Billie Holiday and the Showgirl: A Correspondence Archive, 1939 to 1941

Billie Holiday and the Showgirl: A Correspondence Archive, 1939 to 1941

Holiday, Billie (born Eleanora Fagan, 7 April 1915 – 17 July 1959). A collection of 30 letters, possibly in the hand of her mother, to Marilyn Leilani Moore (11 July 1921 – 7 Mar 1999). New York, 20 June 1939 to 19 August 1941. Together 30 letters totaling 60 pages, nearly all with original hand-addressed postmarked envelopes, most on 10 x 8 in. lined paper, a few smaller notes variously signed “Billie” or “B. Holiday.” [WITH] A portrait of Holiday with bandmates inscribed to Moore, 1939 [WITH] A tearsheet for a concert at the Apollo Theater featuring Holiday, February 1941. All in superb condition. Individually filed in an archival box.


A rich and revealing correspondence conducted over three years between the jazz legend, then in the heady dawn of her career, and ­a young singer keen to launch hers. Holiday offers encouragement and makes connections; she discusses her career and personal life, and she shares intimate advice, including suggestions on how to terminate a pregnancy. Originally sold at Christies in 2009 and in a private collection in France ever since, the archive – one of the largest collections of her correspondence to surface -- has much to offer jazz historians.


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Billie Holiday and her mother, Sadie Fagan, circa 1944. Robert G. O’Meally, Lady Day: the many faces of Billie Holiday, p. 66.


Before delving too deeply into the archive, we need to offer an important caveat. It is clear from the intimate details of the letters and the repeated injunctions to call her (as well as the impersonal postmarks on the envelopes) that the letters are from Billie Holiday. But we are slightly perplexed by the handwriting. On the one hand, it matches exactly Holiday’s hand in other letters sent during this period, and the cataloguer for Christies – Chris Coover, a jazz aficionado and the son of music librarian James B. Coover – expressed no doubts. On the other hand, it differs significantly both in style and orthography from the later letters by Holiday that have come to market. Did her handwriting change dramatically over 15 years? We think it much more likely that Holiday dictated these letters to her mother, Sarah Julia (“Sadie”) Fagan (18 Aug 1896 – 6 Oct 1945). Sadie lived with Holiday until her death, and the two by all accounts were close as sisters. If it was she who took dictation, this would explain a number of the peculiarities of the letters -- not just the handwriting and the abysmal spelling but also their stream-of-consciousness quality: they sound much more like speech than writing. If we are correct, then the letters offer insight into their dynamic as well.


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The handwriting in Holiday's letters to Marilyn Moore matches that of her correspondence with other fans in 1939 and 1940, including this letter reproduced in Ken Vail’s Lady Day’s diary, p. 34.


Marilyn Moore was 17 and still in high school when she first wrote to Holiday.(*) Her father was a foreman on the dairy farm at Rancho Los Amigos, a facility in Downey, California operated by Los Angeles County to provide housing and employment for the region’s indigent population. In 1940, she lived with both parents and two younger brothers, but her mother was ill and there are hints in Holiday’s letters to suggest that Moore’s father may have been abusive. 1950 found her parents divorced, her father remarried, and Moore sharing an apartment with her mother, working as a showgirl.


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Marilyn Moore in 1945. Los Angeles Times, 25 July 1945


Six years older than Moore, Holiday had passed through her own trials. But in June 1939 the 24-year-old was at the top of her game. She had recently set aside her work with such band leaders as Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and Artie Shaw to focus on honing a distinctive performance style that one writer described as being “as fiercely concentrated as an oxyacetylene flame.” She took a regular gig singing with small ensembles at Café Society, and in April she recorded her graphic and deeply moving elegy on racial violence, Strange Fruit, which compelled listeners to confront the “bulging eyes and twisted mouths” of “black bodies swaying in the Southern breeze.” It was, critics agree, a turning point in her career.


Moore wrote Holiday from California to articulate her ambitions for the stage and express her dismay that Holiday was no longer touring with Artie Shaw, who had moved to Los Angeles earlier that month. “It make[s] me happy to know that you admire my work so much,” responded Holiday, “and I am sorry I am not there with Artie's band.” For the next three years the two young women exchanged letters almost once a month.


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Billie Holiday at Café Society, 1939, with Bud Freeman on tenor sax, Hot Lips Page on trumpet, and Zutty Singleton on drums. June Harris is sitting at the table. Photo included in this archive.


The dynamic throughout Holiday’s letters is one of mentor to student. She appears delighted to foster a younger talent and repeatedly offers to introduce Moore to bandleaders – Count Basie, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway.


Try to see Louie Armstrong and tell him you are one of Mom Holiday[’s] daughters. Ha Ha. … he is the one for you only you have to be carefull [of] his wife.


Charlie Barnet is a killer and he will talk to everybody[.] You just ask hm to hear you sing and I bet he will give you a job[.] he is fine and tell him Billie Hol told you to.


She suggests Moore’s boyfriend Bill contact drummer Cozy Cole. Holiday promises her mother’s help as well. “My mother[s] name is Sadie Holiday and she will see that a Big Man will hear your voice. …. She look just like me only shorter and John [Hammond] and all the Big men like her very much and will do everything she ask within reason.” 


Holiday urges Moore to make a test recording so she can play it for John Hammond. Her instructions are explicit:


I want you to have a test record made[.] on one side sing blue and the other sweet. … get a piano and on the other side about 5 piece if you like and I will listen to the test and John will to[o] because I [will] have him to dinner that day.


If you can get a test send it to me and if you can halfway sing I will jive it up for you[.] … listen to my record and get what you can and I hope your voice is a little heavy … with your looks and a voice you will be a killer.


When Moore’s test record finally arrives, Holiday is effusive: "You one [i.e., won] the heartstrings to me girl[.] you really got to me on that record.” Moore's pianist, she said, reminder her of Teddy Wilson. It was several months before Hammond listened to the recording and when he did he was not swayed. Holiday advised her not to give up. “Practice up on your timing[.] that is the main thing in music and with your face and voice you will be a killer.” Holiday sought to bolster Moore's confidence by describing her own trials and the limits of her current success. “Marilyn I hope you and Bill make the grade as I know what it is to long to be a big star and have to work pray and hope[.] that[‘s] what I been doing all this time and I ain’t nowhere[.]”


Over the course of their correspondence, Holiday frequently invokes her colleagues, including Freddie Green, Lester Young, Duke Ellington, Benny Carter, Charlie Christian, Louis Armstrong and Teddy Wilson. She complains about articles in Downbeat, and talks about her performances at various venues in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Trenton. She notes recording sessions and new releases, mentioning a number of specific songs (Strange Fruit, Tell me More, Fine and Mellow, etc.).  Some of the sessions she mentions seem not to have survived. For example, on 13 December 1940 she refers to a private recording of Christmas carols that does not appear in the discographies. 


Holiday discusses her eagerness to visit California and invites Moore to stay with her in New York. “[Y]ou are welcome to come anytime you want but I first want to say New York is a tough spot if you ain't got the jack.” There may be a certain flirtatiousness in some of the letters – “by the way I think you are really pretty,” she writes and, after receiving a photo, “Baby is cute and you in that black gown is a killer.” Every letter ends with a directive urging Moore to write again.


Holiday expresses a complex position on the racial politics of the music business. She writes frankly of white privilege. “This life is a little tricky,” she writes, “but you being a white and if you got something to offer you might not have it so bad.” She suggests that Moore contact a particular bandleader because:


Charlie Barnet need a white girl to[o]. he got a C[olored] girl now and he going to mess hisself up. I could have went with him but I did not want to go thru the struggle like I did with Artie.


But she also admits relishing the perquisites of privilege. Moving to the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan in 1941, she notes: "I like it around here [where] rich white people live." And when she asks for suggestions about performance venues in California, she writes: "I would like to perform in a white club. I have nothing against my own people but here I won’t work in colored club[s]." On the other hand, she also mocks her white audience. Recalling a recent performance at Kelly's Stables she writes: "Well honey those society people knock me out because they ain't supposed to like swing but they took it like a jittering bug." When late in their correspondence, Moore confesses to Holiday that her mother is racist, Holiday's response is restrained: "Duck [Duke] Ellington is one [of] the best but if your mother don't like my people you should be very careful."


It was music that brought them together, but Holiday’s letters touch upon personal matters as well. Sometimes she offers the younger woman maternal advice: "Honey I hope you know how to take care [of] yourself and don’t let no one talk you into nothing and above all don’t smoke no jive." When Moore declares her plan to drop out of school and move to New York, Holiday gently dissuades her:


Honey about you coming to NY of course I could help you but do you think it right to come out [of] school like that … don’t you think your mother will be hurt [?] [B]ut if you want to come why come right ahead and I am sure you will be all right. … Marylyn, think twice before you come[,] about your school I mean[,] and don’t let those fellows make you do nothing. … my life is not [as] excit[ing] as yours is right now.


But often Holiday dishes with Moore as an equal. She tells her she knows she smokes too much, but "but at times I am [a] little nervous," and speaks of her plans to offer voice lessons some day. She complains about her weight. "I got to lose 15 pound to be in a show and girl I really love to eat and with my mother[‘s] cooking I guess I will have to suffer for my art. Ha Ha." She recalls old slights: "Laurel Watson use to work with me when I was a kid … and she took up with my piano player." And she talks about men. "I used to be in love with Freddie Green myself. I guess you wonder what I see in him," she writes. And later: "You can have Freddie Green if you want because he a real Don Julian Ha Ha." When Moore expresses an interest in Joe Turner, Holiday assumes her interest is sexual." Geo [Joe] Turner is a tall good looking Brown[.] he young to[o] and he live at the Woodside Hotel but he there with a woman." And she tried to push Moore to meet bandleaders who would find her attractive. "Mother ask Louie Armstrong if he saw you and he ask her was you a tall Blond. Ha Ha." "Girl don’t pay men no mind," Holiday advises. "You know these dam[n] men is a mess."


In a remarkable letter of November 1940, Holiday offers a recipe for terminating a pregnancy. Moore asked for advice, ostensibly on behalf of a friend with a stern mother. The shifting subject of Holiday’s sympathetic and practical response may suggest her suspicion that it was Moore herself who was in trouble:


I received your letter and you are in a mess ... How did she let a skunk like him get her in a close[?] Well keep it away from the mother and is it too far gone to do anything? Girl I know just what you going through and I really feel for her and for you. … Well Marilyn take it easy and if you take a little turpentine and sugar and [it] ain’t too gone it will take care of everything[.] but tear this up. Of course it will make you sick but it will do the trick and I wish you luck and when you get stronger that you come here and I will get you a job.


Holiday’s last letter to Moore, postmarked 19 August 1941, closes with the wish that they would meet. “Well girl I hope some day I will be out there but I don’t know. Well[,] write soon.” Two months later she presumably got her wish, though things do not seem to have worked out. On 25 August, Holiday eloped with Jimmy Monroe and traveled to Chicago for a four-week engagement at the Sherman Hotel. On 25 September the couple moved to California to open a new club. The venture was a bust – the club failed after only a few weeks. Broke, Holiday returned to New York, leaving her husband behind. Their marriage would never recover.


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A postcard advertising the “girl revue” at Florentine Gardens, where Moore worked after giving up her dreams of a solo career.


Perhaps it was witnessing the dysfunction in Holiday’s life that led Marilyn Moore to surrender her hopes of following in her mentor’s footsteps. By 1942, she was working as a showgirl at Florentine Gardens. In his leering autobiography, the club’s manager Nils T. Granlund boasted that his first step upon taking the position was “to get me a line-up of the prettiest and shapeliest dolls ever gathered together in one spot in the land of sunshine and cinema shadow.” In the 1940s, when Moore was among them, the chorus included Yvonne De Carlo, Marie "The Body" McDonald, Gwen Verdon and Lili St. Cyr.  Her listing in the 1950 census identifies her occupation as “Dancer / Night Club.”


A fascinating and revealing correspondence. The Billie Holiday of these letters is not the woman so often featured in the biographies -- a tragic figure led astray by white horse and dogs -- but a confident and generous twentysomething, grateful for her success and eager to pay it forward.


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Moore (left), the year after her correspondence with Billie Holiday ended. Los Angeles Daily News, 23 November 1942.


(*) When the letters were first offered by Christies in 2009, the recipient was identified as Marilyn Montez Moore (1930 – 1992), a singer in the style of Billie Holiday who recorded a single LP with her husband, saxophonist Al Cohn, Moody Marilyn Moore (Bethlehem, 1957). However, this is clearly incorrect. Marilyn Moore Cohn would have been far too young during the period of correspondence, and she was a native of Oklahoma, not California.


Selected References

  • Alexander, Paul. Bitter crop: the heartache and triumph of Billie Holiday’s last year. New York: Knopf, 2024
  • Graham, J. H. “5955 Hollywood Boulevard: Florentine Gardens.” https://jhgraham.com/2023/08/06/5955-hollywood-boulevard-florentine-gardens/
  • Granlund, Nils T. Blondes, Brunettes and Bullets. New York: McKay, 1957.
  • Nicholson, Stewart. Billie Holiday. London: Gollancz, 1995.
  • O’Meally, Robert. Lady Day: the many faces of Billie Holiday. New York: Da Capo, 1991.
  • Vail, Ken. Lady Day’s diary: the life of Billie Holiday, 1937-1959. Chessington, Surrey: Castle Communications, 1996.

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