Some 30 years ago, an editor asked me to interview and review Anita O’Day, who died Nov. 23, at 87, of complications from pneumonia. Even in the 1970s, her endurance was notable, and that was before she published a marvelous, jaw-dropping 1981 memoir, High Times Hard Times (written with George Eells), that detailed her ingestion of enough stimulants to mummify a small nation, and her weathering of decades of one-nighters and double-digit abortions. After opening night at Michael’s Pub, she groused about the sound system (“If I can’t hear the musicians, how are they going to know what to play?”) and a sore throat, but remained unconcerned about the audience, which blithely chattered throughout the set. We agreed to meet at her hotel room the next day.
I knocked. No answer. I knocked again. I paced the hall, gave it one last shot and went down to the hotel desk to see if she had left a message. She hadn’t. So I returned to her floor, wrote a short note with my phone number, and slid it partway under the door. Buttoning my coat, ready to leave, I watched as it was pulled inside. So I knocked again, calling, “Ms. O’Day?” The note came back with a written response: She was really under the weather, it said. So I sat on the carpet, and we sent messages back and forth under the door until she offered to meet me the next afternoon at the club. As I walked toward her table, she looked rouged and radiant. She enthusiastically welcomed me and asked someone to fetch her latest album, on which she inscribed: “For Gary, ‘Can’t We Be Friends?’ Anita.” No problem.