Baltimore can claim much of Holiday's pain

November 30, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Billie Holiday didn't sing a song, so much as take dreamy, demonic possession of it. When she sang of ''Strange Fruit,'' she could darken every spirit in the room. When she sang ''Body and Soul,'' everyone knew the plaintive catch in her voice came out of a history of unrelieved heartache.

She seemed to lapse her way into a lyric and then struggle to get herself out. You can listen to her now, 34 years after her haunted life and her pitiful death, and still sense the pain and conflict. When Billie Holiday stood behind a microphone, it wasn't a performance, it was a declaration of vulnerability, a woman-child huddled in a corner hoping not to be hurt any more.

For generations, Baltimoreans have embraced Holiday not only as a wondrous jazz singer, but as one of our own. All the books said she was born here, and all the musical insiders say her singing style was formed here. When people talked of her tough years here, they added: Yes, but look at the beauty that came from such pain.

Now comes word that some of the beauty came from some other place, that Holiday was born Elinore Harris in Philadelphia -- though this refutes much previous history.

In West Baltimore yesterday morning, at Pennsylvania and Lafayette, there was the familiar Holiday statue, erected in the spring of 1985, with this message on a plaque:

''Billie Holiday, often called the greatest jazz singer ever . . . was born in Baltimore in 1915. Her name was Eleanor Fagan. After living in complete poverty, she and her mother moved to New York, where the jazz critic John Hammond discovered her singing in a small bar in 1933. . . .

''Sadly, her personal life was as traumatic as her public life was successful. A chaotic love life followed a miserable childhood, and continued racial discrimination in clubs compounded her bitterness. She died July 17, 1959.''

In fact, she died in a New York hospital room, where she was under arrest. For years, she'd been linked with the great bands and the great clubs -- Benny Goodman and Count Basie, Artie Shaw and Teddy Wilson, the Cotton Club and Cafe Society in New York, and the Club Charles and the Royal Theatre here -- but also, on the road to destruction, with childhood rape, and then with heroin and alcohol, and with repeated arrests.

Three years before she died, she sat with a New York reporter named William Duffy, and the two of them wrote an alleged autobiography for Holiday called ''Lady Sings the Blues,'' which contained this immortal first sentence:

''Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was 18, she was 16, and I was 3.''

Over the weekend, The Sun's Carl Schoettler wrote from London, where a British biographer produced a birth certificate, which he says proves that, in fact, Billie Holiday was born in Philadelphia -- thus severing Baltimore's ties to Holiday as a native daughter.

Well, so what?

When she grew up here -- and nobody's disputing her childhood here, around Pennsylvania and North avenues -- Billie Holiday associated the city with big rats running through her neighborhood, with doors slammed in the faces of black people, and with intense poverty.

When she came back here in her big-money days, she found discrimination, and the drug dealers found her. The late Harley Brinsfield, the radio jazz man, used to talk of letting Billie sleep at his house.

She couldn't get first-class hotel accommodations, and she couldn't duck the heroin dealers wherever she went.

''They always found her,'' Harley said one evening, sitting in his St. Paul Street apartment, ''and she never said no. She'd go upstairs and I'd sit there with her half the night. She was trying to stay away from that stuff. I'd go up to New York and see her sometimes. Finally, she died in that hospital up there. She had $1.73, with all the money she made.''

Anyway, maybe history's got Billie Holiday a little wrong. Maybe she wasn't born here, and maybe that plaque near her statue is incorrect. The statue's a beautiful thing, with Billie preserved in her youth, with that carnation in her hair and her arms outstretched. But she had bad memories of this place. And, if you look around the statue, there's broken glass on the sidewalk and trash in nearby shrubbery. In death as in life, it's still a tough town.

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