Retro Baltimore

As Billie Holiday biopic celebrates Golden Globe win for lead actress, a look back at the jazz legend raised in Baltimore

They couldn’t silence Billie Holiday’s voice, a voice that took her from an Upper Fells Point alley to New York City concert halls and into history as a performer and civil rights icon. That’s the premise of the new biopic “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” which debuted last week on Hulu.

The Lee Daniels-directed film reveals the torture she faced throughout her career: racism, persecution, drug addiction, censorship, child sexual assault. The biopic was honored by the Hollywood Foreign Press, which awarded lead actress Andra Day with the Golden Globe for best actress in the motion picture - drama category.


In an emotional acceptance speech, Day thanked the jazz legend who was born in Philadelphia but called Baltimore her childhood home.

“And to the amazing, transformative, dynamic Billie Holiday who just transformed me with this role and with her presence and with her spirit,” Day said.


Holiday was 22, already a critical triumph, when she returned to Baltimore to perform at The Royal Theatre in October 1937.

She was singing with The Count Basie Orchestra. Her male singing counterpart was Jimmy Rushing. Count Basie and Billie Holiday were a smash, newspapers reported at the time.

A reporter from the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper interviewed Holiday backstage. Holiday said she always wore white gardenias and liked Evening in Paris perfume. She wore a ring with 19 diamonds along with other jewelry.

“Having been born in April, her birthstone is a diamond and she wears a long, slender wristwatch, lavishly set in birthstones,” the article said. “Billie Holiday herself is a fashion writer’s delight for she is neat and dainty, even in her dressing room, and her clothes show that they have been chosen with care.”

The trailer for the film opens with a voiced-over question, “don’t you know who this is?” as it pulls back to reveal Day, playing Holiday, choosing from a selection of fine diamonds at a jewelry store.

“I’m downright flashy, you know,” Day’s Holiday says.

Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia in 1915 but moved to Baltimore with her mother when she was 3. She became a child of the city in many ways.

She grew up fast. She lived with her mother in Upper Fells Point on a classic one-lane row house street, not wide enough for parking on either side.


Holiday’s biographers say she attended preschool at Saint Frances Academy on East Chase Street. She was raised by her grandparents and other family members.

Her penchant for skipping class brought her before a juvenile court on Jan. 5, 1925. She was then sent to a Roman Catholic reform school, the House of the Good Shepherd..

Eleanora, not yet Billie, dropped out of school at age 11, according to biographer Stuart Nicholson.

Records also show that on Christmas Eve, 1926, her mother arrived home to find a neighbor attempting to rape Eleanora. She fought back, and he was arrested. Officials placed Eleanora temporarily in the House of the Good Shepherd, again, this time under protective custody. She was released in February 1927, then 12 years old.

After being released, she lived in West Baltimore on Argyle Avenue, just west of Pennsylvania Avenue. She ran errands and scrubbed stoops among her other duties. At this point in her life, she said in an autobiography, she first heard the the 78-rpm shellac phonograph records of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.

She later followed her mother to New York’s Harlem. In a few years, after another scrape with the law, she was musically discovered and her singing career took off.


Baltimore Sun writer Carl Schoettler wrote of her “extraordinary musicianship, the incomparable diction, phrasing, sense of timing and dramatic delivery that made her singing unique. ... She forged one of the great American singing styles from a childhood lived poor and hard and mean on Durham Street in [Upper] Fells Point.”

Several years ago a neighborhood-based arts project paid homage to the block where Holiday lived, if only for a relatively brief time, in the 1920s. There are painted screens and murals and other inventive references to her.

She also is honored locally with Billie Holiday Court in East Baltimore. There is a park named in honor at Pennsylvania and Lafayette avenues where there’s also a large bronze statue of her.

Bridget Cimino, a mural artist and Maryland Institute College of Art graduate, painted an oversize depiction (on the back wall of the Fells Point Corner Theatre that faces Durham Street) of Holiday signing autographs for children outside Pennsylvania Avenue’s Royal Theatre, perhaps a reference to her 1937 appearance.

The block is also festooned with paintings of gardenias, the same fragrant flowers that even as a 22-year-old, Holiday made her signature, whether pinned to her gown or worked into her hair.

Holiday is often identified with the song, “Strange Fruit,” whose lyrics reference lynching. The song is featured heavily in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” as a point of contention. She was targeted by the U.S. government for singing what was considered a “protest song.”


“You think I’m going to stop singing that song? Your grandkids are going to be singing that song,” the character Holiday defiantly proclaims in the film.