March 19, 2014
Frank O’Hara and Billie Holiday had probably never met, never exchanged a single word. There’s no record of the two of them at any gathering.
What I found instead is an image of Amiri Baraka and Frank O’Hara, part of the footage taken by the experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas, showing them hanging out at the Living Theater, 1959, the same year that Holiday died.
Billie Holiday has been pivotal for Amiri Baraka over the years. She’s there: in Black Music, in Three Books. In “Dark Lady of the Sonnet,” he writes: “more than I have felt to say, she/ says always. More than she has ever/ felt is what we mean by fantasy/ Emotion, is wherever you are. She/stayed in the street.”
It’s fitting that Holiday should be front and center for Baraka, an anchor, a given. She’s nothing like that for O’Hara. “The Day Lady Died” is a perfectly normal day, hot and muggy, with the usual food, usual frustrations, and only a reference near the end to a “New York Post with her face on it.” By then the sweat that comes pouring out isn’t just from the weather, “while she whispered a song along the keyboard/ to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.”
That seems about right to me: it takes two to capture the contradictions of Billie Holiday: her cultural centrality on the one hand, marginality on the other; her face on the front page of the New York Post, and dying at age 44, under arrest in the hospital for drug possession, with $0.70 in the bank.