by Julia Blackburn
With Billie is a romantically anti-romantic story within a story. Does that sound enigmatic? It should. Like the singer herself, any words written about Lady Day can't help but be shrouded beneath a veil of surrealism appropriate for the subject. Billie Holiday is the very manifestation of contradiction. She was a hugely successful (critically and financially) artist whose mess of a life prevented her from being even more so. From a cultural critical point of view, Miss Holiday's name is rightly whispered with those of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. From her first skylark whispers in the '30s to her final croaking efforts months before her death, Billie Holiday guided the course of jazz singing.
The road to the publication of With Billie is itself an interesting story. In the early 1970s, author Linda Kuehl set out to write a book about Billie Holiday with the slant that she would interview as many of her living contempories as possible, supplementing their recollections with facts from the archive. The results were more that 150 interviews, taped and transcribed; hundreds of dislocated stories that Miss Kuehl struggled through the remainder of the decade and two publishers to make sense of until...
...In January 1979 she made arrangements to attend a Count Basie Concert in Washington, D.C., and "in spite of a fierce snowstorm and major travel snarls to the northeastern seaboard" she traveled there by train from New York. She arrived a few minutes before the music began, looking "quite flustered," and then she disappeared and didn't turn up for the reception after the show. It seems she went back to hotel room, wrote a suicide note and jumped out of her third-floor window....
Boom! Miss Kuehl's death begged many questions in its tragedy, offering few answers. Her family retained Kuehl's Billie Holiday archive until the 1990s, when the papers were sold to a private collector. Enter British author Julia Blackburn (Charles Waterton, The Leper's Companion and Old Man Goya) who was allowed access to the archive that she described as...
...bundles of files filled with loose sheets of paper. Everything had been jumbled haphazardly together, either by Linda Kuehl herself or by someone else. Fragments of unfinished chapters, almost obliterated by handwritten revision notes, lay alongside the transcripts of Billie's court appearances and her medical reports. Formal letters from publishers and record companies rubbed shoulders with very informal letters from friends and lovers....
After a bit of flailing around of her own, Miss Blackburn simply allows the interviewees to speak for themselves. Blackburn supplies the lattice over which Lady Day's story is told in a hundred voices. Save for the introduction and a ditty on narcotics law enforcement in the late '40s and early '50s, Miss Blackburn arranges the interviews approximately in chronological order.
What emerges does not really answer any questions as it more fully illuminates the enigmatic character of the protagonist. Miss Holiday is presented in all of her adulation and excesses. She was a woman of large appetites, which included her bottomless capacity for alcohol and drugs and her pan-sexuality. Her sexuality was discussed at length and presented in such a way that stripped the period taboo of the subject. Also looming large in the picture were her talent and how listeners culturally considered that talent.
The memories of the singer more than once identify her as a masochist because of her habit of choosing male partners whom treat her badly. The text makes the reader feel that Miss Holiday was somehow detached from all of the violence visited on her by her lovers. By today's standards, Billie Holiday would be considered a survivor of domestic abuse. But the term "domestic abuse is not near potent enough. What happened to Billie Holiday was serial torture...by her lovers, by law enforcement, by agents, by promoters. But somehow, Billie Holiday transcends all of this.