Billie Holiday takes a swig of her drink as she sings into your eyes, and then absentmindedly leaves her glass on your table before she saunters over to seduce the next table. When she vanished the scent of her liquor lingered, rising from ice cubes in a stinging mint vapor. While she was there, she made you feel like the only person in the crowded room.

The drinks are part of an imagined ruse. By the 1950s, Billie’s heroin use had made her a target of the government, and she thought they’d stay off her back if she kept drinking in public at a neck-breaking rate. The idea was that cops won’t suspect an alcoholic of also being hooked on junk.

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She’d even been allowed to drink during a rehabilitation hospital stay to kick heroin. After one of her arrests, she stayed at Twin Pines psychiatric sanatorium where a nurse served up ample portions of Billie’s favorite drink: a mixture of brandy and crème de menthe.


Her arrests had a devastating consequence on her ability to generate income. Record sales for Billie were always a bit uncertain, but she could always make enough to keep her habit and her hangers-on supplied by playing in the clubs. Now, she was banned from the best clubs: the smoky haunts of NYC. Her felonious trouble resulted in her cabaret card, a license needed to sing in New York establishments that served booze, being taken away. The cabaret cards were finally abolished in 1967 by Mayor John Lindsay.


Billie tells stories on stage the same way she told them in interviews that would become the basis for her ghostwritten autobiography. The facts of her life, especially her pre-fame past, are muddled by memory and pain. Billie reshaped them, approximating the truth about herself through fiction; drunk on the power of her own legend and compelled by a need to give everything away while keeping some little something to herself.

Eventually, the booze ruse caught up with Lady Day when she collapsed in 1959, her body ravaged by the years of alcohol and opiates. She joked from her bed about the headlines that circled her as she convalesced, charming even the armed guards at her bedside. Down the hall, nurses played the records that had been removed from her room by law enforcement.

MGM executives checked with her doctors to see if she would live long enough to make good on the current contracts being drawn up, and although Billie had been diagnosed with cirrhosis and congestive heart failure, the doctors told them she would be able to make another recording. They were wrong, however; Lady Day passed away July 17, 1959; 47 days after her hospital admittance. Her final recordings Lady in Satin and Last Recording had been fueled by tumblers of gin; her voice wrecked but still not broken.

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