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July 17, marks the anniversary of the 1959 death of Billie Holiday. Her life was a hard one: a childhood of bitter poverty and early sexual abuse; an acute sensitivity to the all-pervasive racism of her time; a series of difficult relationships with controlling, exploitative men; an eventual downward spiral of depression, addiction and broken health. Among the things that gave her joy and an amazing vitality despite her troubles, music was, of course, the most important—her profound connection to jazz brought her the respect and adoration of audiences and fellow musicians alike. Another was her faithful and requited love of the series of dogs who were her companions throughout her life. We don’t know how or when she found her first dog friend, but anecdotes crop up throughout her biography. Lena Horne recalled that when the two jazz divas were together, they usually talked mainly about Billie’s dogs; “her animals were her only trusted friends.” There was the beloved Standard Poodle who, on his death, was wrapped in Billie’s best mink coat for the cremation, and the Chihuahua puppy she fed with a baby bottle in her New York apartment. Perhaps her most elegant companion was the handsome Boxer, Mister, who accompanied her to glamorous Harlem nightspots—places where he surely would not have been allowed if his mistress were anyone less remarkable than Lady Day.
NPR did an interesting story today about trying to find her final Resting Place—notice the little porcelain dog on her headstone.
Photograph by William P. Gottlieb from the Library of Congress Collection