Encore: Billie Holiday's Grave (2024)

Singer Billie Holiday died 60 years ago next week. For nearly a year, she had no tombstone until fans rallied to make sure Lady Day's final resting place was properly marked.


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 fa*gan, 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...

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Encore: Billie Holiday's Grave (2024)


What caused Billie Holiday's death? ›

Holiday was open about her bisexuality despite not being socially acceptable at the time. After years of substance abuse, Holiday's body had grown weary of the abuse and she died from heart failure on July 17, 1959, at age 44.

Is Billie Holiday still living? ›

Did Billie Holiday have a funeral? ›

Detour Ahead When Billie Holiday died on July 17, 1959, thousands of mourners attended her funeral at St. Paul the Apostle Roman Catholic Church in New York City.

Where was Billie Holiday buried? ›

Billie Holiday, legendary jazz singer and songwriter also known as “Lady May,” was laid to rest in the Bronx at St. Raymond's Cemetery after her death on July 17, 1959.

How much money did Billie Holiday have when she died? ›

In 1959, jazz singer Billie Holiday died without a will. She was 44 years old. At the time, she had almost no money in her bank accounts, but she reportedly had about $750 strapped to her leg.

What happened to Billie Holiday when she was a child? ›

Born Eleanora fa*gan in Baltimore (or some say Philadelphia) in 1915, Holiday's childhood was marred by horrific abuse—despite the best efforts of her beloved mother, Sadie, who was only 13 when she had Holiday. Always a self-starter, Holiday began singing as a child, while cleaning neighbors' homes for money.

Did Billie Holiday have any children? ›

Billie Holiday - Lady Day had a lot of ups and downs before she died at the age of 44 in 1959, but no children. Instead, her legacy lives on through her timeless music.

What is Billie Holiday's most famous quote? ›

No two people on earth are alike, and it's got to be that way in music or it isn't music. If I'm going to sing like someone else, then I don't need to sing at all.

What illness did Billie Holiday have? ›

Billie Holiday passed away on July 17, 1959, of pulmonary edema and heart failure caused by cirrhosis, or liver disease, in the Metropolitan Hospital in New York. The cirrhosis was brought on by her long-fought battle with addiction and substance abuse.

Did Billie Holiday have a good life? ›

Not only did she mesmerize us with her voice, but Holiday also lived a fascinating life filled with tremendous ups and downs. She managed to survive a difficult childhood — often left in the care of cold-hearted relatives and even spent time in a Catholic reform school before joining her mother in New York City.

Did Billie Holiday meet Elvis? ›

Billie Holiday meets Elvis at special Sugar Club Gig | Hotpress.

What were Billie Holiday's last words? ›

Don't be in such a hurry.” —Billie Holiday, musical artist, on July 17, 1959.

Who did Billie Holiday leave her estate to? ›

Louis McKay died at the Age of 72 following a heart attack and was survived by his wife Bernice Yancey McKay and two sons. As posted last week McKay was Billie Holliday's fourth husband and road manager, as Holliday died intestate McKay was the sole heir of her estate.

Who is Billie Holiday buried with? ›

BLAIR: He decided Holiday should be buried alongside her mother, Sadie fa*gan, 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.

What happened to Billie Holiday's hair? ›

Before a performance at the start of her career she scorched her hair with an overheated curling tong. In the club's cloakroom there was a girl selling gardenias to guests, so Billie bought a couple to hide the holes in her hairstyle. It was such a success that it became her trademark.

Why did Billie get depressed? ›

According to an article about her battles with depression, “she suffered from body dysmorphia when she was a competitive dancer and said that she faced depression that started when she was forced to quit dancing after she ruptured a growth plate in her hip at age 13.”

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