Billie Holiday archive, Christie’s (New York), $30,000
In June 1939, Marilyn “Marly” Moore, an aspiring teenage singer living in California, wrote to the jazz singer Billie Holiday for advice; 70 years on, a group of 30 letters that Holiday wrote to Moore from Harlem formed part of a June 24 sale.
“This life is a little tricky,” wrote Holiday in one letter, “but you being a white and if you got something to offer you might not have it so bad,” though she warned Moore against coming to New York unless she had money and was able to take care of herself. “New York…is a tough spot if you ain’t got the jack. Ha Ha.”
Holiday’s big break came when the impresario John Hammond heard her perform in a Harlem club in 1933 and arranged for her to make a number of well-known recordings with the Benny Goodman Band. Holiday told Moore, “John Hammond and Benny Goodman is the right people for you. John discovered me and he fine and a Blue Blood…If he likes your work he will make you a big person.” Then she added, “I know what it is to long to be a Big Star.”
In another letter, she reported on a concert she gave at the Modern Art Theater, remarking, “those society people knowck me out because they aint supposed to like swing.”
When Moore sent Holiday a demonstration recording, she wrote back, “My mother played your record for John Hammond and he told her you didn’t keep good time,” but then in more encouraging mode, Holiday wrote, “but I am sure you will make the grade.” Elsewhere she urged Marilyn to “practice up on your timing; that is the main thing in music and with your face and voice you will be a killer.”
This was the largest group of Holiday letters yet to come onto the market.
I read this story with mixed emotions.
The photograph of Billie, happy, youthful, healthy, well-fed, is thrilling. Her grin is contagious, and the woman depicted here isn’t the gaunt Madonna of suffering we see in her last images. And to see her amidst what is obviously an Eddie Condon jam session, with Bud Freeman, Hot Lips Page, and Zutty Singleton, is another pleasure. (The debate over whether the location — a New York hotel ballroom — is the St. Regis or the Park Lane might rage on forever. And is it a Charles Peterson photograph?)
Any reason to celebrate Lady Day is fine. And the letters are obviously a treasure. But their fate is less cheery. They weren’t made available to any of Holiday’s biographers, as far as I know. Will they be made available to scholars in this century?
I also know the law: the words on the page belong to Holiday’s estate; the letters belong to Moore and her descendants (one of whom is the estimable guitarist Joe Cohn, because Marilyn Moore was married to Al Cohn). But I wonder if Billie ever earned $30,000 a year. That figure says a great deal about the way artists are deprived in life, and someone else makes money from their fame after they are dead.
Thanks to Will Friedwald for uncovering this: see http://www.finebooksmagazine.com/issue/200909/auction-2.phtml.