“Nobody’s Victim”

To mark last week’s anniversary of the death of Billie Holiday, Darryl Pinckney revisited Elizabeth Hardwick’s classic profile of the jazz legend:

Lizzie really minded the sentimentality going around then, the 1970s, about Billie Holiday as a woman who’d lived her songs, the whole Lady Sings the Blues thing. In her portrait of Billie Holiday, she wanted to evoke a singularly conscious individual, someone who had worked to perfect her art, a singer who knew what she was doing, a supreme musician. She also wanted to get across the tremendous force and sophistication of Billie Holiday’s character, her willfulness, and the size her alcohol and heroin addictions had to become in order for them to cut her down. Billie Holiday was nobody’s victim and held no one responsible for her choices. The bizarre deity—she adored Baudelaire’s phrase about his brown-skinned mistress.

Once, completely blotto, I read aloud Frank O’Hara’s ‘The Day Lady Died,’ and Lizzie said that [Robert Lowell] liked for her to play her jazz records, but he didn’t really get them. Their daughter Harriet did. Lizzie said that you can listen to opera by yourself, but not certain kinds of jazz. You had to have someone with you when you listened to Billie Holiday, for instance. Otherwise, you might kill yourself.