'Lady Day' doesn't really resolve question of Billie Holiday's birthplace

Readings

November 06, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

"Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday," by Robert O'Meally, 207 pages, Arcade Publishing, New York, N.Y., $29.95.

IN THE very first sentence of his book, "Lady Day," Robert O'Meally declares Billie Holiday "the greatest jazz singer in history," which may well be true, but O'Meally's declaration will surely irritate partisans of, say, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald.

O'Meally's anointment of Holiday as the greatest, in the style of Muhammad Ali, one supposes unhappily, is typical of this book. He makes a lot of assertions that are perhaps correct, but that are open to argument or seem downright pointless.

O'Meally, the Adolph S. and Effie Ochs Professor of English and American Studies at Barnard College, asserts that he is not writing a full-fledged biography, and he certainly has not.

For example, except for a picture caption and reproducing newspaper clippings, he totally omits mention of Holiday's imprisonment or the years that she was barred from singing in New York City nightclubs when she couldn't get a "cabaret card" because of drug convictions.

He doesn't ask if racism entered into the granting of cabaret cards, which many have charged, or even if race, or her sex, or her celebrity were involved in her drug arrests.

He makes a nice case for her conception of her voice as a jazz instrument and of her singing as an instrumental solo or as a part of the jazz group which with she was singing, which is probably true of Holiday more than any other jazz singer.

He identifies her great sense of time, her phrasing, her perfect diction, her dramatic sense of lyrics, her expressiveness, her way of performing without exhibition or tricks, "no false smiles, no extraneous jokes, no vaudevillian patter."

He rightly dismisses the idea of Holiday as a "natural" singer. He recounts her rough, tough apprenticeship when she was a young girl in Baltimore. She sang in after-hour joints, "good-time" houses and whorehouses, anywhere, in fact, where people would listen to her. She had formed a style even before she left for New York when she was about 15 or 16. And she kept inventing and re-inventing herself virtually until her death in July, 1959.

O'Meally's contention that Holiday was born in Philadelphia, not Baltimore, will trouble local jazz fans most. Baltimoreans, after all, erected a statue to the singer they claim as their own.

But O'Meally's evidence may not be as compelling as he thinks. He bases his assertion on research done by Linda Lipnack Kuehl, a New York University English professor who devoted her life to collecting virtually everything she could about Billie Holiday. She died in 1973 before she could write her own book.

Kuehl found a baptismal register indicating that Holiday was born in Philadelphia, where her Catholic mother may have gone to escape the shame of bearing a child out of wedlock.

The Rev. Edward V. Casserly records Holiday's baptism on March 19, 1925, and he notes in Latin that she was a "natural child" born in Philadelphia. Nearly 50 years later, Kuehl located a woman named Christine Scott, a god-parent, who remembered being at the baptismal ceremony at the House of Good Shepherd for Colored Girls, on Calverton Avenue.

Unfortunately for certainty, records at the House of Good Shepherd show two additional baptisms.

Eleanor Gough, who would become Billie Holiday, was at the institution twice, first from Jan. 5, 1925, when she was placed there by "Judge Williams" of Juvenile Court, until Oct. 3, 1925, when she was "paroled" to her mother, Sadie Gough.

Holiday's father was Clarence Holiday, a guitarist good enough to play with Fletcher Henderson's orchestra. Her mother, Sadie, later married a man name Gough. Holiday took his name.

Holiday was "committed" to Good Shepherd again by the Juvenile Court on Christmas Eve, 1926, and stayed until Feb. 2, 1927, when she was released by "habeas corpus," apparently to appear in court. She didn't return.

Good Shepherd records a conditional baptism on Aug. 14, 1925, the Rev. Joseph J. Winczner, when her birthplace was shown as Baltimore.

During her 1926 stay at Good Shepherd, another baptism was recorded by the Rev. Charles B. Carroll, who was pastor of St. Peter Clavier Church at the time. This baptism shows her birthplace as Philadelphia.

O'Meally's book mentions only one stay at Good Shepherd. His book also shows Holiday's passport from 1958, where her birthplace is recorded as Philadelphia.

Joe Glaser, her agent, got the passport for her. It's based on a letter from the Superior at Good Shepherd.

She wrote to the Department of State: "According to our records she was born in the City of Baltimore, State of Maryland, on the seventh day of April, 1914 [sic].

"It was according to her mother's report that she was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on the seventh day of April, 1915."

No birth certificate seems to exist either in Baltimore or Philadelphia. So the question of Holiday's birth remains open at least a crack for Baltimore.

The many, many photographs of Billie Holiday are the best thing about O'Meally's book. They comprise an extraordinarily varied album of her moods and emotions. The many faces of Billie Holiday conceal as much as they reveal, secrets much more poignant than where she was born.

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