Truth and Lies in Billie Holiday’s Autobiography

One of the most notorious books in the Jazz canon – and the basis for an equally salacious film – Lady Sings the Blues, Billie’s Holiday’s so-called autobiography was recently reissued to mark its 50th anniversary. The problem, explains SFGATE’s Jesse Hamlin, is that very little of the book is completely true. Put together by journalist William Dufty from interviews with Holiday, who needed the money because as an ex-felon she couldn’t work in New York clubs, the book contained enough prurient details about heroin addiction, heavy drinking, racism and the steamy underside of nightlife to satisfy the most morbid square. But Dufty was no fact checker and the picture of relentless misery the book recounts is seriously tainted. Instead it should be interpreted as artistic role playing, the way Holiday did when she seemed to be relating the lyrics of some of her most famous songs like “Strange Fruit” to her own experience. Both of the singer’s two godchildren, politician Bevan Dufty and singer Lorraine Feather, concur with this view. Dufty, whose mother Maely Dufty was at one point Holiday’s manager, and Feather, whose father Leonard Feather was Jazz critic and friend of the singer, remember her differently. “She was a very strong person who lived a vibrant, tough life. She never felt sorry for herself,”   says Dufty.