Copyright ©2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

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.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: