In 1974 the Mark Twain Hotel renamed rooms 203 and 204 as the Billie Holiday Suite. It was decorated with period pieces from her stay in 1949, but it also featured framed newspaper reports from the drug bust that happened there as well. This story from the new book With Billie illuminates a familiar occurrence in Holiday's life: her drug use sometimes overshadowed the brilliance of her singing.
The drama and tragedy of Holiday's life have always made her a compelling subject for biographers. In the 70s Linda Keuhl began research on a biography of Holiday, interviewing over 150 people who knew her as friends, lovers, fellow musicians, even neighbors and acquaintances. She also collected every document that she could find pertaining to the singer's life. However, she committed suicide before her work was completed, leaving boxes and boxes of tapes and papers as a testament to her unfinished work.
Julia Blackburn took on the monumental task of sorting through all the material to fashion With Billie, but instead of stitching together the various interviews into a seamless narrative, she thought it would be more interesting to leave the interviews intact. Each of the subjects tells their side of the story in a chapter apiece. Some stories contradict one another, some contain obvious errors, and no one can resist leaving their prejudices toward certain events and people behind. But what emerges is much more interesting than a regular biography ever would be. It's a portrait not only of Holiday, but also of the people who inhabited her life, and a dark and gloomy canvas of the world she inhabited.
Holiday's early life is filled with prostitutes and pimps, her later years with dealers, drug abuse, and she is portrayed as an artist who couldn't reach her full potential in her later years due to the monkey on her back. Virtually everyone agrees that John Levy and Louis McKay, the two major men in her life, were key figures in her demise, and her story is filled with people who exploited her for their own gain. What emerges most clearly, though, is the tremendous amount of respect and love that those around her possessed for her. Many a person talks about what a genuine person she was despite her apparent masochism, and most feel that she was unfairly crippled by drug enforcement officers, managers, and others who took advantage of her stardom.
With Billie might require a basic understanding of Holiday's life to be fully appreciated. Because the book is a series of individual narratives, there's a distinct lack of a linear story, even though the chapters are presented as chronologically as possible. Just don't go to Holiday's autobiography, which Blackburn shows is all but worthless as a record of fact (the ghostwriter deliberately emphasized the more sordid episodes of her life to sell books.) Blackburn inserts occasional chapters that help provide the context of her life; there's a great chapter on Lester Young, for instance.
Although many of the people interviewed defend Holiday by saying that her narcotics use has been grossly overemphasized, the subject is inescapable in their narratives. It's one of the most tragic stories in American music, and although there's plenty of biographies on Holiday available already, there's room for one more simply because this one is told in such an interesting way. Blackburn is to be commended for letting the subjects speak for themselves and largely staying out of the way. With Billie isn't a biography in the truest sense of the word, and there's no ultimate history presented. However, it's an effective tribute to Holiday in its rich tapestry of memories.