Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 123 in June, 2010.
am sitting here on this lovely late Friday afternoon early evening, the block's smallest kids are happy-screaming through all the back yards, my wife Louise is making the big first experiment with veal scallopini on the double hot-plate, I’m on my second vodka tonic, she's on her second vodka tonic, and now over the radio comes the news that some poor miserable misbegotten angel of mercy at Metropolitan Hospital, the second or third hospital she finally got into after her damn near dying like Bessie Smith while being kept out of a number of other loving Christian joints in New York City in 1959, has turned in Billie Holiday for possession of narcotics, a little powder in her purse, that's heroin, man, that's criminal, that's practically Devil's Island; and while the Lady is dying there, or close to it, so says the radio, the cops have booked a charge against her (by telephone) and have posted a guard around her room and are giving her the good old business; if you don't think they do it you don't deserve to think, come on, Billie, come on, sister, come on, you're gonna kick the bucket anyway, you might as well make it easy for yourself, where'd you get it, who brought it in, where, how, who?
So there she is, Lady Day, after a couple of years in the (almost) clear, right back where they want her, where they've always wanted her, and can once again feel good and clean and right and thoroughly coplike about it.
I am so dragged by this information, I don't usually use words like drag in what I write, that I simply don't know what to do about it except to work it off in the writer's usual noble and vicarious manner, that's twice I've used usual in this sentence, by sitting here and typing down come what may what I think of the gutlessness of this lovely age into which, at closing 40, I've (question mark) matured.
Louise dear you are going to have to keep the scallopini under control for maybe another five minutes, experiment or no experiment, because I know, I have just heard you express, the depthlessness of your nausea too over this latest immediate little turn of events in our heroic life and times. Tonight as I came home I read the newspaper crossing Seventh Avenue and saw Ted Poston's story about how it was for him personally at Tallahassee, the way it always is for him at those trials he, this Negro, somewhere inside himself has the balls that I or you shall never have, dear reader, dear nurse, dear cops, dear Harry F. Anslinger, to go and cover; and in the morning on the other direction across the avenue I read about how that great and insightful literary expert and Chevvy salesman our postmaster general had searched his insides and come up with the Truth and the Word and the Position on Lady Chatterley’s Lover; and I am still not quite yet able to get over the all-around attractive electoral manhood of Battling Bob the Boy Mayor in (among many other things) the oh so nonessential inconsequential case of the Erosive Shakespeare of Central Park, but now it is completely the end of afternoon and the radio is blasting and the kids are yelling and fading away home as their parents herd them in, and I am forced to exclude all of these and think only, if I can, of Lady Day. Let me think.
I first discovered her, I would suppose, when Lucille Kron made me listen to ‘Strange Fruit’ and ‘Fine and Mellow,’ along about 1936-37-38, when I like Lucille and all the rest of us was 16 going on 18, the tenth grade or so. But that was only the first discovery, and every Friday or Saturday night in those years we would all go to one another’s houses and play the records, Billie, BG, TD, the whole bit (a word not known then), and hold hands and talk sophisticated and neck and dance. And I can remember this difference between Billie’s and all the others: the others made you glad to be young, smack in the teeth of the Depression and the sit-down strikes and the onrushing war; but hers just made you shiver, melt, and want to grow up. Then some years later I finally made it (another new phrase) to 52nd Street, and there she was, big, stunning, thrilling, the real thing.
I went back and back, and sometimes I went back alone, old Holden Caulfield right down to all but the hunting cap. One night I stayed late, alone, until closing. Or maybe it was just a late break between sets, I don’t know, I am now on my third vodka scallopini several hundred thousand light years later. Anyway, just as I reached the steps the canopy and the sidewalk, she reached the steps the canopy and the sidewalk, and up and out of the place there came along with her this great huge shaggy gray oaf of a dog with Lady half towing it and half in tow, crooning to it, making love to it, stumbling over it, cursing it, adoring it, following it, leading it up those stairs-and in any and every event very clearly selecting and preferring it absolutely over any other animal on earth, four legged or two, white or Negro, male or female, friend or foe, myself the gawking Caulfield not excluded.
She and I were both then something like 20 years old, she a year or six older than me, and I do believe I must have stood there in the night and looked at her and silently implored: Wait, Billie, wait, let me walk with you and talk with you, I like you, I like your dog, no one feels your singing the way I do, no one thinks you’re as beautiful as I do, it’s 3 in the morning, Billie, let me take you somewhere quiet off these streets. She threw me one split-second, wholly summarizing glance which cut me instantly down from 20 years old to 10; then to the dog she said: ‘Let’s go, sugar,’ and with a rich secret giggle she went careening off with it, eastward, into the dark. And it is getting dark outside this window now too, and dark where she lies on that crank-up bed, and I somehow feel that I sensed, intuited, even then, an overeducated uneducated young fool alone on an emptying sidewalk, all the whole story of the 20 years that were hers, not mine, and no not becopped beautiful nigger slum singer songstress already prostitute lesbo dope addict big star and idol ofay-hating whorecome bitter done dead learned made placed hip (new word) hep they are repeating that bulletin it is 7 P.M. Louise I shall stop this soon girl great singer of our age stylist entrailtwister and artist, the only real word of them all, let postmasters cops sheriffs mayors congressmen generals doctors nurses put that in their pipes and smoke on it until Hell freezes over and kingdom come.
We take you now Mr. and Mrs. North America some 20 years more or less into the future which is some two or three years into the immediate past, and I am now in a 1958 powder-blue push-button Chrysler, honest to God the only one I ever saw that close or sat in or drove, roaring at 80, 90 miles an hour, I am not exaggerating, up the Turnpike from Philly to here, once again at almost 3 in the morning, and that great big shaggy dog I spoke of has now shrunk to a tiny little ratlike widget, and...
THAT MUCH did I write, with the vodka and the anger inside me, my own sort of (unplanned) experiment, on a lovely Friday afternoon and early evening perhaps a month or so ago. At which point a fuse blew and the scallopini had to come out, ready or no. They were great. The next morning and all the following mornings I let it lie, not daring or wishing to pick it up. It was Louise who finally did so and said: ‘Look at it.’ I looked at it and thought about the way I could see I must have been planning, that day, to end it, but now the vodka was out of me and the anger was too congealed, already almost boring, so I put it back down. And then, three weeks later, in Metropolitan Hospital, at 44, Billie Holiday slipped back from her gains and suffered a relapse quite possibly as a side-effect of withdrawal symptoms, and died. Today as I come back to this machine, they are putting her into the ground. But I prefer to remember the powder blue Chrysler, and the little chihuahua jittering in the back seat, and what Louis said in Philadelphia and the Lady said in New York at the two ends of that crazy dash, a couple of summers ago, through the night.
Two summers ago The Village Voice, a Greenwich Village weekly newspaper which I help run, decided to co-sponsor a Saturday-midnight jazz concert at Lowe’s Sheridan, a 2500-seat movie theatre a few blocks from our office. The star and main attraction would be Billie Holiday, who for the past decade had not been permitted to sing in any New York bar or night club by police fiat. There was no edict, however, which would prevent her from taking part in a concert in a theatre. The Village is full of middling-young people with long memories or very young people with unfulfilled nostalgias and a deep wish to find out; we knew that just the name of Billie Holiday would pack the Sheridan, and dying to hear her in person once again, even if they said her voice was going or gone. We knew she needed the break and the money and that, come what may, she would put on a hell of a show. The tickets went like wildfire as soon as they were placed on sale, and up until the morning of the night of the concert everything moved along about as smoothly as you can ever hope for on such occasions. And then Art D’Lugoff, the entrepreneurial half of the sponsorship, called my office, and reached me, and said: ‘Who’s going to fetch her up from Philadelphia?’
I said: ‘Philadelphia?’ and Art said: ‘Yes, she’s booked through 11 o’clock tonight in a night club in Philadelphia’ and I said: ‘You mean by car? It’s about two hours from Philadelphia to New York, isn’t it? And what car?’
Art said: ‘Yes, by car, as long as she gets up to the Sheridan sometime between 1 and 2 it’ll be all right, we’ll put the other musicians on first, doesn’t the paper have a car?’
I said yes, the paper did have a car, but it was one that was formerly my own ’49 Olds, a hand-me-down then and falling to pieces now, and I didn’t have any confidence it would make it up from Philly in two hours if at all, and anyway it wasn’t very big, how many people would be coming up from Philadelphia? And Art said Billy and her husband and her accompanist Mal Waldron and maybe one or two others, he wasn’t sure. I said uh-uh, not the Olds--and as a matter of fact that was one of the wisest things I ever said, because less than two weeks later, I think it was, the Olds suddenly and positively gave up the ghost for good.
‘Doesn’t Jack have a car?’ Art said. He meant Jack Coleman, the then advertising manager of The Village Voice. I said yes, but have you ever seen Jack‘s car? And have you ever seen Jack drive? ‘Well,’ Art said, ‘see if you can’t work it out somehow, and I’ll try around, too, from up here. And how’s your driving?’ I said okay. I did not say what had suddenly, blazingly entered my head: that the one thing in all this world that I most wanted at just that moment, and would go on wanting, was for it to be me and nobody else in this world who would drive down to Philadelphia and bring Billie Holiday back for our concert. So I offhandedly said I would try around and I said good-bye and hung up.
Jack came in a little later, an extremely instinctual type, and within two seconds we understood each other perfectly. We both wanted to be the one to go; he had the car (though not much of a better one than the Olds) and I had far greater advantage as a driver. Everyone agreed with me--I couldn’t have been cooler in putting the case--that if Jack tried to rush her back from Philadelphia we would very likely wind up one advertising manager and one great singer the less. Even Jack agreed, behind his eyelids. He kept talking, however, and I went out for coffee.
Right in front of our building, at the curb, there sat this great big powder-blue automobile that had obviously just come off the assembly line. At the wheel there sat a girl named Athena who sometimes hung around the offices of The Voice. I had seen her in the offices though I hadn’t ever actually met her. I hadn’t met Louise then, either, I had better say; wouldn’t be getting to meet her for some months yet. I walked over to the blue Chrysler and said: ‘Hello, aren’t you a friend of so and so’s? That your car? How would you like to let me run it down to Philadelphia and back tonight to bring Billie Holiday up for the jazz concert?’ And that’s how Jack Coleman never got to bring Billie Holiday up from Philadelphia. Or the several other potential and anxious candidates I’ve eliminated from this narrative for the sake of brevity.
THE PHILADELPHIA night club was just off the main drag, not a bad place but pretty dead and pretty empty. Following Art D’Lugoff’s instructions, I asked around for Louis McKay, the husband and manager for whom Billie Holiday was later to be separated--until he flew to her side during her final illness.
A Negro who seemed to me to be about eight feet tall and three feet wide-I am not s h o r t- detached himself from a group at one of the tables. ‘I’m McKay,’ he said. ‘She’s got another couple of sets to go. Have a drink.’ Then I saw the white gardenia and the glittering dress and Lady Day herself at the far end of his table. It was the whole 20 years, 15 anyway, since I’d last seen her: sooner or later I would have recognized her, of course, but it would probably have given me a half-hour of puzzlement if I hadn’t come in knowing she’d be there. She had been a big glorious-looking girl; now she was a big hulking-looking middle-aged woman, heavy in the jowls and shoulders, all her wonderful cheek-lines and jaw-lines squashed and broadened. Beneath them lay the bones, fine and handsome still, and her mouth was still that incredible combination of open wound and jungle flower; but it too was heavy now, and worn and bleared, going slack and apathetic between bursts of voluble dispute on some subject under debate within her party. I asked McKay for the time. It was ten of 11. At 11 o’clock she got up to sing, and on the instant you could tell that it was true: her voice was all but gone. And yet it wasn‘t gone. It was rough, cracked, sandy, hoarse, at moments almost withering or choking away to nothing but then it would keep coming back and back to hit now and again on just a few of those truest chords of loving agony we in our lifetimes shall ever have heard; and now again it still vestigially slid and melted, as if in distant shadow play, over some of those soul-twisting sprung-melody transitions produced for us by only one female voice in our time. She finished the set to desultory applause and whipped out to a dressing room, glass in hand, to change. It was almost 11:30. I had stopped even thinking for a while about all those 2500 people waiting up in Loew’s Sheridan, two hours to the north, but now I began to sweat again on the double grounds of would we ever get there, and what would we have if we ever did. McKay brought me another drink. He stood over me as I sat and looked me up and down and then straight between the eyes.
‘We’ll get her out of here,’ he said, ‘right after the next set. Nuther half hour. Mal and his girl go with you.’ (This was Mal Waldron, Billie’s young accompanist, now the leader of his own combination; the girl in question, a winsome young beauty, is now his wife.) ‘I’ll finish up business here and come up later,’ McKay said. He paused and looked at me very hard. Then he said: ‘You get her to the concert, huh?’ I said yes. He said: ‘You see they give the money to Mal? You see he gets it?’ I said yes. He said: ‘You see she gets from the concert to our hotel in New York? You see to that? You see she gets to the hotel?’ I said yes. He gave me the name of a hotel I had never heard of just west of Columbus Circle, and his face softened for the first time as he smiled and sat down to finish his own drink at my table.
After the second set, she had to go back and change once more for the ride. We got out of there about a quarter past 12. Our departure was like a departure for the crusades, all of us trooping in a parade through the smoky, half-empty night club, me in the lead to run out and bring around the car, then Louis McKay carrying the bags, Mal carrying other bags and bursting portfolios of music, Mal’s girl carrying Billie’s evening dresses, and Billie herself in the rear clutching her glass in one hand and her chihuahua in the other. Nor should you forget Athena, the owner of the car, whom I cannot in pure fact drop entirely from this story, much as it might help the scallopini situation to do so.
Once at the curb, it took us about 10 more minutes to load up and get Billie in and settled and satisfied. The little dog was passed back and forth between her and Mal’s girl about ten times, finally ending up for keeps on the lap of its mistress. I thanked whatever powers there be for that big blue boat of a Chrysler rather than any heap half its size of Jack‘s or mine. Billie was gabbling in outrage in the back seat against the local management’s having kept her by contract to her very final set. Our engine was purring, our push-button gear-shift at the ready. Louis McKay came to my window and quietly said: ‘You get her up that hotel, right?’ Again I said yes, and away we went. Halfway up Walnut Street, Billie Holiday said loudly: ‘What’s this concert we’re going to?’ I said a concert sponsored by my newspaper, The Village Voice. She said: ‘What kind of newspaper’s that?’ I explained as best I could. She said: ‘What’s your name? I said Jerry Tallmer. She said: ‘Okay, Jerry, you get us there,’ and she immediately dropped off into a heavy sleep.
She did not wake up when we got lost trying to find the entrance to the Turnpike, and she did not wake up when we roared for the next two hours up other highways and eventually the Turnpike itself until we finally made it to the Holland Tunnel approach, and she did not wake up when we roared through that tunnel at the same 80 miles an hour as Mal Waldron’s watch was nearing 2:30. But the instant our wheels touched the asphalt of Manhattan Island, Billie Holiday suddenly sat bolt upright and awake. ‘I‘ve got to make wee-wee,’ she firmly announced. ‘You stop, boy, at the first bar.’ I said nothing, and headed at 70 miles an hour up Varick Street. Lady Day moaned: ‘I gotta make wee-wee. You gotta stop.’ Mal said: ‘Okay, Lady, he’s going to stop.’ He touched me softly on the shoulder. We were flashing past Canal Street, and off to the right there was a red neon glow. Lady Day said: ‘There! You stop there, boy!’ I made one of those decisions of a lifetime and screeched over to the curb as in a gangster movie. Billie was clambering over Mal and Mal’s girl and had the door open before we stopped rolling. I had my own door open before her feet touched the sidewalk. We exploded into the bar together, shoulder to shoulder. Billie slapped the bar-top and said: ‘Gimme a shot. Double shot of anything.’ The barman looked at her and me and I said: ‘Same for me. Double. Make it quick.’ Then I cut back toward the phone booth and dialed WA 9-2166 as quick as my prickling fingers could make it. ‘Good evening, Loew’s Air-Conditioned Sheridan,’ said a disembodied voice at 2:35 in the morning. ‘Art D’Lugoff there?’ I snapped. Art came on the line. ‘Where are you?’ he asked, sounding preoccupied, not panicked. ‘Canal Street,’ I said. ‘I’ll have her there in five minutes.’ ‘There’s a 3 o’clock curfew,’ he said. ‘Saturday night. It’s the law.’ I said: ‘I know. Do something about it. How’s the crowd holding out?’ ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘There all here, waiting.’ I said: ‘Wait for me in front, we’ll be up in five minutes,’ and hung up. I ran out to the bar, gulped my double shot, made Billie down hers, threw down some money, and dragged her out by the elbow. The whole issue of the wee-wee was tacitly ignored by both of us, gone and forgotten, a dissimulation no longer to be considered or bothered about by adults. We piled back into the car and once again accelerated up to 70 as we headed up Sixth Avenue, and then Greenwich Avenue, through all the red lights.
Art was slowly pacing back and forth in front of the box office of the Sheridan. It was quarter to 3. ‘Go around to the stage door,’ he said, and I took the car around in back and let them all get out. They all ran into the rear of the theatre and I went off alone to park the car.
As I made it through that stage door myself, I heard Art, out in front of the movie screen, announcing: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Billie Holiday is now in the house’--a great cheer went up--and will be with us in a moment. It was ten of 3 and Billie and Mal and Mal’s girl were off on the side in a little cluster, getting Billie ready to go on. I said to one of the people from The Voice: ‘What about the curfew?’ He said: ‘Don’t worry about it, it’s been taken care of, greased, and they’ll let her sing if she starts by 3.’
At 3 sharp Billie Holiday stepped from behind the movie screen with Mal Waldron for her first major appearance in New York in over a decade. She began slow, weak, wobbly, scratchy, the same thing I had heard down in Philadelphia only now further impaired by further exhaustion. Then, bit by bit, she picked up, and the audience picked up with her. From behind the screen, I could not believe my ears. This was not the old Billie but it was not the present Billie either; it was some sweet and marvelous mixture of both, carrying somehow in gravelly purity out over 2500 breathless heads. She did her set and another set and they held here there for about five encores. Then it was over. Nobody left before it was over, and nobody felt cheated when it was over. Lady Day was back in New York.
Ed Fancher, publisher of The Voice, came around and said: ‘There’ll be a party at my place on Christopher Street. Think she’d want to come?’ I said I’d see. I watched Lady Day and Mal Waldron come back and watched from a respectful distance while I saw Art D’Lugoff go over to Mal and count bills into his hand. I saw Mal re-count them, and nod, and shake hands with Art. Then I went over to Mal and told him about the party. He said he and his girl would probably like to go, but he’d have to ask Billie what she wanted to do. A little later he said she wanted to go too.
The party was a typical good, late, crowded Village party. Most of the musicians from all the other groups were there, as well as Billie. Everybody was talking to everybody and I was talking to somebody when all of a sudden I noticed I didn’t see Billie Holiday anywhere. Or Mal and his girl. I searched all the rooms and the bathroom. Then, with a sinking stomach, I ran downstairs.
On the sidewalk I looked left and right. At the right, on the corner, under a lamppost, Mal and his girl were close together cuddling. They didn’t look nervous. I went up and asked if they had seen Billie. Mal grinned and thumbed an indication to a newsstand-and-candy-store still open, at 4:30 in the morning, halfway down the block. I walked down to the store and there she was, sure enough, big as life, as they say, and twice as natural. She was stumbling all over and humming happily to herself and loading her arms with comic books and candy bars. She seemed almost unconscious, almost incoherent. I had never seen anyone buy so many candy bars before. And in all that night I had never seen Lady Day look so vulnerable and soft, so relaxed, so feminine, or so attractive. Then I realized I wasn’t the only one who thought so.
In the same tiny store, his back to the door and now sidling over to block the door, there stood a heavyset man of about 50, taking it all in. A grizzled, weathered, ice-eyed type straight out of the Mafia, which in case you didn’t know it is one of the dominant types in Greenwich Village. Billie had put her purse down on an upturned crate. The man stood there planted on his two feet, his glance traveling avariciously back and forth between the singer and her purse, as if trying to decide whether to take the one, the other, or both at once. Lady Day kept stumbling and mumbling around the store, picking out her candy bars, giving the guy the back of her head, but the comer of her eye as well. The only thing I could think of to do was to plant my own feet as wide apart as possible and sweat it out. I wondered if Mal would hear me if I yelled. I wondered what good the slender Mal would be, anyway, or both of us together, for that matter. Lady hummed and reached for her purse and knocked it to the floor, its change and compacts spilling out. I waited.
Painfully, she stooped down to scrape them up. I thought I’d better keep on standing. She finally got everything back in her purse and made a big play of collecting and paying for her whole huge armful of comic books and candy bars. In all this time she hadn’t given the least flickering sign of being aware of my existence, or of her having ever laid eyes on me before in her life. I felt placed exactly in the category of the thug by the door. And I waited.
I waited until she was all square with the little-old-lady store owner, and then I made the second enormous decision of that long, long night, I said:’Okay, now, let’s go,’ and I marched as cooly and as arrogantly as I could straight for the door, pushing her before me, and at the very last instant the man at the door broke and turned away with a grimace and gave us the room to go through. We went out onto the street and there were Mal and his girl still under the lamppost, still happy, still cuddling. Lady Day looked neither this way nor that; she had definitely yet to look at me. I pushed and pulled her down to the Waldrons and pushed and pulled the three of them down another block to the car. They got in back and I got in front. I reached down to turn on the ignition.
Then, for the first time since, hours earlier, we had stopped at that bar near Canal Street, I heard Lady Day utter a word not in song. ‘Whooo-eee!’ she shouted. ‘Whoo-eee! That old Jerry! That old Looey!’ She gave an immense gurgling giggle. ‘That old Looey tell that old Jerry to get me to the hotel, and that old Jerry he make God damn sure I get to the hotel. That cruddy bastard in the store think I didn’t see him lookin’ at me; he think all sorts of things. But old Jerry he come in, he remember what old Looey say, he just stand there and look at that bastard and he take me out of that store. Hey, you! Jerry! What the name of that newspaper you work for?" I told her the name of the paper. "Well, you send me a copy of that newspaper, you hear?" said Billie Holiday, and I turned on the ignition and started the car and headed it once again into the dark, away from Christopher Street, away from 52nd Street, and north through 20 years of her life and mine to her hotel on Columbus Circle. May those who throughout 44 years helped take her from this life--those including herself, myself--now rest in peace throughout eternity.