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At the Movies

Michael Wood: ‘The United States v. Billie Holiday’, 18 March 2021

... Lee Daniels’s​ The United States v. Billie Holiday (on Sky Cinema) hesitates a little about what kind of movie it is. Is it about the war on drugs, with Holiday’s career as an important instance in its history? Or is it about Holiday, with the war on drugs as part of the background? When we read a title card at the beginning of the film telling us that in 1937 the US Senate failed to pass an anti-lynching bill, and then another at the end stating that a similar bill considered in 2020 ‘has yet to pass’, Holiday’s repeated singing of ‘Strange Fruit’ feels like a political rather than a musical event, and we are clearly in the first movie ...

Her Haunted Heart

John Lahr: Billie Holiday, 20 December 2018

Lady Sings the Blues 
by Billie Holiday.
Penguin, 179 pp., £9.99, November 2018, 978 0 241 35129 1
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... been told​ that nobody sings the word “hunger” like I do. Or the word “love”,’ Billie Holiday says in her memoir Lady Sings the Blues (written in 1956 with William Dufty and now reissued). Like Kafka’s hunger artist, Holiday let song make a spectacle of her deprivation. ‘I don’t need a ...

To Live like a Bird

Mark Rudman, 1 June 2000

Approximately Nowhere 
by Michael Hofmann.
Faber, 77 pp., £7.99, April 1999, 0 571 19524 5
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... O’Hara and the gang could go downtown to the Blue Note and hear John Coltrane or uptown to hear Billie Holiday. This kind of nostalgia can be tiresome: better for each generation to invent a new idea of the new – to enlarge the temple. In his poems, Hofmann has found a way to do this. In each, no matter how short, one feels the pull of three places ...

The White Tree

Colin Dayan: The Jena Six, 1 November 2007

... bodies swinging in the southern breeze,/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees,’ as Billie Holiday sang – are part of a history that is erased with every new administration, with every Martin Luther King Day. But the return to chain gangs in the summer of 1995, the hitching of prisoners to posts in Alabama, the purging of books, both ...

Swoonatra

Ian Penman, 2 July 2015

Sinatra: London 
Universal, 3 CDs and 1 DVD, £40, November 2014Show More
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... and sustain and linger – were Tommy Dorsey (‘the General Motors of the band business’), Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby. Anyone surprised by the inclusion of the latter should do a bit of digging: Crosby is a fascinating character. As well as a subtly revolutionary singer he was a technophile obsessed with recording techniques, and with how best ...

At the Movies

Michael Wood: ‘True Grit’, 3 February 2011

True Grit 
directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen.
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... Pastoral scene of the gallant South’, Billie Holiday sang, evoking a landscape of lynched bodies. This was the ‘strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees’. Certainly a dark version of pastoral but well within the mode’s capacities. If traditional pastoral often idealises the simple life, it never quite chases the shadows of cruelty and corruption away, and what William Empson called the trick of simplification was always the thing ...

At the Movies

Michael Wood: ‘Hale County This Morning, This Evening’, 20 December 2018

... The other memory is a song, and we hear it as the credits roll at the end. The singer is Billie Holiday, and the song is ‘Stars Fell on Alabama’. ‘We lived our little drama,’ the song begins. ‘We kissed in a field of white/And stars fell on Alabama/Last night.’ There are too many ironies and undercurrents for me even to begin to list ...

Queening It

Jenny Diski: Nina Simone, 25 June 2009

Nina Simone: The Biography 
by David Brun-Lambert.
Aurum, 346 pp., £20, February 2009, 978 1 84513 430 3
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... comebacks, more wilderness years and sad endings. We might as well be talking about Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Maria Callas, Janis Joplin, Karen Carpenter or Judy Garland, and several of them get namechecked here – Callas and Holiday repeatedly. All those women artists wracked and torn, felled by life’s ...

Freddie Gray

Adam Shatz, 21 May 2015

... crimes as daring to look at a white woman. Black bodies no longer swing in the Southern breeze, as Billie Holiday sang. Instead, they are victims of chokeholds, bullets and other ‘restraining’ measures inflicted by the police, and not only below the Mason-Dixon line. Police killings of young black men, along with the mass incarceration of poor blacks ...

Diary

Eric Hobsbawm: My Days as a Jazz Critic, 27 May 2010

... not include jazz. As ‘Francis Newton’ (named after a Communist jazz trumpeter who played on Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’), I wrote a column every month or so for the New Statesman for about ten years. It was a good time to be writing about jazz. Not only did my column allow me an occasional respite from the personal and political ...

Wobble in My Mind

Colm Tóibín: Lizzie, Cal and Caroline, 7 May 2020

The Dolphin Letters, 1970-79: Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell and Their Circle 
edited by Saskia Hamilton.
Faber, 560 pp., £35, January, 978 0 571 35741 3
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The Dolphin: Two Versions, 1972-73 
by Robert Lowell, edited by Saskia Hamilton.
Farrar, Straus, 224 pp., £11.99, December 2019, 978 0 374 53827 9
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... Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick – both aged 53, married for 21 years – had just been on holiday together in Italy with their 13-year-old daughter, Harriet. Hardwick and Harriet had come home to New York, where Hardwick taught at Barnard College; Lowell had gone to Oxford to take up a fellowship at All Souls. He was considering an offer from the ...

Self-Extinction

Russell Davies, 18 June 1981

Short Lives 
by Katinka Matson.
Picador, 366 pp., £2.50, February 1981, 9780330262194
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... be even more bizarre. But there is a large preponderance of American names, ranging from Poe to Billie Holiday and Lenny Bruce. The starry cast of international oddments runs to the likes of Rimbaud, Nijinsky and Modigliani, and as far back as Thomas Chatterton, the Romantic stereotype. As an aid to the study of an important public theme, the list is ...

More about Marilyn

Michael Church, 20 February 1986

Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe 
by Anthony Summers.
Gollancz, 414 pp., £12.95, October 1985, 0 575 03641 9
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Norma Jeane: The Life and Death of Marilyn Monroe 
by Fred Lawrence Guiles.
Granada, 377 pp., £12.95, June 1985, 0 246 12307 9
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Poor Little Rich Girl: The Life and Legend of Barbara Hutton 
by C. David Heymann.
Hutchinson, 390 pp., £12.95, March 1985, 0 09 146010 7
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Deams that money can buy: The Tragic Life of Libby Holman 
by Jon Bradshaw.
Cape, 431 pp., £12.95, October 1985, 0 224 02846 4
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All Those Tomorrows 
by Mai Zetterling.
Cape, 230 pp., £9.95, November 1985, 0 224 01841 8
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Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady 
by Florence King.
Joseph, 278 pp., £8.95, August 1985, 0 7181 2611 4
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... Holman: ‘Am I Blue?’ delivered in a velvet contralto, without a trace of the vulnerability Billie Holiday brought to the number. That’s appropriate. The man in the song would have been the one to wake up alone, rather than Libby, and if he followed the example of her other lovers he would then dash off and crash his car/take an overdose/shoot ...

Birditis

Ian Penman: The Obsession with Charlie Parker, 23 January 2014

Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker 
by Gary Giddins.
Minnesota, revised edition, 195 pp., £15, October 2013, 978 0 8166 9041 1
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Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker 
by Stanley Crouch.
Harper, 365 pp., £20, September 2013, 978 0 06 200559 5
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Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker 
by Chuck Haddix.
Illinois, 188 pp., £20, September 2013, 978 0 252 03791 7
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... officially attributed to ‘Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe’ (see also Lady Sings the Blues by ‘Billie Holiday with William Duffy’). Depending on mood, ethnicity, ideology, drug of choice, an oral biography can strike the reader as an authentic reproduction of voice, in all its self-contradictory rhythm and curl – or borderline racist, like some ...

Sleepwalker on a Windowledge

Adam Mars-Jones: Carmen Maria Machado, 7 March 2019

Her Body & Other Parties 
by Carmen Maria Machado.
Serpent’s Tail, 245 pp., £8.99, January 2019, 978 1 78125 953 5
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... and imaginary, in the Indiana woods: ‘Beyond the table, there is an altar, with candles lit for Billie Holiday and Willa Cather and Hypatia and Patsy Cline.’ An old chemistry textbook now features a liturgical calendar, its red-letter days including ‘the Exaltation of Patricia Highsmith, celebrated with escargots boiling in butter and garlic and ...

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