The Hunting of Billie Holiday & the Roots of the U.S. War on Drugs

April 07, 2015
Web Exclusive



Johann Hari

British journalist and the author of the new book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.

On the 100th birthday of the late Billie Holiday, we speak to journalist Johann Hari about how U.S. drug agents ruined the life of the country’s most celebrated jazz singer. Hari writes about Holiday in his new book, "Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War of Drugs." Watch our full interview with Hari here: Part 1 II Part 2


JOHANN HARI: Yeah, not far from where we are now, in 1939, Billie Holiday stands on stage in a hotel, and she sings the song "Strange Fruit," which obviously your viewers will know is an anti-lynching song. Her goddaughter Lorraine Feather said to me, "You’ve got to understand how shocking this was, right?" Billie Holiday wasn’t allowed to walk through the front door of that hotel; she had to go through the service elevator. To have an African-American woman standing up, at a time when most pop songs were like twee, you know, "P.S. I Love You," that kind of thing, singing against lynching in front of a white audience was regarded as really shocking. And that night, according to her biographer, Julia Blackburn, she’s told by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, "Stop singing this song."

Federal Bureau of Narcotics was run by a man called Harry Anslinger, who I think is the most influential person who no one’s ever heard of. Harry Anslinger takes over the Department of Prohibition just as alcohol prohibition is ending, and he wants to find a new purpose for it. You know, he’s got this huge bureaucracy he wants to run. And he’s really driven by two passions: an intense hatred of African Americans—I mean, this is a guy who was regarded as a crazy racist by the crazy racists in the 1930s; he used the N-word in official police reports so often that his senator said he should have to resign—and a really strong hatred of addicts. And Billie Holiday, to him, was like the symbol of everything that was going wrong in America. And so, he gives her this order.

She refuses. She basically says, "Screw you. I’m an American citizen. I’ll say what I want." She had grown up in segregated Baltimore, and she had promised herself she would never bow her head to any white man. And that’s when Harry Anslinger begins the process of stalking her, and eventually, I think, playing a role in her death, as was explained to me by her friends and by all the archival research.

The first person he sends to stalk her is an agent called Jimmy Fletcher. Harry Anslinger hated employing African Americans, but you couldn’t really send a white guy into Harlem to stalk Billie Holiday—it would be kind of obvious. So Jimmy Fletcher follows her around for two years, and she was so amazing, he fell in love with her. And he felt ashamed his whole life for what he did. He busts her. She’s sent to prison. The trial—she said, "The trial was called The United States v. Billie Holiday, and that’s how it felt." And when she gets out, exactly what happens to addicts all over the United States today happens—what’s happened to those women I met in Arizona: She can’t get a job. You needed a license to be able to perform anywhere where alcohol was sold, and they wouldn’t give her the license. So, you know, her friend Yolande Bavan said to me, "What’s the cruelest thing you can do to a person is to take away the thing they love." She sinks back into addiction.

When she’s in her early forties, she collapses here in New York City, she’s taken to hospital, and she’s convinced the narcotics agents aren’t finished with her. And she was right. She says to one of her friends, "They’re going to kill me in there. Don’t let them. They’re going to kill me." She was right. In her hospital bed, she’s diagnosed with liver cancer. I spoke to the only surviving person who was still in that room—who had been in that room. She’s handcuffed to the bed. They take away her record player and her candies. They don’t let her friends in to see her. One of her friends manages to insist to the doctors they give her methadone, because she had gone into withdrawal. She starts to recover a little bit. Ten days later, they cut off the methadone. She dies.

Her friend Annie Ross—you know, there are lots of things that—I think there’s lots of things in that dynamic that tell us a lot about the drug war, that it’s founded in a race panic. At the same time that Harry Anslinger finds out that Billie Holiday is using—is a heroin user, he finds out that Judy Garland was a heroin user. He advises her to take slightly longer vacations and tells her she’s going to be fine. Spot the difference.

But the most amazing thing to me about the Billie Holiday story that really helped me to think about the addicts in my life is she never stopped singing that song. She always found somewhere to sing it. You know, she went wherever they would have her, and she sang her song about lynching, no matter how much they tried to intimidate her. And to me, that’s really inspiring, not just for resisting the racism of the drug war, but actually for realizing that addicts can be heroes. All over the world while we’re talking, people are listening to Billie Holiday, and they are feeling stronger. And that is an incredible achievement. And the people resisting the drug war who I met all over the world, from a transsexual crack dealer in Brownsville, Brooklyn, to, you know, a scientist who was feeding hallucinogens to mongooses to see what would happen, to the only country that has ever decriminalized all drugs, there is heroism in resistance to this war all over the world.

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