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Encore: Billie Holiday's Grave


A moment now to remember a woman with a truly remarkable voice, who died in a New York hospital on July 17, 1959.


BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) But God bless the child that's got his own, that's got his own.

SIMON: Billie Holiday was just 44 years old when her heart and liver failed after years of drug and alcohol use. Thousands of people went to her funeral. A few years ago, we sent NPR's Elizabeth Blair to visit her grave at St. Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx. And now, to mark the 60th anniversary of Billie Holiday's death, here's Elizabeth's story again.


ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: If you're a dead jazz musician, one of the places to be is New York's Woodlawn Cemetery. Duke Ellington, Celia Cruz, Miles Davis, Lionel Hampton are just some of the jazz greats buried there. Billie Holiday is not one of them.

Do you know where we are in the Bronx?

QUEEN ESTHER: Over by Throgs Neck Bridge.


ESTHER: Way, way, way out.

BLAIR: That's singer Queen Esther, who recently did a show at the Apollo based partly on Billie Holiday's music, along with Farah Jasmine Griffin, a Columbia University professor who wrote a book about Holiday.

FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: I think people assume...

ESTHER: Right.

GRIFFIN: ...That she's in Woodlawn because that's where...

ESTHER: Everybody else is.

GRIFFIN: ...Everyone else is. Right. And so people assume that unless, you know, you go looking.

BLAIR: Griffin and Queen Esther are huge Billie Holiday fans, but this was their first time visiting her grave.

ESTHER: Holiday, right here.

GRIFFIN: There it is. Look at that.

BLAIR: So why is one of the most influential singers in the world buried in a place that is so inaccessible?

DONALD CLARKE: Probably because it was cheap.

BLAIR: Donald Clarke wrote a biography of Billie Holiday. The story goes that when she died, her life savings of $750 were found strapped to her leg. Decisions around her death were left to her estranged husband Louis McKay, who, by most accounts, was a louse.

CLARKE: McKay was a wannabe gangster.

BLAIR: Who didn't even pay for Billie Holiday's funeral. A wealthy jazz fan named Michael Grace reportedly paid for it and offered to have her buried next to Babe Ruth in an upscale New York cemetery. But McKay wouldn't have it.

CLARKE: McKay took over because he wanted to, because he could.

BLAIR: He decided Holiday should be buried alongside her mother, Sadie Fagan, at St. Raymond's. Biographer Donald Clarke believes that's probably what she would have wanted. But then, it was discovered that a year after her death, Lady Day still had no tombstone. The plot wasn't even marked. One visitor to St. Raymond's described it as a small square of gray, mean-looking ground.

As the news spread, so did the outrage. DownBeat magazine, a bible for jazz fans, wrote that it was a situation that would have appealed to Billie Holiday's sharp sense of the ironic. Where, the magazine went on, were all the people who had made money off the singer during her life?


HOLIDAY: (Singing) And I'm covered by a starlit sky above.

BLAIR: DownBeat started a collection to pay for a tombstone.

CLARKE: And McKay objected, announcing that he intended to have Lady's and Sadie's remains removed to the St. Paul section of the cemetery and that he would erect a monument at a cost of $3,500.

BLAIR: Billie Holiday and her mother share a tombstone. On the rainy day we were there, it was clear others had also made the pilgrimage. A small statue of an angel, a little porcelain dog and a famous photo of Billie Holiday were among the tokens left behind. Billie Holiday had a very rough life, suffering poverty, racism, addiction. She often made headlines. Farah Jasmine Griffin and Queen Esther say maybe Billie Holiday would have liked the peace and quiet of St. Raymond's.

GRIFFIN: It meant a lot.

ESTHER: The fact that she, you know, is here, that she's far removed from people, she isn't harassed...

GRIFFIN: I also think there's something about the kind of conventionality of it that's nice, too. So it's not so much where they're buried, it's how we remember them.

BLAIR: As a musician who's voice and life will mesmerize us for years to come. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.


HOLIDAY: (Singing) We may never, never meet again.

SIMON: Elizabeth's story on Billie Holiday's grave first aired on NPR in 2012.


HOLIDAY: (Singing) Still I'll always, always keep the memory of the way... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.
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