Last week, in honor of the July 17th anniversary of the day Billie Holiday died (also known hereabouts as the day Frank O’Hara wrote “The Day Lady Died”), several tributes to Lady Day popped up around the web. Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan linked to a piece by Darryl Pinckney, the novelist, essayist, and longtime contributor to the New York Review of Books. The piece is less about Holiday herself and more of a memoir about the writer Elizabeth (“Lizzie”) Hardwick (Robert Lowell’s second wife), who wrote an important piece on the singer in 1976 for the NYRB.
Pinckney discusses Hardwick’s special affection for Holiday and recalls what his friend was trying to get across in her profile of the singer: “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.”
What caught my eye was this:
Once, completely blotto, I read aloud Frank O’Hara’s ‘The Day Lady Died,’ and Lizzie said that Cal liked for her to play her jazz records, but he didn’t really get them. Their daughter Harriet did.
I love the image of Pinckney drunkenly reciting O’Hara’s elegy for Holiday to Hardwick, not to mention the phrase “completely blotto.” (I recently wrote a bit about O’Hara’s poem here). Also, for those who like to probe the tensions and differences between O’Hara and Lowell (see, for example, the famous incident regarding O’Hara’s reading of his just-written “Lana Turner has collapsed” poem at a reading he gave alongside Lowell, much to Lowell’s displeasure), it’s rather interesting, or confirming, if not surprising, to hear that “Cal” (Lowell’s nickname) “didn’t really get” Billie Holiday or jazz.
Pinckney’s piece ends with some great lines from Hardwick about the same beauty and pathos of Holiday’s work that O’Hara’s poem evokes so well:
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.