Published in 1956 and ghost-written by William Dufty, Billie Holiday’s autobiography “Lady Sings the Blues” was later made into an Oscar-nominated film and has perpetuated some of the myths surrounding Holiday’s eventful life. But while Dufty may be ghost-writer, make no mistake that this is Billie in her own words. The streetwise phrases, the patois, the slang, it’s all there. What emerges is a distinctive narrative voice. It is perhaps a cliche to say it reads like a diary, but more than any other autobiography I have read there’s a real closeness, intimacy, and a complete lack of holding back.
So what, if these are Holiday’s words, was Dufty’s role? A writer and editor at the New York Post, Dufty was married to Billie’s friend Maely and the book was written from conversations with the singer at the Duftys’ New York apartment (as well as from previous interviews.) But it’s so clearly Billie that you almost forget Dufty’s involvement beyond editing and fashioning it into a presentable, readable state (but Dufty does deserve major credit for bringing the book to life.)
Billie comes across as tough and streetwise but with a heart of gold. There may be factual inaccuracies along the way (her mother and father are not believed to have married, and were a little older than the book states) but the voice is so vivid and absorbing. “Lady Sings the Blues” takes us from the poverty of her Baltimore childhood through her spell in a Catholic reformatory institution after she was molested as a child to the bright lights but harsh realities of Harlem, where Billie found herself in jail for prostitution and then became a surprise star on the Harlem club scene.
We learn all about the advent of her singing career, tempered by episodes of horrifying racism, ill-fated relationships, and heroin addiction that, after her one-year jail term in 1947-48, cost her lucrative spots in New York night clubs. In between there are numerous delightful episodes with a surprise cast of characters including Clark Gable, Sarah Vaughan, and Lana Turner, and asides about her views on drug addiction and the healthcare system of America compared to Europe. The chapter about her European tour in 1954 is one of the book’s most heart-warming and heart-breaking at once; here is a woman filled with joy and excitement about going to Europe and finding herself genuinely surprised and delighted by the positive reception she gets, the warm-hearted fans, the knowledgeable critics, and the newspapers that do not skew her words.
It’s a book I couldn’t put down. Vivid and full of life to the last, it seems to echo Billie’s policy of dusting herself off and carrying on. There’s no preaching or self-pitying, and while the story is often unbearably tragic, Billie herself never comes across as a tragic figure. She’s tough, she’s smart, she’s funny, but she’s never tragic or miserable. In the end, it’s a pretty inspirational story. The fact that she died only three years after its publication adds an extra poignant note to proceedings. It’s difficult to get cold hard facts about a life as tangled and shrouded in mystery and myth as Billie Holiday’s, but “Lady Sings the Blues” is a wonderful companion to her music and, with an enlightening introduction and short essay on the picks of her discography by critic David Ritz, this 50th anniversary edition is the way to go.
Filed under: Books, Culture, Music, Autobiography, Billie Holiday, Lady Sings the Blues, William Dufty