When Billie Holiday, whose real name was Eleonora, was born on April 7, 1915, her mother was 13 years old, and her father was still a kid in short pants who kicked cans down the street. It happened in Baltimore, a city then famous for its rats. Her mother split for New York where she scrubbed stairs; her father joined a jazz band and disappeared. The child was turned over to her grandparents who lived in a small wooden house replete with aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces, and cousins all crowded together. At the age of ten, Eleonora was already a fully developed woman and had to exchange her skates and her bicycle for a bucket, a brush, and some rags. Along with this trade inherited from her mother, the young girl had the job of resisting the nightly attacks of male lust by her male cousins in the communal bed.
Around the corner from her house was the brothel run by Alice Dean, where Eleonora began to run errands for the mistress of the house and the girls. She would go to the store, bring in and take out wash basins, place and retrieve bars of Lifebuoy soap, and wash towels all for five cents; but the young girl preferred not to be paid if in exchange the mistress of the house allowed her to listen to Louis Armstrong and to Bessie Smith on the victrola in the living room. It was the first time she heard singing without words, with only sounds of the soul from the throat that adapted themselves to its mood. In their early days, jazz and brothels were the same substance in those caverns where whites and blacks rubbed shoulders unselfconsciously--something that did not occur in churches. The child drank up that music from its very source. She once said, “If I had heard that music in the house of a minister, I wouldn’t have minded doing the chores for free.
When she was ten years old, she was in love with the actress Billie Dove. She imitated her movements and her hairstyle. But in the street, she had fist fights with boys her age and her father, who thought she was a tomboy because of this began calling her Bill. It was the name of her heroine: Billie. She adopted it. Her father was a trumpet player. During his travels with a second class orchestra, he spawned children with different women all over the South and they would see him suddenly appear at the door one day only to disappear the following day. Billie’s mother returned from New York and began taking on boarders to survive. 10 year old Billie wore white socks and patent leather shoes which she stole from the stores, for which her great-grandmother, who had been a slave and who spent a lot of time reading the bible, called her a sinner.
One summer afternoon, one of the guests, a man in his forties named Dick, grabbed the young girl’s hand and took her to a house under the pretext of waiting there for her mother. It was a whorehouse. With Billie stuck in a room, he attempted to rape her. The girl resisted kicking and screaming, but a woman held her head down so she couldn’t bite the man while he was satisfying himself. But through a neighbor, a vindictive lover of the rapist, Billie’s mother learned where they had taken her daughter. She called the police and Billie, covered in blood, was taken to police headquarters. There, a sergeant observed the volume of her breasts and the firmness of her legs, and all around Billie there were obscene glances and snickers. She remained locked up in a cell for several days. Ten years old, a victim of rape, Billie was tried by the court along with her assailant. He was sentenced to five years; she was locked up in a Catholic reform school run by robust nuns where she was dressed in a blue and white uniform; later, according to the rules, they changed her name to that of a saint, and from that moment Billie was called Teresa.
When a girl behaved badly, the nuns dressed her in red and prohibited the others from talking to her. One has to believe that during her time locked up in that institution that rebellious child spent most of her time wearing the color of the devil. The first time she used the red clothes was during Easter and that’s how she was dressed when her mother came to visit her and brought her two fried chickens, a dozen hard boiled eggs, and some candy. The Head Nun condemned the child to watch as her companions ate all her food without even being allowed to reach out her hand, and later locked her up for the entire night in a dark room with the cadaver of another child who had been killed falling off of a swing.
When she left the reform school, a goal she achieved by threatening suicide, Billie left Baltimore and determined that she would not stop walking until she reached Harlem. She was only 13 years old and completely developed. She had lost her virginity to a black trumpet player on the floor of her grandmother’s house which left her bloodied and battered; as a result she hated sex, but she understood the kind of a perverse world she had fallen into. She arrived at Penn Station without any luggage except a basket with some chicken in it which she ate sitting on a bench in the street. She met up with her mother and began to scrub stairs again, this time in the home of a large, course, indolent woman who screamed at her and called her “Negress” in a contemptuous tone of voice. It was the first time she had heard the word used as an insult. The young girl broke a vase over her head.
“There has to be something better than this,” she told herself. She knew she would never make a good housemaid.
Her mother took her to a luxurious apartment building on 141 Street in Harlem whose landlady was named Florence Williams. Her work emptying wash basins and washing towels in the house of Alice Dean had not been in vain: she immediately recognized that this apartment building was a bordello. She began to work for $20, five for the landlady, preferably with white men who had wives and kids and had to be home early, never with blacks since one of them, an immense stallion, one of those who says to you, “Do you like it, baby?” had devastated her and left her out of action for several months.
One day she denied her favors to the king of Harlem, a tough dude named Big Blue Rainier, a friend of the cops.
“So a black woman doesn’t want to go to bed with a black man?”
He reported her to the police for being a minor and Billie went back to jail.
One day, 15 year old Billie was walking along 133 Street--full of clubs where music was played, inclined to accept whatever work she could get that would pay her the $50 her mother had asked for so her mattress would not be thrown out of the window. She walked into the gambling den, Pod and Jerri’s--a joint which specialized in swing, and asked to sing. With the first sounds that emanated from her throat, there was a silence that would have allowed one to hear a pin falling on the floor.
In that locale, the girls were obliged to grab tips with their genitals that clients left on the tables. Billie refused to participate in this humiliation. One gentleman put some bills into her hand, and her companions, because of her pride, began to call her “Duchess” or “Lady Day”.
Although the other whores of the cabaret said that Billie sang as if her shoes were too tight, the truth is that she sang like a cat that had been wounded and humiliated in its constant rebellion of jumping over every roof. The pain would continue until the end of her life. The legend of this queen of swing had just begun.