Part TWELVE of our series on the WAR ON DRUGS, talking about Billie Holiday.
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* The jazz and blues singer Billie Holiday aka Lady Day.
* GOD BLESS THE CHILD
* She had a tough, tough life.
* She was born in 1915 to an unmarried teenage couple, Sarah Fagan and Clarence Holiday.
* Her father left soon after, to pursue a career as a jazz banjo player.
* Her mother was kicked out of her parent’s home for getting pregnant, and she moved in with her older, married half-sister.
* She took jobs working on passenger railroads and left Eleanora – that was Billie’s birth name, Eleanora Fagan – to be raised by her half-sister’s mother-in-law.
* When Eleanora was ten she was raped by a neighbour.
* Then she ended up working a job running errands in a brothel.
* By 13 she was working as a prostitute herself – in the same Harlem brothel where her mother was also a prostitute.
* Around the same time, she started singing in clubs around Harlem.
* She took the name Billie from an actress she admired, and the name Holiday from her father.
* She was discovered by the legendary Columbia Records music producer John Hammond and made her recording debut, at age 18, in November 1933, with Benny Goodman, the famous American jazz clarinetist and bandleader known as the “King of Swing”.
* They recorded two songs – one was a hit.
* RIFFIN’ THE SCOTCH
* Billie quickly became a sensation.
* Remember this is 1933 – FDR is elected, the Great Depression is still going on, prohibition is ending, and Harry Anslinger is trying to make the transition from oppressing drinkers of booze to oppressing users of drugs.
* Billie really is one of the greatest vocalists ever, up there with Sinatra, also born in 1915, and Ella Fitzgerald born in 1917.
* In fact, Sinatra said in 1958: With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the US during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years.
* But her life was still hard going.
* She had been addicted to booze and drugs since her early teenage years.
* And she was tough.
* One New Year’s Eve, a sailor saw her being served in a bar and asked: “When did you start serving nigger bitches?” She stabbed a bottle into his face.
* Another time in another bar, a group of soldiers and sailors started stubbing out their cigarettes on her mink coat. She handed the mink coat to a friend to hold, picked up a diamond-shaped ashtray, and laid the sailors out flat.
* I liked this line about her: “She sang a moment behind the beat and lived a moment ahead of it.”
* So Billie is becoming a sensation – and Harry is looking for a headline.
* He hears Billie is a drug user, so he sends one of his agents.
* A BLACK agent.
* Jimmy Fletcher
* Harry didn’t like hiring black guys, but if he sent a white agent into Harlem, he’d stand out like Ray at a Harlem Globetrotter’s convention.
* But Harry had a policy – a black agent would never be a white agent’s boss.
* He’d let them into the bureau, but they would never get promoted off the street.
* Jimmy is allowed to carry drugs and even sell drugs, to win the confidence of his targets.
* So Jimmy gets close to Billie over a period of time, watches her drinking and snorting cocaine, then one day he goes to her apartment to bust her.
* When Jimmy was sent to raid her, he knocked at the door pretending he had a telegram to deliver.
* She told him to “Stick it under the door!”
* He said “It’s too big to go under the door!”
* She let him in. She was alone. Jimmy felt uncomfortable.
* “Billie, why don’t you make a short case of this and, if you’ve got anything, why don’t you turn it over to us?” he asked. “Then we won’t be searching around, pulling out your clothes and everything. So why don’t you do that?”
* But Jimmy’s partner arrived and sent for a policewoman to conduct a body search.
* “You don’t have to do that. I’ll strip,” Billie said. “All I want to say is—will you search me and let me go? All that policewoman is going to do is look up my pussy.”
* She stripped and stood there, and then she pissed in front of them, defying them to watch.
* Jimmy apparently felt bad for her and offered to talk to Harry privately to try to get her off.
* He failed.
* And he regretted it for the rest of his life.
* She was sent to prison, banned from performing when she got out because she was a felon and wasn’t allowed to work anywhere that served alcohol – which of course included all jazz clubs – and had a series of abusive boyfriends and husbands, mostly pimps and mafia hoods.
* Including one guy, Louis McKay, who used to beat her before she went on stage, even breaking her ribs once.
* When she dumped his ass, he heard that Harry was interested in her, and he went to see Harry and offered to set her up to be arrest.
* “How come I got to take this from this bitch here? This low class bitch?” McKay raged. “If I got a whore, I got some money from her or I don’t have nothing to do with the bitch. I don’t want no cunt.”
* He had heard that Harry Anslinger wanted information on her, and he was intrigued.
* “She’s been getting away with too much shit,” MacKay said, adding he wanted “Holiday’s ass in the gutter in the East River.”
* That, it seems, was the clincher.
* “I got enough to finish her off,” he had pledged. “I’m going to do her up so goddam bad she going to remember as long as she live.”
* He traveled to D.C. to see Harry, and he agreed to set her up.
* She was arrested and put on trial.
* She was sentenced to a year in a West Virginia prison, where she was forced to go cold turkey and work during the days in a pigsty, among other places.
* In all her time behind bars, she did not sing a note.
* Years later, when her autobiography was published, Billie tracked Jimmy Fletcher down and sent him a signed copy.
* She had written inside it: “Most federal agents are nice people. They’ve got a dirty job to do and they have to do it. Some of the nicer ones have feelings enough to hate themselves sometime for what they have to do . . . Maybe they would have been kinder to me if they’d been nasty; then I wouldn’t have trusted them enough to believe what they told me.”
* She was right: Jimmy never stopped feeling guilty for what he’d done to Lady Day.
* “Billie ‘paid her debt’ to society,” one of her friends wrote, “but society never paid its debt to her.”
* One day, Harry Anslinger was told that there were also white women, just as famous as Billie, who had drug problems—but he responded to them rather differently.
* He called Judy Garland, another heroin addict, in to see him.
* They had a friendly chat, in which he advised her to take longer vacations between pictures, and he wrote to her studio, assuring them she didn’t have a drug problem at all.
* When he discovered that a Washington society hostess he knew —“a beautiful, gracious lady,” he noted—had an illegal drug addiction, he explained he couldn’t possibly arrest her because “it would destroy . . . the unblemished reputation of one of the nation’s most honored families.”
* He helped her to wean herself off her addiction slowly, without the law becoming involved.
* One approach for white people, another for non-white people.
* Harry told the public that “the increase [in drug addiction] is practically 100 percent among Negro people,” which he stressed was terrifying because already “the Negro population . . . accounts for 10 percent of the total population, but 60 percent of the addicts.”
* He could wage the drug war—he could do what he did—only because he was responding to a fear in the American people.
* As someone said, You can be a great surfer, but you still need a great wave.
* Harry’s wave came in the form of a race panic.
* Many white Americans did not want to accept that black Americans might be rebelling because they had lives like Billie Holiday’s—locked into Pigtowns and banned from developing their talents.
* It was more comforting to believe that a white powder or marijuana was the cause of black anger, and that getting rid of the white powder would render black Americans docile and on their knees once again.
* And it hasn’t changed much in the intervening 90 years.
* In 2016, there were almost 600,000 US marijuana arrests, more than for all violent crimes combined.
* The vast majority of those pot arrests were for low-level possession – and disproportionately affected minorities.
* Statistics show different races use marijuana at roughly the same rate, but racial minorities are far more likely to face punishment.
* According to the American Civil Liberties Union, between 2001 and 2010, African Americans were arrested for marijuana possession at almost four times the rate of whites.
* Relatively few of the 600,000 will serve extended prison sentences for marijuana-related offenses, but having a past conviction can still block access to housing, student loans and employment.
* Then there’s the other reason marijuana has been demonised – it will give you cancer.
* Worse than tobacco cigarettes!
* The main guy behind this story has been Donald Tashkin of the University of California at Los Angeles, a pulmonologist who has studied marijuana for 30 years.
* He dedicated most of his career to trying to prove marijuana causes cancer .
* Unfortunately, after the largest, most extensive, longest study anyone has ever done, lead by Tashkin he determined that marijuana not only doesn’t cause cancer, he even went so far as to admit that the study seemed to suggest marijuana might have anti-cancer properties.
* “We hypothesized that there would be a positive association between marijuana use and lung cancer, and that the association would be more positive with heavier use,” he said. “What we found instead was no association at all, and even a suggestion of some protective effect.”
* In early 1959, Billie Holiday, aged 44, was put in hospital for treatment cirrhosis of the liver.
* Harry had her arrested and handcuffed for drug possession as she lay dying, her hospital room was raided and she was placed under police guard.
* She died a few weeks later.
* Gilbert Millstein, of New York Times, who was the announcer at Holiday’s 1956 Carnegie Hall concerts and wrote parts of the sleeve notes for the album The Essential Billie Holiday, described her death in these sleeve notes, dated 1961:
* Billie Holiday died in Metropolitan Hospital, New York, on Friday, July 17, 1959, in the bed in which she had been arrested for illegal possession of narcotics a little more than a month before, as she lay mortally ill; in the room from which a police guard had been removed – by court order – only a few hours before her death, which, like her life, was disorderly and pitiful. She had been strikingly beautiful, but she was wasted physically to a small, grotesque caricature of herself. The worms of every kind of excess – drugs were only one – had eaten her. The likelihood exists that among the last thoughts of this cynical, sentimental, profane, generous and greatly talented woman of 44 was the belief that she was to be arraigned the following morning. She would have been, eventually, although possibly not that quickly. In any case, she removed herself finally from the jurisdiction of any court here below.