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The United States vs. Billie Holiday vs. the Truth

Despite what the movie says, there was no U.S. government conspiracy to suppress the landmark song “Strange Fruit”—and that’s just the biggest thing it got wrong

Billie Holiday in 1947
Billie Holiday in 1947 (William P. Gottlieb Collection/Library of Congress)

In Lee Daniels’ film The United States vs. Billie Holiday, the words “Earle Theater, Philadelphia, May 27, 1947” flash onscreen, and one sees a row of policemen, with Holiday’s manager Joe Glaser standing at the center of them. Billie comes onstage and sings the first words of “Strange Fruit,” solo. Immediately, Glaser orders the police, “Get her off that stage!” and they storm forward.

But wait! Holiday was not at the Earle Theater on that date. She never sang “Strange Fruit” as the first number in a set, and never sang that or anything else a cappella. Glaser didn’t generally attend the performances of the many artists he managed. Most significant, never in her entire career was Billie stopped while performing “Strange Fruit.” Yes, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics pursued Holiday for her drug use. But there was no federal objection to the song “Strange Fruit,” nor was there any campaign to suppress it.

If you believed this film—and so far as I can tell, almost everyone did, even the many critics who rightly panned it—you have been the victim of one of the worst instances of rewriting history in the annals of Hollywood. Even the usual spate of articles about “what’s true in this based-on-fact movie” missed the boat. The Los Angeles Times stated that “[a]lthough some details of the relationships have been fictionalized …, the … conspiracies are well documented.” Documented where exactly? In the movie, and nowhere else.

The mythical claim of a campaign to suppress “Strange Fruit” is already becoming part of the “official record.” But, as I’ll show, it’s built on a misunderstanding of a quote attributed to Billie in an interview for DownBeat. There is no record anywhere in U.S. government files of such a campaign; its presumed director Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, only mentioned Holiday two or three times in all his writings, and always sympathetically, as a victim of “hoods, quick-money characters, grafters, and pushers” (his 1961 book The Murderers). He never specifically mentioned “Strange Fruit” or even demonstrated awareness that it existed. In his book The Protectors (1964), he described her as “the lady of the white gardenias and boxer pups, of ‘Travelin’ Light’ and half a hundred other heartbreaking songs.”

When it was announced in advance that Daniels’ film would illustrate the U.S. government’s attempts to suppress “Strange Fruit,” some common-sense questions should have been raised:

  1. Why did nobody hear about this until recently? Holiday has been thoroughly researched. The late Linda Kuehl, who planned to write a biography of the singer, left behind an archive (owned by Toby Byron) of interviews with 125 people who knew her. Three books and two documentaries have drawn on this collection, and there has been no mention of such a campaign. It’s not even mentioned in published summaries of Kuehl’s interviews with the narcotics agents themselves, Jimmy Fletcher (who was assigned to Holiday’s case in 1947) and Colonel George White (who supervised her arrest in San Francisco in 1949—she was later cleared). And why didn’t Billie mention it in her book Lady Sings the Blues, written with William Dufty, even though she does include long discussions of “Strange Fruit” and of her 1947 arrest? Answer: The reason it only came to light recently is that it is a falsehood created recently.
  2. If, as the film depicts, the campaign began in 1947, why then? Holiday had been performing and recording the song since 1939. Answer: The article from which this myth was created dates from 1947.
  3. If the police were to arrest Billie for singing “Strange Fruit,” what would have been the charge? The song is a poetic picture of the horror of lynching, with no potentially libelous or national security-endangering references to any government or individuals. Murder, of which lynching was one horrible type, was already illegal in every state. True, repeated attempts to pass a federal anti-lynching law during the first half of the 20th century had been shamefully blocked, as was all civil-rights legislation for many years, by a coalition of Southern states. But there was no support for lynching in the Truman administration of 1947, which would shortly order the desegregation of the U.S. armed forces. Answer: No charge would have held water.