2:57am

Tue July 17, 2012
Dead Stop

Looking For Lady Day's Resting Place? Detour Ahead

Originally published on Sat July 21, 2012 9:58 am

When Billie Holiday died in 1959, thousands of mourners attended her funeral at St. Paul the Apostle Roman Catholic Church in New York City. The overflow crowd lined the sidewalks. Honorary pallbearers included such jazz greats as Benny Goodman and Mary Lou Williams. Newspapers and magazines ran heartfelt tributes.

But where is Holiday buried? She's not in New York's Woodlawn Cemetery, the well-known spot for famous dead jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington, Celia Cruz, Miles Davis and Lionel Hampton. She's buried at St. Raymond's Cemetery — or, as singer and Holiday fan Queen Esther puts it, "Way, way, way out," in the Bronx.

Queen Esther and Columbia University professor Farah Jasmine Griffin recently did a show at The Apollo Theater based on Holiday's music and the writings of Zora Neale Hurston. Griffin is the author of If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday. They are both huge admirers of Lady Day. And they recently paid their first visit to her grave.

"I think people assume she's in Woodlawn," Griffin says. "Because that's where everyone else is. ... So people assume that, unless you go looking."

So why is one of the most influential singers in the world buried in a place that is so inaccessible?

"Probably because it was cheap," says Donald Clarke, author of the Holiday biography Wishing on the Moon.

The story goes that, when Holiday 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 says McKay was a "wannabe gangster" who didn't pay for Holiday's funeral. Instead, it was reportedly funded by a wealthy jazz fan, Michael Grace. Clarke says Grace also offered to pay for Holiday to be buried next to Babe Ruth at an upscale New York cemetery. But McKay wouldn't have it.

"He took over because he wanted to, and because he could," Clarke says.

McKay decided Holiday should be buried alongside her mother, Sadie Fagan, at St. Raymond's. Clarke concedes that's probably what she would've wanted.

But then, a year after her death, it was discovered that 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. In May 1960, DownBeat magazine — a bible for jazz fans — wrote that it was a "situation that would've 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"? DownBeat started a collection to pay for a tombstone. Once again, Holiday's husband objected. Clarke says Louis McKay announced "that he intended to have Lady and Sadie's remains removed to the St. Paul's section of the cemetery and that he would erect a monument at a cost of $3,500."

Holiday and her mother now share a tombstone. On a recent rainy day in June, it was clear others had also made the pilgrimage. A small statue of an angel, a little porcelain dog, and a famous photo of Holiday were among the tokens left behind.

In her 44 years, Holiday suffered through poverty, racism and addiction. She was hounded by the media and often made headlines. So maybe she would've liked the solitude and tranquility of St. Raymond's, say Farah Jasmine Griffin and Queen Esther.

"She's here ... far removed from everyone. She isn't harassed. She's having some respite, some peace," says Queen Esther.

Though many people might like to see Holiday honored with a mausoleum, Griffin says, "There's something about the conventionality of it that's nice, too."

In any case, she says, "It's not so much where they're buried, it's how we remember them."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

On this day in 1959, Billie Holiday died in New York City.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD BLESS THE CHILD")

BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) But God bless the child that's got his own, that's got his own.

MONTAGNE: The legendary jazz singer was just 44 when she died. Thousands of people attended her funeral in New York. The honorary pallbearers included greats like Benny Goodman and Mary Lou Williams.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And now it's time for us to pay our respects. For our summer series Dead Stop about unusual gravesites around the country, NPR's Elizabeth Blair paid a visit to Billie Holiday's tomb at St. Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx.

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 Broad Neck Bridge.

BLAIR: OK.

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 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.

GRIFFIN: Holiday, right here.

ESTHER: 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 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 her to be 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 Fagan, at St. Raymond's.

Biographer Donald Clarke believes that's probably what she would've 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've 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?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I COVER THE WATERFRONT")

HOLIDAY: (Singing) And I'm covered by back 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's 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've liked the peace and quiet of St. Raymond's.

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 kind of the conventionality of it that's nice too. So it's not so much where they're very, it's how we remember them.

BLAIR: As a musician whose voice and life will mesmerize us for years to come.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEY CAN'T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME")

HOLIDAY: (Singing) We may never, never meet again on the bumpy road to love. Still...

MONTAGNE: To see Billie Holiday's grave, go to npr.org, where you can find other stories from our series Dead Stop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEY CAN'T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME")

HOLIDAY: (Singing) The way you hold your knife. The way we dance...

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.