The Reading Life: ‘The Day Lady Died’

On this day in 1959, Billie Holiday died in Manhattan’s Metropolitan Hospital of heart failure brought on by alcoholism and drug abuse. Only 44, she was ravaged by her addictions, but even in her later years, she could deliver a song like no one else.

As Studs Terkel recalls of a performance three years earlier: “Billie’s voice was shot, though the gardenia in her hair was as fresh as usual. Ben Webster, for so long a big man on tenor, was backing her. He was having it rough, too. Yet they transcended. There were perhaps fifteen, twenty patrons in the house. At most. Awful sad. Still, when Lady sang ‘Fine and Mellow,’ you felt that way. And when she went into ‘Willow, Weep for Me,’ you wept. Something was still there, that something that distinguished an artist from a performer: the revealing of self. Here I be. Not for long, but here I be. In sensing her mortality, we sensed our own.”

Over at the Poetry Foundation, you can find another tribute, Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died.” (Thanks to Rebecca Traister on Facebook.) It’s one of my favorite O’Hara poems, loose and conversational, with his signature offhand movement from interior to exterior.


“It is 12:20 in New York a Friday,” O’Hara begins:

three days after Bastille day, yesit is 1959 and I go get a shoeshinebecause I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton   at 7:15 and then go straight to dinnerand I don’t know the people who will feed me

O’Hara goes on to “buy a hamburger and a malted,” then stops at “the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre” to buy cigarettes, which is where he learns the news. “and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it,” he concludes the poem:

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking ofleaning on the john door in the 5 SPOTwhile she whispered a song along the keyboardto Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing