Billie Holiday's life is not a Philadelphia story, friends insist

May 25, 1991|By Jean Marbella

Her autobiography says she was born in Baltimore. A friend recalls her pointing out a place in Baltimore and saying that's where she was born. Her obituary called her a Baltimore native.

So an upcoming book claiming that Billie Holiday actually was born in Philadelphia has been met with more than a little skepticism in Baltimore.

"That's news to me," said Earl Arnett, a writer, teacher and judge of the Annual Billie Holiday Vocal Competition that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke began last year as a "living memorial" to the nearly legendary local daughter. "She always claimed to have been born in Baltimore, and she grew up in Baltimore . . . so I don't think [the new book] does anything to take away from Baltimore's right to claim her."

The book, "Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday," says that Ms. Holiday's unwed mother "took off for a Philadelphia hospital" for the baby's birth because of her family's disapproval, according to advance publicity material from Arcade Publishing. The author, Barnard University professor Robert O'Meally, could not be reached for comment. The book will be published in October to coincide with the release of a video documentary on the singer that was prepared as part of the Masters of American Music Series.

But in Ms. Holiday's heretofore unquestioned hometown, friends, admirers and keepers of her legacy are not convinced.

"She will remain in the Maryland room," declared D. Tulani Salahu-Din, director of the Great Blacks in Wax museum, where Ms. Holiday's likeness is next to one of Eubie Blake [who, until further notice, is also a Baltimorean]. "There may be a technical basis for the writer's argument that she was born somewhere else, but it is clear that she spent a great deal of time here. The city can definitely claim her."

Baltimore has claimed Ms. Holiday as its own for so long, it's hard to imagine it otherwise.

"Blues Singer Billie Holiday, Baltimore Native, Dies at 44," was the headline of a newspaper obituary that announced her 1959 death due to lung congestion, possibly related to her use of drugs and alcohol. It went on to detail the short and tragic life of the girl who was born Eleanora Fagan, the illegitimate child of an Irish cleaning woman and a "Negro" musician, who grew up to become one of the greatest and most beloved singers of all time.

Newspaper stories say she left Baltimore at age 9, and at 13 was singing in Harlem nightclubs. She occasionally returned to Baltimore to perform at clubs including the Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Ms. Holiday's autobiography-turned-movie, "Lady Sings the Blues," gives some details of her early days in Baltimore: She ran errands for a Baltimore brothel called Alice Dean's and, in exchange, was allowed to listen to records of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith on the Victrola in the parlor. That was her first experience of jazz.

She said she was raped by a middle-aged neighbor in Baltimore, and was sent to a home for wayward girls as a result. That home, which has since closed, was run by the Sisters of the Good Shephard, which now operates a center in Halethorpe. An administrator there said yesterday that she had no comment on the upcoming book.

"I don't have access to records," said Sister Mary Rosaria, adding that she could not say where Ms. Holiday was born. "I'm not even sure when she was here. People who knew her are no longer living."

A friend of Ms. Holiday's, Baltimore hairstylist Shery Baker, disputes the book's assertion that the singer was born in Philadelphia.

"She took me to a house [in Baltimore] once -- I don't think it's there any more but it was in the vicinity of Madison and Dolphin -- and she said, 'That's where I was born,' " said Mr. Baker, who met Ms. Holiday in the 1940s when the singer performed at his uncle's club in Atlantic City.

Mr. Baker was with Ms. Holiday in her New York apartment one early morning in the mid-'50s when she began speaking admiringly about a new singer she had heard, Ethel Ennis of Baltimore. So Mr. Baker suggested she call her.

"It was 3 or 4 in the morning," Ms. Ennis recalled with a laugh. "She said, 'This is Billie Holiday,' and I said, 'Right, uh huh.' "

Ms. Ennis believes that Ms. Holiday's actual birthplace doesn't matter in the end.

"Listening to her . . . the words come alive," said Ms. Ennis, a Baltimore native. "It's like a painting."

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