The Unprecedented Rise And Tragic Death Of Billie Holiday

Although it has been imitated for decades, Billie Holiday's iconic voice is a true jazz-age original. Her haunting and melancholy music is a reflection of a life filled with love and pain. Growing up in poverty, barely surviving on the streets of New York in the 1930s, and years of substance abuse shaped Holiday's future and crafted a voice that could stop a person in their tracks.

She is remembered for many hits that have been endlessly covered since her early death, the most haunting of those being the protest poem-turned-song "Strange Fruit." Her music, with its unique cadence and moving lyrics, pays tribute to the life of Billie Holiday, an artist with incredible strength, resilience, and talent.

  • She Was Born To A Teenage Mother
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    She Was Born To A Teenage Mother

    Billie Holiday was born to a teen mom. In 1915, when she was born, her mother Sadie was only 13, and her father was only 15. Billie's given name was Eleanora Fagan, but she gave herself her stage name based on movie star Billie Dove and her father, reportedly jazz musician Clarence Holiday. Unfortunately, her father was rarely around during her childhood and she and her mother had to struggle on their own.

  • She And Her Mother Lived In A Poor Neighborhood, Where A Neighbor Assaulted Her At The Young Age Of 10

    At the age of nine, Billie was sent to the House of Good Shepard - a reform school for African American girls. She was sent there for being absent from school too often, and was sent back to live with her mother later that year. 

    Sadly, within a year Billie was sexually assaulted by one of her neighbors; she was only 10. For that, she was sent back to reform school.

  • Her Experiences At Reform School Gave Her Nightmares For Years

    The House of Good Shepard reform school was known for its harsh punishments, for even the smallest of mistakes or misbehavior. Her experience there was traumatic, and left a lasting impression. It took Holiday a while to move past her horrific time spent there; she would wake up from dreams about the school, screaming, for years after she left.

  • She Was A Sex Worker For Three Years, Before Being Sent To Jail

    In 1928, Billie and her mother moved from Baltimore, MD, to New York City. The transition was not an easy one - soon after moving Billie was raped for the second time in her life, and her attacker spent a mere three months in jail.

    Without much of an education under her belt, Holiday did what she needed to do to survive. She worked as a sex worker and supported herself that way for three years, before eventually being arrested for solicitation and sent to a woman's prison. She would have been around 16 at the time.

  • Newly Released From Prison, She Applied For A Dancing Job At A Club - But Was Instead Hired As A Singer

    After being released from jail, Holiday needed a job. She went to a club called the Log Cabin to apply for a job as a dancer, but it turns out she was applying for the wrong role.

    As she tells it, "Told him I was a dancer. He said to dance. I tried it. He said I stunk. I told him I could sing. He said sing … I sang. The customers stopped drinking." 

    She was hired as a singer for $18 per week, and slowly branched out into performing in other clubs around Harlem.

  • Touring America In The '30s Meant Dealing With Racism And Segregation
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Touring America In The '30s Meant Dealing With Racism And Segregation

    In the mid-1930s, Billie Holiday became one of the first female Black singers to work with a white orchestra. It was not a widely accepted practice at the time; once, while playing with a Black orchestra, a venue manager insisted that she darken her light skin so people wouldn't be upset (because they thought a white woman was singing with a Black band).

    She and her band, no matter who she was playing with, often struggled with segregation while on tour. She said later of her touring years that it was difficult to even find a restaurant where her whole band could eat together.