New York hospital with cirrhosis of the liver. Six weeks later and still hospitalized, Holiday was placed under house arrest for possession of illicit drugs smuggled into her room by a friend. Police guards were still at her door when she succumbed to her excesses on July 17, 1959. She was a broke and broken 44 years old.

Rare is the perfect American hero. Distilled to their existential essence, our nation’s spiritual guides are almost always flawed. Sometimes deeply so.

At our realistic best we require of our role models neither divinity nor even purity of character; for it’s their rough-hewn, profane, only partially redeemed humanity that makes them accessible. Their demons are our demons.

A century after her birth Billie Holiday retains her place in the pantheon of America’s melancholy spiritual guides; not because she was a saint who left this world with a clean slate and no regrets, but because she was a blues singer who wove song out of pain, steadfastness out of injustice.

Don Rollins is a juvenile court program coordinator and Unitarian Universalist minister in Jackson, Ohio. Email

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2015

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