Felix In Hollywood

A Blog for the Smart Set

Saturday, July 17, 2010

It's The Lady's Day

Fifty-one years ago today the world got a little quieter - and not in a good way - as the magnificent Billie Holiday returned to Fabulon.

I have a breathtaking short story by Francoise Sagan on her memories of Lady Day.  In it she describes her very first visit to America on a publicity junket for her book, "Bonjour Tristesse".  Apart from selling her book, her main objective of the visit was to find and hear Billie sing.  Well find her she did, and Holiday was so taken with her and her traveling companion, composer Michel Mange,  that they became inseparable for the next two weeks.  It was a rollicking good time.  Billie was healthy, in strong voice and charming.  The two french kids were entranced.

A few years later and back in Paris, Sagan read in the paper that Holiday was to perform at the Mars Club.  They had lost touch but she was very excited to see her friend again.  The end of the story describes that evening:

"It was Billie Holiday - and yet it wasn't.  She had grown thin; she had aged; and her arms bore the ever closer tracks of needles.  She no longer had that innate assurance, that physical equilibrium which had conferred on her such a marble-like serenity amid the storms and dizzy turbulence of her life.

We fell into each other's arms.  She began to laugh and I instantly recovered a sense of exaltation, that romantic childlike exultation I had known in a now-distant New York, a New York clothed in music and the night as some children are clothed only in blue or white.  I introduced my husband to her; he was rather disconcerted by her presence, which seemed both completely natural and at the same time quite exotic; and it was only then that I realized how many million light-years of difference there were between us, or rather, how many million years of darkness separated me from her, and how she had so wonderfully and with such friendliness been happy to wipe out that difference during the fortnight now long past.  A host of things had been put aside during our first meeting; the problem of race, of her courage, of her fight to the death against poverty, prejudice, lack of identity, against whites and non-whites; against alcohol, the wickedest of enemies, against Harlem, against New York; against the passions provoked by the color of a person's skin, and the almost equally violent passions that can be provoked by talent and success.  She had never allowed us to think of any of those things, neither Michel nor myself, though we might well have thought of them for ourselves.  We "sensitive" Europeans had been the uncaring barbarians on that occasion.  This idea brought tears to my eyes, and the rest of the night would not find them dry.

Billie Holiday was no longer accompanied by her husband but by two or three young people, Swedes or Americans, I don't remember now, who fussed about her, but, it seemed to me, were as alien to her fate as I was myself.  Full of admiration for her, but hopelessly ineffectual, they had organized nothing for the evening and there was not even, fantastically enough, anything resembling a microphone on the black piano she was already resting against, apparently unaware of the applause.  It was a fiasco.  People were on all fours trying to fix up an old mike that crackled terribly; someone ran off to La Villa d'Este or somewhere else to find another.  Everyone became bad tempered and worked up, to no avail, and after awhile, as if resigned to the chaos, she came and sat down at our table.

She drank distractedly and spoke to me occasionally; her voice husky, smoke-roughened and sarcastic; she remained indifferent to what was going on around us, though she was the center of it all.  She said very little to my friends, except to ask my first husband if he beat me, something - she declared ironically, and to my own detriment - that he ought to do.  My protestations made her laugh, and for a moment I recognized the echo of her laughter at Eddie Condon's; a time when we were all, it seemed, young and happy and gifted; a time when the microphone worked or rather - though I hardly dared admit it to myself - a time when she didn't need a microphone to sing.  In the end she sang a few songs - with or without a microphone, I don't remember anymore - accompanied rather hesitantly by a quartet that tried to follow the unpredictable vagaries of her voice, which itself had become a little uncertain.  My admiration was such - or was it the force of memory? - that I could not help but admire her, despite the awful, ridiculous shortcomings of this meager recital.  She sang with eyes lowered.  She would skip a verse and have difficulty catching her breath.  She clung to the piano as if to a ship's rail in stormy seas.  No doubt the rest of the audience had come in the same spirit as I had, for they applauded wildly, and she looked on them with a pity and irony that were in fact a harsh judgment upon herself.

After those few snatches of song, she came and sat with us for a moment.  She was in a hurry, a terrible hurry, because she was leaving the next day, I think for London, or somewhere else in Europe, she couldn't remember where exactly.  "Anyway darling," she said to me in English, "you know I am going to die very soon in New York, between two cops."  Of course I swore she was wrong.  I could not and did not want to believe her; all my adolescence, those years that were lulled and entranced by her voice, refused to believe her.  So my first reaction was total amazement when I opened a newspaper a few months later, and read that Billie Holiday had died the night before, alone, in a hospital, between two cops."

Thank you Lady.


jason said...

Worship her...but then who doesn't?
Or should.
I had no idea about Francoise Sagan, but I guess it's only natural.

kabuki zero said...

And lady's night as well. one day does not seem like enough.

Rob said...

Beautiful, and heartbreaking. And even inadvertantly funny, as when Lady Day recommends (in front of Francoise!)that Sagan's husband beat her. Distances traveled...must have been a long journey for her.

normadesmond said...

what a world it was yesterday.