Hard life of Billie Holiday

smart verse of Ogden Nash

kicking the war habit

Books of the Region

June 12, 2005|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff

With Billie

By Julia Blackburn. Pantheon Books. 354 pages. $25.

A young woman named Linda Kuehl jumped out of a hotel window in Washington on a snowy night in January 1979. Among the things she left behind were taped interviews with about 150 people who knew, or claimed to know, Billie Holiday, along with a jumble of police records, shopping lists, royalty statements and similar ephemera from the life of the nonpareil jazz singer. Kuehl could never form her raw research into the biography she hoped to write of Holiday, who grew up in Baltimore and first began to sing here.

Julia Blackburn, a British author (Old Man Goya, The Book of Color), bought the rights to use Kuehl's material from the collector who owns it. She tried to write a biography in her turn, but she, too, found the material intractable. So she has opted for a documentary form, "in which people are free to tell their own stories."

Their stories are mostly compelling tales of Holiday's hard life and hard times, from her vagabond existence on the streets of Fells Point -- interrupted by two sentences to the House of Good Shepherd for Colored Girls -- to her unhappy death at 44 in a Harlem hospital under police guard on a narcotics charge. But not all the storytellers seem equally credible. And there's precious little about the extraordinary musicianship, the incomparable diction, phrasing, sense of timing and dramatic delivery that made her singing unique.

There's not much editing or fact-checking either. Baltimoreans may be put off early on when the House of Good Shepherd at Franklin Street and Calverton Road is located in East Baltimore, the Royal Theatre is consistently spelled "Royale" and Joe Gans' Goldfield hotel is owned by "the prizefighter Juan Ganz."

Ogden Nash: The Life and Works of America's Laureate of Light Verse

By Douglas M. Parker. Ivan R. Dee, Publisher. 316 pages. $27.50.

Ogden Nash certainly remains our most-read purveyor of light verse. Who doesn't know Candy is Dandy / But liquor is quicker?

But he was also a literary gentleman of the old school, a species that, if not extinct, is as rarely seen as the ivory-billed woodpecker. Douglas Parker, a lawyer writing with the "encouragement" of the family, depicts Nash as man of polished civility -- witty, sophisticated, and perhaps above all, kind and gentle. He could trace his ancestry to Welsh nobility, wore extremely well-tailored suits and lunched at the Algonquin with ancient literary types such as Christopher Morley (Parnassus on Wheels,, et al), Franklin P. Adams (The Conning Tower) and Dorothy Parker, although she was no gentleman.

He wooed Frances Leonard with adoring love letters, which he continued to write until the end of his life. (His dying words, after 40 years of marriage, were "I love you, Frances.") After they married, he continued to call his in-laws "Mr. and Mrs. Leonard." The Nash family lived with the Leonards for years in their rambling manse on Rugby Road in Guilford, where everyone seemed to dress for dinner.

Endlessly inventive in English, he could make puns in Latin and French as well, although he had completed only one year at Harvard when his father's business collapsed and he ran out of money. He had had three years at St. George's School, in Newport, R.I., which may have been the equivalent of today's diluted college eduction.

The New Yorker published 353 of his poems: the first in 1930, the last ten days after his death in May 1971. He seemed to embody the smart, insouciant, urbane style of the magazine in the 1930s and 1940s.

And he rarely expressed anger or even irritation, except when The New Yorker rejected a poem, or his publishers mishandled his publicity. He did, after all, basically support his family with his poetry. He tried Hollywood unsuccessfully. He hoped for triumph on Broadway and had one splendid success, One Touch of Venus, a musical for which he wrote the lyrics, including one great song, Speak Low, a standard for cabaret singers to this day.

Addicted to War: Why the U.S. Can't Lick Militarism

By Joel Andreas. AK Press. 77 pages. $10.

We used to read Classic Comics. We've absorbed illustrated novels by such literary stars as Paul Auster. We admired graphic novels and Japanese Manga. Sin City, a graphic classic has been made into a graphic movie.

Here, Joel Andreas, an assistant professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, gives us what he calls the "graphic expose." Graphic polemic might be more accurate; there's not much new here.

Andreas' book is more like a study guide for pacifist parents. A boy and his Mom ask the questions. Andreas tracks American militarism in everything from Manifest Destiny through wars against Native Americans, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq I and II.

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