Billie Holiday Photo Album

Mar 15, 2017

The New York Times last week posted an album of rarely seen photos of Billie Holiday. The pictures were taken by Jerry Dantzic in 1957 during her engagement at Sugar Hill on Broad Street in Newark, New Jersey. As the Times blog by John Leland notes, Billie had been denied a cabaret card for nearly a decade at that point, and without it she was unable to work in New York establishments that served alcohol, i.e., nightclubs. Billie appeared occasionally at Carnegie Hall, the Apollo Theater, and other New York concert halls, but she was dependent on out-of-town nightclub bookings to sustain a livelihood. Thus Boston, New Haven, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago became frequent stops for Lady Day.

The photos are from the new book Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill, published by W.W. Norton. It includes a text by Grayson Dantzic, son of the photographer, and an introductory essay by Zadie Smith, who discussed Billie in this interview published in The New Yorker.  The magazine also published Smith’s essay for the Dantzic book, “Crazy They Call Me,” in its March 6, 2017 issue.

Billie Holiday and her pianist Carl Drinkard greeting a fan in Newark
Credit Jerry Dantzic

In her essay, Smith writes, “And if a few sweet, clueless bobby-soxers, happy as Sunday, stop you on 110th to tell you how much they loved you at Carnegie Hall, how much they loved you on “The Tonight Show,” try your best not to look too bored, take out your pearl-encrusted cigarette box and hand them a smoke. Girl, you must give away twenty smokes a day. You give it all away, it streams from you, like rivers rolling to the sea: love, music, money, smokes. What you got, everybody wants—and most days you let ’em have it. Sometimes it’s as much as you can do to keep ahold of your mink.”

I assume she’s referring to the seventh image in the series of thirteen on the Times blog. If so, I see a very different exchange going on, one that certainly conveys the enthusiasm of two young “bobby-soxers,” but that also captures Billie in what appears to be a look of warm appreciation over their glee. The image above looks to be from the same on-street meeting, and the smile I see on Billie’s face and the grip of her hand on her fan’s arm reads anything but “bored.” But Smith’s projection on Billie seems not to allow for the possibility that the Lady may have needed the love and adoration even more than her fans needed her “love, music, money, smokes.” I’d be glad to hear what you see, or anything else you’ve got to say about Billie.