“Lady Day got diamond eyes
She sees the truth behind the lies….”[i]
Her real name was Eleanora Fagan Gough, born in Philadelphia in 1915. She spent most of her childhood in Baltimore raised by relatives. She took the name ‘Billie’ in honor of her favorite actress Billie Dove and the name ‘Holiday’ from Clarence Holiday, her probable father. Her only training as a teenager was singing along with phonograph records at her aunt’s house. She was discovered by John Hammond and made her first recording with Benny Goodman in 1933.
Billie Holiday would later record and work with Louis Armstrong, Count Bassie, Artie Shaw and Lester Young. Many of her contemporaries noted that she made each and every song her own, took them to unheard of heights and depths, bursting into the open air.
Her memory has been celebrated in the song “Angel of Harlem” by the rock band U2 and by the American sculptor Mark di Suvero in a monumental piece “For Lady Day” in south Chicago and perhaps most poignantly by the New York School poet Frank O’Hara upon reading of her death in 1959.
“The Day Lady Died”
“It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off
the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing”[ii]
Finally, in describing this piece in tribute to Billie Holiday and the emergence of a new sculptural space, the critic Peter Schjeldahl has obsered: “The colosal ‘drawing in space’ with assembled elements—a specialty of the Manilow park, whose ‘For Lady Day’ by Mark di Suvero is a masterpiece of the mode—burst the boundaries of the traditional gallery and garden display and entered the open air.”[iii]
[i] U2; “Angel of Harlem,” Rattle and Hum; audio recording 422-842 299-2; Island Records; New York, New York; 1988.
[ii] O’Hara, Frank; Lunch Poems; City Lights Books; San Francisco, California; 1964 & 2014; p. 21.
[iii] Manilow, Lewis, et al; The Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park; Governors State University Foundation; University Park, Illinois; 1987. (Including the essay “A Park for the Prairie God” by Peter Schjeldahl); p. 11.