You can’t have a complete conversation about Billie Holiday’s life without discussing her relationship with drugs. Her struggle with addiction and the impact it had on her life is a big part of her story. Holiday was a highly regarded jazz musician, making music in Harlem at a time when drugs (especially heroin) was readily available. But The Lady’s artistic brilliance transcends her turbulent struggle through poverty, prostitution and addiction.
The Harlem jazz scene was steeped in drug use, and while Holiday wasn’t the only one experimenting, her growing celebrity made her a very public figure and an easy target for law enforcement. The following podcast tells the story of Holiday’s struggle with addiction, multiple arrests and her federal court case: The United States vs. Billie Holiday.
Sometime in the mid-1940s Holiday became addicted to heroin. By early 1959 Holiday had cirrhosis of the liver. She stopped drinking on doctor’s orders, but soon relapsed. By May she had lost 20 pounds and was admitted to Metropolitan Hospital in New York for liver and heart disease.
The Federal Bureau of Narcotics — who had been targeting Holiday since at least 1939 — raided her hospital room and arrested her for drug possession.
Handcuffed as she lay dying, Holiday remained hospitalized and under police guard until she died on July 17th 1959 from pulmonary edema and heart failure caused by cirrhosis of the liver.
She was only 44 when she met that tragic end, but her extraordinary voice continues to deliver an unfiltered emotional truth that casts a charismatic spell on today’s listeners.
In spite of her personal woes, she remained Billie Holiday: standing regal and inviolate in the spotlight, with her trademark gardenia in her hair, delivering heart-stopping performances.
That art and soul are what endure – and her remarkable genius, standing ever more apart in the pantheon of jazz, inimitable and triumphant.
In one of her last performances, here’s The Lady—Billie Holiday performing “I Love You Porgy” on “Chelsea At Nine” in London, February 1959.