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With Billie
Cover of With Billie
With Billie
A New Look at the Unforgettable Lady Day
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From Julia Blackburn, an author whose ability to conjure lives from other times and places is so vivid that one suspects she sees ghosts, here is a portrait of a woman whose voice continues to haunt anyone who hears it.

Billie Holiday's life is inseparable from an account of her troubles, her addictions, her arrests, and the scandals that would repeatedly put her name in the tabloid headlines of the 1940s and 1950s. Those who knew her learned never to be surprised by what she might do. Her moods and faces were so various that she could seem to be a different woman from one moment to the next. Volatile, unpredictable, Billie Holiday remained, even to her friends, an elusive and perplexing figure.

In With Billie, we hear the voices of those people--piano players and dancers, pimps and junkies, lovers and narcs, producers and critics, each recalling intimate stories of the Billie they knew. What emerges is a portrait of a complex, contradictory, enthralling woman, a woman who knew what really mattered to her. Reading With Billie, one is convinced that she has only just left the room but will return shortly.

From Julia Blackburn, an author whose ability to conjure lives from other times and places is so vivid that one suspects she sees ghosts, here is a portrait of a woman whose voice continues to haunt anyone who hears it.

Billie Holiday's life is inseparable from an account of her troubles, her addictions, her arrests, and the scandals that would repeatedly put her name in the tabloid headlines of the 1940s and 1950s. Those who knew her learned never to be surprised by what she might do. Her moods and faces were so various that she could seem to be a different woman from one moment to the next. Volatile, unpredictable, Billie Holiday remained, even to her friends, an elusive and perplexing figure.

In With Billie, we hear the voices of those people--piano players and dancers, pimps and junkies, lovers and narcs, producers and critics, each recalling intimate stories of the Billie they knew. What emerges is a portrait of a complex, contradictory, enthralling woman, a woman who knew what really mattered to her. Reading With Billie, one is convinced that she has only just left the room but will return shortly.

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  • From the book

    ONEThe Record SleeveWhen I first heard Billie Holiday's voice, I had just turned fourteen. I was at a party and everyone was much older than me and very drunk. Their movements seemed to have been slowed down; even the way they opened and closed their mouths was too slow.There were two prostitutes at the party. One was a woman called Sally. She had short-cropped hair, but I can no longer find her face in my mind. She lived with a tall thin homosexual called Barry, who had huge front teeth and floppy black hair, and I can see him easily. They used to invite me over to their flat in Mayfair and they liked to show me a cupboard that was full of ropes and masks and whips. On one occasion when the three of us were having tea, a client dropped by, but Sally said she couldn't do anything for himbecause she had a guest.She did take me out for an appointment with two American businessmen. We went to the Ritz and ate lobsters, which I had never eaten before, and I was shocked by the sound their claws made when they were cracked open. One of the men asked me how old I was and, when I told him, he panicked and ordered a taxi and sent me away with a book on sexual techniques as a present. Sally and Barrywanted me to sell my virginity. They used to telephone me and tell me about an old gentleman they knew and how easy it would all be and how much he was prepared to pay.I had never met the other prostitute at the party and I don't know her name. She was plump and blonde. She had taken off all her clothes and she was dancing among the guests. Every so often she would squat down and run her hand between her legs and then lick her fingers with a loud lip-smacking noise. Everyone was laughing, and Barry, who was always competitive, took off all his clothes and did a little shimmying dance with his penis tucked tightly between his thighs. I was very impressed because he suddenly looked almost like a woman.A man in a dark sweater was staring at me; he kept pursing his mouth into tight kisses and winking one wrinkled eye. I was frightened of him. I was frightened of every person in the room except for Sally, because she had always said she would look after me if there was trouble and I wanted to believe her.My mother had arranged the party and invited the guests. She was laughing and drinking and having fun. The relationship between us had changed since she had separated from my father. Before, we had been allies of sorts, busy every night with an assessment of the danger and the likelihood of violence; ready to run and hide if things got too bad. But now things were different and we had become two women: one young, the other no longer young. My mother never said she would look after me if there was trouble and itnever occurred to me that she might. I was aware of her watching the man who was watching me.I escaped to a far corner of the room and sat down on the carpet next to the new record player, its wine-red plasticsurface stamped incongruously with an imitation of the scales on a snake skin. I looked through the little pile of records that people had brought to the party and stopped at one called A Billie Holiday Memorial. There was a black-and-white photograph of a woman on the cover. She was illuminated by a stage spotlight and she was wearing a white evening dress that left her shoulders bare. She was standing verystiff and straight, her head tilted slightly upwards towards the benediction of the light, her arms bent at the elbows, her hands clenched into fists. I couldn't see her feet, but I could tell from her stance that she must have had them planted firmly on the ground, as though she was on the deck of a ship and was maintaining her balance in spite of the...

About the Author-
  • Julia Blackburn is the author of several other works of nonfiction, including Charles Waterton and The Emperor's Last Island, and of two novels, The Book of Color and The Leper's Companions, both of which were short-listed for the Orange Prize. Her most recent book, Old Man Goya, was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Blackburn lives in England and Italy.

Reviews-
  • Toni Morrison

    "This addition to the tide of Billie Holiday books is extremely welcome. Nowhere else is the context of her life and work so vividly captured."

  • Mike Figgis "At last, a portrait of the artist and person called Billie Holiday. This extraordinary book completes her story."
  • Nat Hentoff "Billie Holiday was -- and is -- a singer who stays in the mind of everyone who heard her. Like all jazz musicians, she sang about who she was at the moment and during all that preceded that moment. Julia Blackburn's With Billie tells Billie's own stories of that life and this book becomes part of the music."
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    Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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With Billie
A New Look at the Unforgettable Lady Day
Julia Blackburn
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