LGBTQ icons: Billie Holiday – the queer woman with a voice that defined a genre
As we continue our celebration of LGBTQ people throughout history, let’s take a look at the life and career of singer Billie Holiday.
Born in 1915, Billie Holiday – who was originally named Eleanora Fagan – began her life in Philadelphia.
Holiday had a difficult childhood. Her parents had separated, and Holiday’s mother was often away with work.
By 1929, both Holiday and her mother were living in Harlem in New York. They were both working as prostitutes. Both spent time in prison after being arrested for prostitution.
Holiday began singing in the clubs of Harlem, taking her stage name from the actress Billie Dove and her father Clarence Holiday.
She made her recording debut in 1933, at the age of 18 and her career continued to develop as her reputation grew. Holiday had mainstream commercial success with the release of Strange Fruit in 1939.
By the late 1940s, Holiday was at the peak of her musical success but it was also when her life was falling apart due to her drug addiction.
Her final studio recordings were made in 1959, shortly before her death.
According to reports, Holiday had quite a few relationships with women. One of the most public was with actress Tallulah Bankhead. They spent a lot of time together around 1948 – Bankhead would come to Holiday’s shows at the Strand Theater after curtain. At the time, Bankhead was performing in the play Private Lives, on Broadway. At one point, it’s reported that Bankhead bailed Holiday out of jail, after she’d been arrested for opium possession.
Billie Holiday died in 1959, aged 44.