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The War on Billie Holiday

The Bureau of Narcotics’ strange obsession

BY Johann Hari

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It was more comforting to believe that a white powder was the cause of black anger, and that getting rid of the white powder would render black Americans docile and on their knees once again.

Jazz was the opposite of everything Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (established in 1930), believed in. It is improvised, and relaxed, and free-form. It follows its own rhythm. Worst of all, it is a mongrel music made up of European, Caribbean and African echoes, all mating on American shores. To Anslinger, this was musical anarchy, and evidence of a recurrence of the primitive impulses that lurk in black people, waiting to emerge. “It sounded,” his internal memos said, “like the jungles in the dead of night.” Another memo warned that “unbelievably ancient indecent rites of the East Indies are resurrected” in this black man’s music. The lives of the jazzmen, he said, “reek of filth.”

His agents reported back to him that “many among the jazzmen think they are playing magnificently when under the influence of marihuana [sic] but they are actually becoming hopelessly confused and playing horribly.”

The Bureau believed that marijuana slowed down your perception of time dramatically, and this was why jazz music sounded so freakish—the musicians were literally living at a different, inhuman rhythm. “Music hath charms,” their memos say, “but not this music.” Indeed, Harry took jazz as yet more proof that marijuana drives people insane. For example, the song “That Funny Reefer Man” contains the line “Any time he gets a notion, he can walk across the ocean.” Harry’s agents warned: “He does think that.”

Anslinger looked out over a scene filled with men like Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong and Thelonious Monk, and—as the journalist Larry Sloman recorded—he longed to see them all behind bars. He wrote to all the agents he had sent to follow them and instructed: “Please prepare all cases in your jurisdiction involving musicians in violation of the marijuana laws. We will have a great national round-up arrest of all such persons on a single day. I will let you know what day.” His advice on drug raids to his men was always, “Shoot first.”

He reassured congressmen that his crackdown would affect not “the good musicians, but the jazz type.” But when Harry came for them, the jazz world would have one weapon that saved them: its absolute solidarity. Anslinger’s men could find almost no one among them who was willing to snitch, and whenever one of them was busted, they all chipped in to bail him out.

In the end, the Treasury Department told Anslinger he was wasting his time taking on a community that couldn’t be fractured, so he scaled down his focus until it settled like a laser on a single target—perhaps the greatest female jazz vocalist there ever was—Billie Holiday.

Harry had heard whispers that this rising black star was using heroin, so he assigned an agent named Jimmy Fletcher to track her every move. Harry hated to hire black agents, but if he sent white guys into Harlem and Baltimore, they stood out. Jimmy Fletcher was the answer. His job was to bust his own people. Many agents in this position would shoot heroin with their clients, to “prove” they weren’t cops. We don’t know whether Jimmy joined in, but we do know he had no pity for addicts: “I never knew a victim,” he said. “You victimize yourself by becoming a junkie.”

Dancing with the devil

When Billie sang “Loverman, where can you be?” she wasn’t crying for a man—she was crying for heroin. But when she found out her friends in the jazz world were using the same drug, she begged them to stop. Never imitate me, she cried. Never do this.

She kept trying to quit. She would get her friends to shut her away in their houses for days on end while she went through withdrawal. As she ran back to her dealers, she cursed herself as “No Guts Holiday.” Why couldn’t she stop? “It’s tough enough coming off when you’ve got somebody who loves you and trusts you and believes in you,” she wrote. “I didn’t have anybody.” Actually, she said, that’s not quite right. She had Anslinger’s agents, “betting their time, their shoe leather, and their money that they would get me. Nobody can live like that.”

The morning he first raided her, Jimmy took Billie to one side and promised to talk to Anslinger personally for her. “I don’t want you to lose your job,” he said.

Not long after, he ran into her in a bar and they talked for hours, with her pet Chihuahua, Moochy, by her side. Then, one night, at Club Ebony, they ended up dancing together—Billie Holiday and Anslinger’s agent, swaying together to the music.

“And I had so many close conversations with her, about so many things,” he would remember years later. “She was the type who would make anyone sympathetic because she was the loving type.” The man Anslinger sent to track and bust Billie Holiday had, it seems, fallen in love with her. Confronted with a real addict, up close, the hatred fell away.

A quiet holiday

But Anslinger was going to be given a break on Billie, one he got nowhere else in the jazz world. Billie had got used to turning up at gigs so badly beaten by Louis McKay, her pimp-turned-husband, that they had to tape up her ribs before pushing her onstage. She was too afraid to go to the police—but finally she was brave enough to cut him off.

“How come I got to take this from this bitch here? This low-class bitch?” McKay raged. “If I got a whore, I get some money from her or I don’t have nothing to do with the bitch. I don’t want no cunt.” He had heard that Harry Anslinger wanted information on her, and he was intrigued. “She’s been getting away with too much shit,” McKay said, adding he wanted “Holiday’s ass in the gutter in the East River.” That, it seems, was the clincher. “I got enough to finish her off,” he had pledged. “I’m going to do her up so goddamn bad she going to remember as long as she live.” McKay traveled to D.C. to see Harry, and agreed to set her up.

When Billie was busted again, she was put on trial. She stood before the court looking pale and stunned. “It was called The United States of America vs. Billie Holiday,” she said, “and that’s just the way it felt.” She refused to weep on the stand. She told the judge she didn’t want any sympathy. She just wanted to be sent to a hospital so she could kick the drugs and get well. Please, she said to the judge, “I want the cure.”

She was sentenced instead to a year in a West Virginia prison, where she was forced to go cold turkey and work during the days in a pigsty, among other places. In all her time behind bars, she did not sing a note. Years later, when her autobiography was published, Billie tracked Jimmy Fletcher down and sent him a signed copy. She had written inside it: “Most federal agents are nice people. They’ve got a dirty job to do and they have to do it. Some of the nicer ones have feelings enough to hate themselves sometime for what they have to do. … Maybe they would have been kinder to me if they’d been nasty; then I wouldn’t have trusted them enough to believe what they told me.” She was right: Jimmy never stopped feeling guilty for what he’d done to Lady Day. “Billie ‘paid her debt’ to society,” one of her friends wrote, “but society never paid its debt to her.”

As a former convict, she was stripped of her cabaret performer’s license, on the grounds that listening to her might harm the morals of the public. This meant she wasn’t allowed to sing anywhere that alcohol was served—which included all the jazz clubs in the United States.

“How do you best act cruelly?” her friend Yolande Bavan asked me in 2013. “It’s to take something that’s the dearest thing to that person away from them.” Billie had been able to survive every thing—but this? “You despair because you have no control. You can’t do the
thing that is a passion and that you made your livelihood at, and that has brought joy to people all over the world,” Bavan says. Billie was finally silenced.

Race war on drugs

Harry Anslinger was told that there were also white women, just as famous as Billie, who had drug problems—but he responded to them rather differently. He called Judy Garland, another heroin addict, in to see him. They had a friendly chat, in which he advised her to take longer vacations between pictures, and he wrote to her studio, assuring them she didn’t have a drug problem at all. When he discovered that a Washington society hostess he knew—“a beautiful, gracious lady,” he noted—had an illegal drug addiction, he explained he couldn’t possibly arrest her because “it would destroy … the unblemished reputation of one of the nation’s most honored families.” He helped her to wean herself off her addiction slowly, without the law becoming involved.

The arguments we hear today for the drug war are that we must protect teenagers from drugs, and prevent addiction in general. We assume, looking back, that these were the reasons this war was launched in the first place. But they were not. They crop up only occasionally, as asides. The main reason given for banning drugs—the reason obsessing the men who launched this war—was that the blacks, Mexicans and Chinese were using these chemicals, forgetting their place, and menacing white people.

It took me a while to see that the contrast between the racism directed at Billie and the compassion offered to addicted white stars like Judy Garland was not some weird misfiring of the drug war—it was part of the point.

Cocaine was, it was widely claimed in the press at this time, turning blacks into superhuman hulks who could take bullets to the heart without flinching. It was the official reason why the police across the South increased the caliber of their guns.

One medical expert put it bluntly: “The cocaine nigger,” he warned, “sure is hard to kill.”

Many white Americans did not want to accept that black Americans might be rebelling because they had lives like Billie Holiday’s—locked into Pigtowns and banned from developing their talents. It was more comforting to believe that a white powder was the cause of black anger, and that getting rid of the white powder would render black Americans docile and on their knees once again.

A compassionate response

Billie didn’t blame Anslinger’s agents as individuals; she blamed the drug war itself—because it forced the police to treat ill people like criminals. “Imagine if the government chased sick people with diabetes, put a tax on insulin and drove it into the black market, told doctors they couldn’t treat them,” she wrote in her memoir, “then sent them to jail. If we did that, everyone would know we were crazy. Yet we do practically the same thing every day in the week to sick people hooked on drugs.”

Still, some part of Billie Holiday believed she had done something evil, with her drug use and with her life. She told people she would rather die than go back to prison, but she was also terrified that she would burn in hell.

It is easy to judge Harry Anslinger. But if we are honest, I suspect that everybody who has ever loved an addict—everybody who has ever been an addict—has this impulse in them somewhere. Destroy the addiction. Kill the addiction. Throttle it with violence. Harry Anslinger is our own darkest impulses, given a government department and a license to kill.

This essay was adapted with permission from Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs (Bloomsbury) by Johann Hari. Visit ChasingTheScream.com for more information.


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Johann Hari is a British journalist. He has written for many of the world’s leading newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, Le Monde, the Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, The Nation, Slate, El Mundo, and the Sydney Morning Herald. He was a lead op-ed columnist for the Independent, one of Britain’s leading newspapers, for nine years. You can follow him on Twitter at @johannhari101

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