Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen and I was three.
Actually, there’s no proof that Sarah Fagan ever married Clarence Holiday. And apparently Sarah was nineteen when daughter Eleanora was born. Still, life for the family was not an easy one. Clarence left them to return to his music career. Sarah worked on passenger railroads. Eleanora was left with her mother’s half-sister’s mother-in-law. At age eleven, Eleanora managed to fight off a rapist for long enough for her mother to get home; she spent three months as a ward of the court as a witness. At twelve, she was a servant in a brothel; by fourteen, she was a prostitute. The house was raided, and she spent some time in a workhouse. When she was released, she started singing in Harlem clubs.
There is a lot of tragedy in that story, and that’s only its beginning. She took on the name Billie Holiday. Billie, for silent film star Billie Dove, and her father’s stage name Holiday. She didn’t have the greatest singing voice ever—she could sing one step more than an octave. But my Gods, what she did with that tiny range. She was one of the most iconic voices of the twentieth century, even though she was only active for a few short years of it.
She also, of course, died tragically young. Her excesses caught up with her. In one of her books, Maya Angelou tells of meeting Holiday just before her death, about the decaying wreck of a great voice, the shell of a beautiful woman. She died at 44, all but broke and desperately ill. And under arrest for drug use. She couldn’t even stop drinking after being diagnosed with cirrhosis. She tried to go to the hospital at long last, after losing twenty pounds in a few months, and was arrested in her hospital bed.
I want to talk about the good aspects of her life, but the simple fact is, you almost can’t. Her great song “Strange Fruit” was written by the adoptive parents of the Rosenbergs’ children, and it reminded her of her father’s death after it took him too long to get treatment at a VA hospital because of Jim Crow. (Mustard gas exposure during World War I.) So yeah. Even the highs of her career were marbled in tragedy.
Honestly, we were lucky to have had as much of her as we did. So many children born in her circumstances had so many fewer opportunities than she did. She managed something of her life; in seven years, she made twelve studio albums. She did a small amount of acting, a lot of stage shows. She tried, and her demons took over. What else can you say?