Singer Billie Holiday wastormented by anti-drug squad
In the 1940s and ’50s, Harry Anslinger, head of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics, set his sights on jazz vocalist Billie Holiday.
Billie Holiday (1915-1959), one of the greatest jazz vocalists of all time, grew up amid poverty, prostitution and neglect. Not surprisingly, she became addicted to illegal drugs and alcohol, but that didn’t stop the woman dubbed “Lady Day” from becoming an adored and influential singer. In his new book on the 100-year-old U.S. War on drugs, Chasing the Scream, British writer Johann Hari — who has had his own issues with substances — describes how Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, hounded Holiday during the 1940s and 1950s.
Jazz was the opposite of everything Harry Anslinger believed in. It is improvised, and relaxed, and free-form. It follows its own rhythm. Worst of all, it is a mongrel music made up of European, Caribbean and African echoes, all mating on American shores. To Anslinger, this was musical anarchy, and evidence of a recurrence of the primitive impulses that lurk in black people, waiting to emerge. “It sounded,” his internal memos said, “like the jungles in the dead of night.”
His agents reported back to him that “many among the jazzmen think they are playing magnificently when under the influence of marihuana but they are actually becoming hopelessly confused and playing horribly.”
The bureau believed that marijuana slowed down your perception of time dramatically, and this was why jazz music sounded so freakish — the musicians were literally living at a different, inhuman rhythm. “Music hath charms,” their memos say, “but not this music.” Indeed, Harry took jazz as yet more proof that marijuana drives people insane. For example, the song That Funny Reefer Man contains the line “Any time he gets a notion, he can walk across the ocean.” Harry’s agents warned: “He does think that.”
Anslinger looked out over a scene filled with men like Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong and Thelonious Monk, and — as the journalist Larry Sloman recorded — he longed to see them all behind bars. He wrote to all the agents he had sent to follow them, and instructed: “Please prepare all cases in your jurisdiction involving musicians in violation of the marijuana laws. We will have a great national round-up arrest of all such persons on a single day.”
He reassured congressmen that his crackdown would affect not “the good musicians, but the jazz type.” But when Harry came for them, the jazz world would have one weapon that saved them: its absolute solidarity. Anslinger’s men could find almost no one among them who was willing to snitch, and whenever one of them was busted, they all chipped in to bail him out.
In the end, the Treasury Department told Anslinger he was wasting his time taking on a community that couldn’t be fractured, so he scaled down his focus until it settled like a laser on a single target — perhaps the greatest female jazz vocalist there ever was.
Billie Holiday was born in 1915, a few months after the Harrison Act, the first law banning cocaine and heroin, and it would become her lifelong twin. Not long after Billie’s birth, her 19-year-old mother, Sadie, became a prostitute, while her 17-year-old father vanished. He later died of pneumonia in the South because he couldn’t find a hospital that would treat a black man.
Billie brought herself up on the streets of Baltimore, alone, defiant. It was the last city without a sewer system in the United States, and she spent her childhood among clouds of stinking smoke from all the burning s–t. Her cold slum district was known as Pigtown, and many people lived in shacks. Every day, little Billie would wash and clean her great-grandmother and listen to stories from her youth, when she had been a slave on a Virginia plantation.
Billie soon learned there were lots of places she couldn’t go because she was black. She knew in her gut this was wrong and had to change, and she made a promise to herself: “I just plain decided one day I wasn’t going to do anything or say anything unless I meant it. Not ‘Please, sir.’ Nor ‘Thank you, ma’am.’ Nothing. Unless I meant it. You have to be poor and black to know how many times you can get knocked in the head for trying to do something as simple as that.” This promise would reshape her life — and her attitude toward Harry.
When she was 10, one of her neighbours — a man in his 40s named Wilbert Rich — turned up and explained that he had been sent by her mother to take Billie to her. He took her to a house and told her to wait. She sat and waited, but her mother didn’t come; as night fell, Billie said she was drowsy. The man offered her a bed. When she lay down on it, he pinned her down and raped her.
She screamed and clawed at the man, howling for help, and somebody must have heard, because the police arrived. When they barged in, the officers decided at once what was going on. Billie, they declared, was a whore who had tricked this poor man. She was shut away in a cell for two days. Months later, Wilbert Rich was punished with three months in prison, while Billie was punished with a year in a reform school.
The nuns who ran the walled-in, sealed-off punishment centre looked at the child and concluded she was bad and needed the firm thwack of discipline.
When she escaped — out of the convent, and Baltimore — she was determined to find her mother, who was last heard from in Harlem. When she arrived on the bus into a freezing winter, she stumbled to the last address she had been given, only to find it was a brothel. Her mother worked there for a pittance and had no way to keep her. Before long, Billie was thrown out, and she was so hungry she could barely breathe without it hurting. There was, Billie came to believe, only one solution. A madam offered her a 50 per cent cut for having sex with strangers. She was 14 years old.
Before long, Billie had her own pimp. He was a violent, cursing thug named Louis McKay, who was going to break her ribs and beat her till she bled. He was also — perhaps more crucially — going to meet Harry Anslinger many years later, and work with him.
Billie was caught prostituting by the police, and once again, instead of rescuing her from being pimped and raped, they punished her. She was sent to prison on Welfare Island, and once she got out, she started to seek out the hardest and most head-blasting chemicals she could. At first her favourite was White Lightning, a toxic brew containing 70-proof alcohol, and as she got older, she tried to stun her grief with harder and harder drugs. One night, a white boy from Dallas called Speck showed her how to inject herself with heroin. When Billie wasn’t drunk or high, she sank into a black rock of depression and was so shy she could barely speak. She would still wake in the night screaming, remembering her rape and imprisonment. “I got a habit, and I know it’s no good,” she told a friend, “but it’s the one thing that makes me know there’s a person called Billie Holiday. I am Billie Holiday.”
But then she discovered something else. One day, starving, she walked a dozen blocks in Harlem, asking in every drinking hole if they had any work for her, and she was rejected everywhere. Finally she walked into a place called the Log Cabin and explained she could work as a dancer, but when she tried a few moves, it was obvious she wasn’t good enough. Desperate, she told the owner maybe she could sing. He pointed her toward an old piano man in the corner and told her to give him a song. As she sang Trav’llin’ All Alone, the customers put down their drinks and listened. By the time she finished her next song, Body and Soul, there were tears running down their cheeks.
She sang a moment behind the beat and lived a moment ahead of it. One New Year’s Eve, a sailor saw her being served in a bar and asked: “When did you start serving n—-r bitches?” She stabbed a bottle into his face. Another time in another bar, a group of soldiers and sailors started stubbing out their cigarettes on her mink coat. She handed the mink coat to a friend to hold, picked up a diamond-shaped ashtray, and laid the sailors out flat.
Yet when it came to the men in her life, this impulse to defend herself bled away. Louis McKay graduated from being her pimp to being her “manager” and husband: he stole almost all her money. After her greatest performance at Carnegie Hall, he greeted her by punching her so hard in the face she was sent flying.
Harry had heard whispers that this rising black star was using heroin, so he assigned an agent named Jimmy Fletcher to track her every move. Harry hated to hire black agents, but if he sent white guys into Harlem and Baltimore, they stood out straight away. Jimmy was allowed through the door at the bureau, but never up the stairs. He was and would remain an “archive man” — a street agent whose job was to figure out who was selling, who was supplying, and who should be busted. He would carry large amounts of drugs with him, and he was allowed to deal drugs himself so he could gain the confidence of the people he was secretly plotting to arrest.
Many agents in this position would shoot heroin with their clients, to “prove” they weren’t cops. We don’t know whether Jimmy joined in, but we do know he had no pity for addicts: “I never knew a victim,” he said. “You victimize yourself by becoming a junkie.”
He first saw Billie in her brother-in-law’s apartment, where she was drinking enough booze to stun a horse and hoovering up vast quantities of cocaine. The next time he saw her, it was in a brothel in Harlem, doing exactly the same. Billie’s greatest talent, after singing, was swearing — if she called you a “motherf—–,” it was a great compliment. We don’t know the first time Billie called Jimmy a motherf—–, but she soon spotted this man who was hanging around, watching her, and she grew to like him.
When Jimmy was sent to raid her, he knocked at the door pretending he had a telegram to deliver. Her biographer Julia Blackburn studied the only remaining interview with Jimmy Fletcher — now lost by the archives handling it — and she wrote about what he remembered in detail.
“Stick it under the door!” she yelled.
“It’s too big to go under the door!” he snapped back.
She let him in. She was alone. Jimmy felt uncomfortable.
“Billie, why don’t you make a short case of this and, if you’ve got anything, why don’t you turn it over to us?” he asked. “Then we won’t be searching around, pulling out your clothes and everything. So why don’t you do that?” But Jimmy’s partner arrived and sent for a policewoman to conduct a body search.
When Billie sang “Loverman, where can you be?” she wasn’t crying for a man — she was crying for heroin. But when she found out her friends in the jazz world were using the same drug, she begged them to stop. Never imitate me, she cried. Never do this.
She kept trying to quit. She would get her friends to shut her away in their houses for days on end while she went through withdrawal. As she ran back to her dealers, she cursed herself as “No Guts Holiday.” Why couldn’t she stop? “It’s tough enough coming off when you’ve got somebody who loves you and trusts you and believes in you,” she wrote. “I didn’t have anybody.”
The morning he first raided her, Jimmy took Billie to one side and promised to talk to Anslinger personally for her. “I don’t want you to lose your job,” he said.
Not long after, he ran into her in a bar and they talked for hours, with her pet Chihuahua, Moochy, by her side. Then, one night, at Club Ebony, they ended up dancing together — Billie Holiday and Anslinger’s agent, swaying together to the music.
“And I had so many close conversations with her, about so many things,” he would remember years later. “She was the type who would make anyone sympathetic because she was the loving type.” The man Anslinger sent to track and bust Billie Holiday had, it seems, fallen in love with her. Confronted with a real addict, up close, the hatred fell away.
But Anslinger was going to be given a break on Billie, one he got nowhere else in the jazz world. Billie had got used to turning up at gigs so badly beaten by Louis McKay they had to tape up her ribs before pushing her onstage. She was too afraid to go to the police — but finally she was brave enough to cut him off .
“How come I got to take this from this bitch here? This low-class bitch?” McKay raged. “If I got a whore, I got some money from her or I don’t have nothing to do with the bitch. I don’t want no c–t.” He had heard that Harry Anslinger wanted information on her, and he was intrigued. “I got enough to finish her off ,” he had pledged. “I’m going to do her up so goddam bad she going to remember as long as she live.” He travelled to D.C. to see Harry, and he agreed to set her up.
When Billie was busted again, she was put on trial. She stood before the court looking pale and stunned. “It was called ‘The United States of America versus Billie Holiday,’ ” she said, “and that’s just the way it felt.” She refused to weep on the stand. She told the judge she didn’t want any sympathy. She just wanted to be sent to a hospital so she could kick the drugs and get well. Please, she said to the judge, “I want the cure.”
She was sentenced instead to a year in a West Virginia prison, where she was forced to go cold turkey and work during the days in a pigsty, among other places. In all her time behind bars, she did not sing a note. Years later, when her autobiography was published, Billie tracked Jimmy Fletcher down and sent him a signed copy. She had written inside it: “Most federal agents are nice people. They’ve got a dirty job to do and they have to do it. Some of the nicer ones have feelings enough to hate themselves sometime for what they have to do.” She was right: Jimmy never stopped feeling guilty for what he’d done to Lady Day.
Now, as a former convict, she was stripped of her cabaret performer’s licence, on the grounds that listening to her might harm the morals of the public. This meant she wasn’t allowed to sing anywhere that alcohol was served — which included all the jazz clubs in the United States.
“How do you best act cruelly?” her friend Yolande Bavan asked me in 2013. “It’s to take something that’s the dearest thing to that person away from them.” Billie had been able to survive everything — but this? “You despair because you have no control. You can’t do the thing that is a passion and that you made your livelihood at, and that has brought joy to people all over the world,” Bavan says. Billie was finally silenced. She had no money to look after herself or to eat properly. She couldn’t even rent an apartment in her own name.
Another of her friends kept telling her she could save enough money to retire to a house with a garden where she could have babies. “Do you think I can? Do you think I can do it?” she asked incredulously. She dreamed of getting a big farm somewhere and turning it into a home for orphaned children, where she’d run the kitchen herself.
But when she was forced to interact with people, she was becoming more and more paranoid. If Jimmy Fletcher had been one of Them, who else was? She believed — correctly, it turns out — that some of the people around her were informing on her to Anslinger’s army. “You didn’t know who to trust,” her friend Yolande Bavan told me. “So-called friends — were they friends? What were they?” Everywhere she went, there were agents asking about her, demanding details.
She began to push away even her few remaining friends, because she was terrified the police would plant drugs on them, too — and that was the last thing she wanted for the people she loved.
One day, Harry Anslinger was told that there were also white women, just as famous as Billie, who had drug problems — but he responded to them rather differently. He called Judy Garland, another heroin addict, in to see him. They had a friendly chat, in which he advised her to take longer vacations between pictures, and he wrote to her studio, assuring them she didn’t have a drug problem at all. When he discovered that a Washington society hostess he knew — “a beautiful, gracious lady,” he noted — had an illegal drug addiction, he explained he couldn’t possibly arrest her because “it would destroy . . . the unblemished reputation of one of the nation’s most honored families.” He helped her to wean herself off her addiction slowly, without the law becoming involved.
As I sat in his archives, reading over the piles of fading papers that survive from the launch of the drug war, there was one thing I found hardest to grasp at first.
The arguments we hear today for the drug war are that we must protect teenagers from drugs, and prevent addiction in general. We assume, looking back, that these were the reasons this war was launched in the first place. But they were not. They crop up only occasionally, as asides. The main reason given for banning drugs — the reason obsessing the men who launched this war — was that the blacks, Mexicans and Chinese were using these chemicals, forgetting their place and menacing white people.
It took me a while to see that the contrast between the racism directed at Billie and the compassion offered to addicted white stars like Judy Garland was not some weird misfiring of the drug war — it was part of the point.
Harry told the public that “the increase (in drug addiction) is practically 100 per cent among Negro people,” which he stressed was terrifying because already “the Negro population . . . accounts for 10 per cent of the total population, but 60 per cent of the addicts.” He could wage the drug war — he could do what he did — only because he was responding to a fear in the American people. You can be a great surfer, but you still need a great wave. Harry’s wave came in the form of a race panic.
In the run-up to the passing of the Harrison Act, the New York Times ran a story typical of the time. The headline was: “NEGRO COCAINE ‘FIENDS’ NEW SOUTHERN MENACE.” It described a North Carolina police chief who “was informed that a hitherto inoffensive negro, with whom he was well-acquainted, was ‘running amuck’ in a cocaine frenzy (and) had attempted to stab a storekeeper . . . Knowing he must kill this man or be killed himself, the Chief drew his revolver, placed the muzzle over the negro’s heart, and fired — ‘intending to kill him right quick,’ as the officer tells it, but the shot did not even stagger the man.” Cocaine was, it was widely claimed in the press at this time, turning blacks into superhuman hulks who could take bullets to the heart without flinching. It was the official reason why the police across the South increased the calibre of their guns.
Many white Americans did not want to accept that black Americans might be rebelling because they had lives like Billie Holiday’s — locked into Pigtowns and banned from developing their talents. It was more comforting to believe that a white powder was the cause of black anger, and that getting rid of the white powder would render black Americans docile and on their knees once again. (The history of this would be traced years later in Michelle Alexander’s remarkable book The New Jim Crow.)
Harry Anslinger did not create these underlying trends. His genius wasn’t for invention: it was for presenting his agents as the hand that would steady all these cultural tremblings. He knew that to secure his bureau’s future, he needed a high-profile victory, over intoxication and over the blacks, and so he turned back to Billie Holiday.
To finish her off , he called for his toughest agent — a man who was at no risk of falling in love with her, or anyone else.
Col. George White, a vastly obese white slab of a man
, was Harry Anslinger’s favourite agent. And when he looked over Holiday’s files, he declared her to be “a very attractive customer,” because the bureau was “at a loose end” and could do with the opportunity “to kick her over.”
White had been a journalist in San Francisco in the 1930s until he applied to join the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. The personality test given to all applicants on Anslinger’s orders found that he was a sadist. He quickly rose through the bureau’s ranks. He became a sensation as the first and only white man ever to infiltrate a Chinese drug gang, and he even learned to speak in Mandarin so he could chant their oaths with them. In his downtime, he would go swimming in the filthy waters of New York City’s Hudson River, as if daring it to poison him.
He was especially angered that this black woman didn’t know her place. “She flaunted her way of living, with her fancy coats and fancy automobiles and her jewelry and her gowns,” he complained. “She was the big lady wherever she went.”
When he came for her on a rainy day at the Mark Twain Hotel in San Francisco without a search warrant, Billie was sitting in white silk pajamas in her room. This was one of the few places she could still perform, and she badly needed the money. She insisted to the police that she had been clean for over a year. White’s men declared they had found opium stashed in a wastepaper basket next to a side room and the kit for shooting heroin in the room, and they charged her with possession. But when the details were looked at later, there seemed to be something odd: a wastepaper basket seems an improbable place to keep a stash, and the kit for shooting heroin was never entered into evidence by the cops — they said they left it at the scene. When journalists asked White about this, he blustered; his reply, they noted, “appeared a little defensive.”
That night, White came to Billie’s show at the Café Society Uptown, and he requested his favourite songs. She never lost faith in her music’s ability to capture and persuade. “They’ll remember me,” she said, “when all this is gone, and they’ve finished badgering me.” George White did not agree. “I did not think much of Ms Holiday’s performance,” he told her manager sternly.
Billie insisted the junk had been planted in her room by White, and she immediately offered to go into a clinic to be monitored: she would experience no withdrawal symptoms, she said, and that would prove she was clean and being framed. She checked herself in at a cost of $1,000, and she didn’t so much as shiver.
George White, it turns out, had a long history of planting drugs on women. He was fond of pretending to be an artist and luring women to an apartment in Greenwich Village where he would spike their drinks with LSD to see what would happen. One of his victims was a young actress who happened to live in his building, while another was a pretty blond waitress in a bar. After she failed to show any sexual interest in him, he drugged her to see if that would change. “I toiled whole-heartedly in the vineyards because it was fun, fun, fun,” White boasted. “Where else (but in the Bureau of Narcotics) could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill, cheat, steal, rape and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the All-Highest?” He may well have been high when he busted Billie for getting high.
The prosecution of Billie went ahead. “The hounding and the pressure drove me,” she wrote, “to think of trying the final solution, death.” Her best friend said it caused Billie “enough anxieties to kill a horse.” At the trial, a jury of 12 ordinary citizens heard all the evidence. They sided with Billie against Anslinger and White, and found her not guilty. Nonetheless, “she had slipped from the peak of her fame,” Harry Anslinger wrote. “Her voice was cracking.”
In the years after Billie’s trial, many other singers were too afraid of being harassed by the authorities to perform (song about lynching African Americans) Strange Fruit. But Billie Holiday refused to stop. No matter what they did to her, she sang her song.
“She was,” her friend Annie Ross told me, “as strong as she could be.” To the end, Billie Holiday kept the promise she had made to herself back in Baltimore when she was a little girl. She didn’t bow her head to anyone.
When Billie was 44 years old, a young musician named Frankie Freedom was serving her a bowl of oatmeal and custard in his apartment when she suddenly collapsed. She was taken to the Knickerbocker Hospital in Manhattan and made to wait for an hour and a half on a stretcher, and they said she was a drug addict and turned her away. One of the ambulance drivers recognized her, so she ended up in a public ward of New York City’s Metropolitan Hospital. As soon as they took her off oxygen, she lit a cigarette.
“Some damnbody is always trying to embalm me,” she said, but the doctors came back and explained she had an array of very serious illnesses: she was emaciated because she had not been eating; she had cirrhosis of the liver because of chronic drinking; she had cardiac and respiratory problems due to chronic smoking; and she had several leg ulcers caused by starting to inject street heroin once again. They said she was unlikely to survive for long — but Harry wasn’t done with her yet.
“You watch, baby,” Billie warned from her tiny gray hospital room. “They are going to arrest me in this damn bed.”
Narcotics agents were sent to her hospital bed and said they had found less than one-eighth of an ounce of heroin in a tinfoil envelope. They claimed it was hanging on a nail on the wall, six feet from the bottom of her bed — a spot Billie was incapable of reaching. They summoned a grand jury to indict her, telling her that unless she disclosed her dealer, they would take her straight to prison. They confiscated her comic books, radio, record player, flowers, chocolates and magazines, handcuffed her to the bed and stationed two policemen at the door. They had orders to forbid any visitors from coming in without a written permit, and her friends were told there was no way to see her. Her friend Maely Dufty screamed at them that it was against the law to arrest somebody who was on the critical list. They explained that the problem had been solved: they had taken her off the critical list.
So now, on top of the cirrhosis of the liver, Billie went into heroin withdrawal, alone. A doctor was brought into the hospital at the insistence of her friends to prescribe methadone. She was given it for 10 days and began to recover: she put on weight and looked better. But then the methadone was suddenly stopped, and she began to sicken again. When finally a friend was allowed in to see her, Billie told her in a panic: “They’re going to kill me. They’re going to kill me in there. Don’t let them.” The police threw the friend out. “I had very high hopes that she would be able to come out of it alive,” another friend, Alice Vrbsky, told the BBC, until all this happened. “It was the last straw.”
On the street outside the hospital, protesters gathered, led by a Harlem pastor named the Reverend Eugene Callender. They held up signs reading “Let Lady Live.” Callender had built a clinic for heroin addicts in his church, and he pleaded for Billie to be allowed to go there to be nursed back to health. His reasoning was simple, he told me in 2013: addicts, he said, “are human beings, just like you and me.” They fingerprinted Billie on her hospital bed. They took a mug shot of her on her hospital bed. They grilled her on her hospital bed without letting her talk to a lawyer.
Billie didn’t blame Anslinger’s agents as individuals; she blamed the drug war itself — because it forced the police to treat ill people like criminals. “Imagine if the government chased sick people with diabetes, put a tax on insulin and drove it into the black market, told doctors they couldn’t treat them,” she wrote in her memoir, “then sent them to jail. If we did that, everyone would know we were crazy. Yet we do practically the same thing every day in the week to sick people hooked on drugs.”
When she died on this bed, with police officers at the door to protect the public from her, she looked — as another of her friends told the BBC — “as if she had been torn from life violently.” She had 15 $50 bills strapped to her leg. It was all she had left. She was intending to give it to the nurses who had looked after her, to thank them.
Her best friend, Maely Dufty, insisted to anyone who would listen that Billie had been effectively murdered by a conspiracy to break her, orchestrated by the narcotics police — but what could she do? At Billie’s funeral, there were swarms of police cars, because they feared their actions against her would trigger a riot. In his eulogy for her, the Reverend Eugene Callender told me he had said: “We should not be here. This young lady was gifted by her creator with tremendous talent . . . She should have lived to be at least 80 years old.”
The Federal Bureau of Narcotics saw it differently. “For her,” Harry wrote with satisfaction, “there would be no more Good Morning Heartache.”
It is easy to judge Harry Anslinger. But if we are honest, I suspect that everybody who has ever loved an addict — everybody who has ever been an addict — has this impulse in them somewhere. Destroy the addiction. Kill the addiction. Throttle it with violence. Harry Anslinger is our own darkest impulses, given a government department and a licence to kill.
As I researched this book, I travelled a long way from the farm fields of Pennsylvania — but at every step, I began to feel I was chasing the scream that terrified little Harry Anslinger all those years ago, as it echoed out across the world.
In his private files, Harry kept a poem that had been sent in by an admiring member of the public, addressed directly to him. It defined for Harry his mission in life. Until the day that “the Great Judge proclaims:/‘The last addict’s died,’ ” the poem said, “Then — not till then — may you be retired.”