Lady Day’s New York

Written by David Freeland on . Posted in Posts.


July marked the 45th anniversary of Billie Holiday’s death. Arguably
the 20th century’s greatest jazz singer, "Lady Day" is remembered in New York by not a single historical
marker, even though she lived the better part of her life here. At least two of her Manhattan residences—a
seven-story building on W. 140th St. and a W. 87th St. row house—are still standing, although
passersby have no reason to notice them. It’s as if the memory of Billie’s physical life died with
her.

 

The buildings are like bookends for Holiday’s New York years, and, in a sense, her whole career.
At 151 W. 140th St., a handsome seven-story edifice with the words "PINKNEY COURT" engraved over
the entrance, she lived with her mother when first coming to New York in 1929. In her 1956 autobiography,
Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday described the building as "a fancy apartment house…
People paid some high old rent there then." It was also a brothel run by "one of the biggest madams
in Harlem." Soon 14-year-old Billie began receiving clients there ("I had my chance to become a
strictly twenty-dollar call girl—and I took it") and was arrested in May 1929, along with
four other female inhabitants of the building.

 

Not long after her release from the workhouse on Roosevelt Island, Holiday began singing in
some of Harlem’s most popular jazz clubs—including the famed Pod’s and Jerry’s, still standing
at 168 W. 133rd St. (no marker there either).

 

The house at 26 W. 87th St. represents the coda to Billie’s story. While living in apartment #1B,
she released one of her most famous albums, the haunting Lady in Satin (1958), and gradually
succumbed to the effects of years of drug and alcohol abuse. In Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie
Holiday
(1991), writer Robert O’Meally described how Billie threw her last birthday party
there in 1959: "Her place was on a pretty part of the street… A large window overlooked a courtyard
and garden. For the party she had put little tables of food in front of the window."

 

Annie Ross (Holiday’s close friend and a great jazz singer in her own right) also spoke about
the apartment in Stuart Nicholson’s Billie Holiday (1995): "I would go by her place…not
many people did, very, very few…she would cook and I would play records…She was on
her way down and people, for whatever reason, don’t like to be associated with people who aren’t
doing it or making it."

 

According to a board member
for the building, there was a fan-
based effort several
years ago to install a plaque in front, but nothing came of it. o

 

 

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