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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

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Billie Holiday and her dog Mister in 1947
Billie Holiday and her dog Mister in 1947 (Library of Congress/William P. Gottlieb Collection)

Further Fables

The “Strange Fruit” myth is far from the only fabrication in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. How about the love affair between Holiday and Black narcotics agent Jimmy Fletcher? He was the man, remember, who had been on her case in 1947. According to the film, they had a long and torrid affair after she was released from jail, even though she knew that he was partly responsible for sending her there. On the face of it, the idea is laughable—even more so when one knows the source. As reported in both Clarke and Blackburn, Fletcher told Kuehl about Holiday, “She was the type that would make anyone sympathetic because she was the loving type.” But only Hari had the nerve to conclude, from that single sentence, that “the man Anslinger sent to track and bust Billie Holiday had, it seems, fallen in love with her.” Based on this, and nothing more, the movie shows Fletcher, after Billie has served her sentence, touring with her and having sex and heroin with her! I guess they missed the part of the interview where the real Fletcher said he never saw her again after she went to prison.

Did Holiday’s manager Glaser work as a kind of “second in command” to Anslinger? How absurd! Glaser was one of the biggest managers in jazz, and was too busy working with Louis Armstrong (who was devoted to him) and many others to drive around the country spying on Billie and participating in drug busts. The source of this is just as thin as everything else in the film. As Nicholson documents, Glaser was concerned about Holiday’s drug use because it was hurting her “bookability,” to the point where he cooperated with the Narcotics Bureau in her 1947 arrest. Apparently, he believed that would break her drug habit. This is reprehensible, but it has nothing to do with her singing “Strange Fruit.” And he couldn’t have cut the song from her set at Café Society; as Holiday says in the movie, people came there to see her sing it.

There are so many other errors in the film that I barely know where to begin. Here are just a few:

—Not one of the dates or locations or “news clippings” flashed onscreen is real. They are all invented out of thin air.

—The meeting on “April 3, 1947” with Anslinger, Roy Cohn (who was not a lawyer until 1948), and other racist government figures never happened.

—In the movie, Holiday is warned against singing “Strange Fruit” at Carnegie Hall, and she cooperates. But according to her own book, she did sing it. And it’s mentioned in the Amsterdam News review as the “high point” of the concert!

—The film shows Holiday coming up with the idea in 1948 to have “Blacks and whites sitting together” at Carnegie Hall. But the hall never had a segregation policy, and there are photos of integrated audiences there from 1947. Billie knew this well because, contrary to the film, she’d already performed there seven times, though this was her first concert there as the sole act.

—Hari wrote that the loss of Billie’s cabaret card “meant she wasn’t allowed to sing anywhere that alcohol was served—which included all the jazz clubs in the United States.” The film seems to support this, as she struggles for gigs after Carnegie Hall. But the cabaret card was a local New York City ordinance. Its loss did keep her from performing at the few Manhattan nightclubs that were big enough to present her, but she still maintained a very busy schedule. In fact, press reports from July 1948 claim that her nationwide tour was breaking attendance records. (Of course, it was unfair that her card was taken away, and this in no way is meant to forgive or excuse that action.)

What’s my point? Am I saying that Anslinger’s campaign against narcotics wasn’t all that bad? No. In my opinion, drugs should never have been criminalized. Am I saying that Black people like Holiday weren’t unfairly targeted by the police in this country? Of course not. It’s crystal clear that they got worse treatment, and still do.

I fully understand that the general public might say, “Who cares? It’s a good story anyway, and relevant to Black Lives Matter.” But readers of this magazine would, I hope, prefer the truth. Was Holiday targeted by Anslinger and the Bureau of Narcotics for her drug use? Yes. Was she targeted for singing “Strange Fruit”? Absolutely not. A better contribution to Black Lives Matter would be a motion picture that shows the true brilliance of Billie Holiday the musician, a brilliance that is ignored by this irresponsible film.

Special thanks to Julia Blackburn, Kevin Whitehead, Stuart Nicholson, Donald Clarke, David Margolick, Daniel Peterson, Aidan Levy, Loren Schoenberg, Rob Hudson (Manager, Carnegie Hall archives), and Tab Lewis (Archivist of the National Archives and Records Administration).

Originally Published