Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Of Bishop, Billie, and the blues

By Chet Williamson 

Reading the bullet items in her tragic life, it’s no wonder she became a poet. The grist in her biographical mill gushes out with grief and psychic pain, yet Elizabeth Bishop wrote it all down to become one of the most acclaimed poets of her generation. She was the Poet Laureate of the United States (1949-’50), won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry (1956), and The National Book Award (1970).

Born the only child to William T. Bishop and Gertrude May (Boomer) in Worcester on February 8, 1911, Elizabeth’s father died before her first birthday. Her mother then suffered a series of breakdowns before being committed to a mental institution when her child was only five years old.

The Bishop family home, 1212 Main Street, Worcester, MA

There’s more misfortune and triumph in Bishop’s well-documented life and times. This piece is about one particular slice of anguish that the poet endured. It is a pointed, three-cornered triangulation between her, a famous socialite named Louise Crane, and the legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday.

Bishop and Crane
Billie Holiday, circa 1940

In 1930, Bishop enrolled in Vassar College in upstate New York where she majored in English Literature and co-founded the literary magazine Con Spirito. And, according to many accounts, Bishop also minored in off-campus social studies – especially those regarding her sexual orientation. While at Vassar she befriended a collection of young intellectuals – men and women -- including Louise Crane. The two young women would later become lovers.

Bishop graduated from Vassar in 1934, the year her mother died. After school, Bishop moved to New York City to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. She was first published in 1936. A collection of her poems appeared in Trial Balances, an anthology featuring young writers. Marianne Moore wrote the introduction. It looked like Bishop was on her way. Then, more tragedy.

Bishop, from class picture at Vassar
On November 21, 1936, Robert Seaver, a boyfriend from Bishop’s college years, committed suicide. As Brett C. Miller tells it in his book, Elizabeth Bishop: The Life and Memory of It, “Seaver had wanted to marry Elizabeth, and she told him that she felt that she would never marry … . When Seaver shot himself, perhaps in frustration at his loneliness and his physical limitations, the only note was a postcard, which arrived in her mailbox a few days after his death. It said, ‘Go to Hell, Elizabeth.’”

In the face of insurmountable grief and guilt, Miller says Bishop escaped to Key West, Florida with Crane, where the two young women purchased a home at 621 White Street, located on the beach, and lived together. Bishop described the place as “perfectly beautiful – inside and out – very well made, with slightly arched beams so that it looks either like a ship’s cabin or a freight car.” 

Bishop with her cat, Minnow
Bishop would reside there off and on for the next nine years and published her first volume of poems, North and South (1946), inspired by Bishop and Crane’s routine of “summering” in New York City and "wintering" in Key West. Miller also noted that the years of 1938 and 1939 was a particularly rough time for Bishop. Alcoholism and depression became issues in the poet’s life.

Bishop seaside with Winnie-Davis Crane (sister-in-law)

"Sleeping Figure," watercolor by Bishop
Crane is best known for her pedigree and literary associates. Her father was the American millionaire (Crane Paper Company) and former Massachusetts governor, Winthrop Murray Crane. Her mother was Josephine Porter Boardman, founder of the Museum of Modern Art. In addition to Bishop, Louise Crane was also friends with the writers Margaret Miller, Marianne Moore, and Tennessee Williams. Crane was raised in Dalton, Massachusetts.

In the late 1930s, early ‘40s Billie Holiday was a jazz star ascending. After successful tours as the “girl singer” with Count Basie, Artie Shaw, and Teddy Wilson, Holiday set out on her own. One of her first gigs as a single was at Cafe Society in the Greenwich Village section of New York. 

Josephson, 1939
Owned by the legendary Barney Josephson, it was a new venue with a new policy. One of the first of its kind, it was to be an integrated nightclub. Holiday opened at the club in January of 1939. In an interview with Whitney Balliett for The New Yorker, Josephson said: “Billie was my first female singer, when I opened Cafe Society … . She was the star of the show … . John Hammond helped set it up. Billie was not a newcomer, she had been around, but nothing happened for her until she came to Cafe Society.”

Holiday singing at Cafe Society

Cafe Society is also where Holiday introduced the controversial song-poem, “Strange Fruit” to audiences. Introduced by Josephson to Holiday, the piece is essentially a protest song against the lynching of black men in the South, an unconscionable act still practiced at that time. It would become Holiday’s signature piece.

Strange Fruit by Abel Meeropol, AKA, Lewis Allen

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

In all probability, Cafe Society is also the place where Bishop, Crane, and Holiday met. Unlike Bishop, who was more private and reclusive, Crane was a party girl who loved the big lights and big city. By the 1940s, Crane was spending as much time in New York as in Key West.

Poet as a young Bishop
In 1941, with the assistance of her mother, Crane started organizing “Coffee Concerts” at MoMA. Some of the names to appear include: Mary Lou Williams, Baby Lawrence, Benny Carter, Maxine Sullivan, and Billie Holiday.

In a letter written to poet Marianne Moore, dated June 5, 1941, Crane raved about the show. “Last night has given me something to think about for fifteen years!” Crane said. The concert was reviewed in The New York Times, mentioning a few of the songs that Holiday sang: “My Man Don’t Love Me” [sic. “Fine and Mellow”], “Forbidden Fruit” [sic. “Strange Fruit], “God Bless the Child,” and “I Cried for You.”

According to writer Tyler T. Schmidt, Crane by this time became more than a fan of Holiday. She started following her from club to club, even around the country while on tour.

In her book, Desegregating Desire: Race and Sexuality in Cold War American Literature, Tyler says, “Louise Crane was an obsessive-compulsive Holiday fan and initiated Bishop into jazz cafes and the singer’s songbook.” Tyler cites the singer’s account of their relationship in Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues: “Brenda -- her pseudonym for Crane -- was crazy about my singing and use to wait for me to finish up. I wasn't blind. I hadn't been on Welfare Island for nothing. It wasn't long before I knew I had become a thing for this girl.”

Lady Sings the Blues was ghost written by William Duffy. In an interview with Producer-director David Turnbull, Duffy revealed that Holiday was “happy to write about her bi-sexuality and even prepared to name names,” citing relationships with among others Tallulah Bankhead and Orson Welles.

Turnbull, who produced a documentary on Holiday for the BBC, told reporter Allison Kerr that Holiday sexuality had never been discussed on TV before, attention usually focused on the singer’s drug use. “There wasn't room for the stories we heard about men taking their wives backstage to meet Billie, and then finding out that the wives had actually gone off for the night with her,” Turnbull said.

Holiday by Carl Van Vechten
The coup de grâce for Bishop was the learning of Crane and Holiday’s relationship. Although the alleged affair has never been fully substantiated, the rumors abound. 

Jonathan Ellis, in his book, Art and Memory in the Work of Elizabeth Bishop, wrote, “the relationship is said to have ended after Bishop discovered Crane in bed with Billie Holiday.” Writer Mark Howell in the Florida publication, Keynews said, "Within a couple of years of their arrival here, however, Crane left Bishop for Billie Holiday, the blues singer, whom she pursued in New York City. Bishop, it was said, became suicidal."

Ironically, Bishop was also a huge fan of Holiday, and jazz and blues singers like Bessie Smith in general. In fact, she wrote a collection of poems, called “Songs for a Colored Singer” with Lady Day in mind, hoping that she might consider singing and recording the work some day.

Writer Camille Roman in her piece, “Billie Holiday and Other Stars: Bishop with Louise Crane” also identifies Crane’s infatuation with Holiday and suggests that in order to construct a clearer picture of Bishop, further studies should be done in the way of considering the poet’s “night life.” Roman also says that the poems were written from the perspective of a rival as much as that of a fan.

From "Songs for a Colored Singer"  

What’s that shining in the leaves,
the shadowy leaves,
like tears when somebody grieves,
shining, shining in the leaves?

Is it dew or is it tears,
dew or tears,
hanging there for years and years
like a heavy dew of tears?

Then that dew begins to fall,
roll down and fall.
Maybe it’s not tears at all.
See it, see it roll and fall.

Hear it falling on the ground.
hear, all around.
That is not a tearful sound,
beating, beating on the ground.

See it lying there like seeds,
like black seeds.
See it taking root like weeds,
faster, faster than the weeds.

all the shining seeds take root,
conspiring root,
and what curious flower or fruit
will group from that conspiring root?

Fruit or flower? It is a face.
Yes, a face.
In that dark and dreary place.
Each seed grows into a face.

Like an army in a dream
the faces seem,
darker, darker, like a dream
They’re too real to be a dream.

-- Elizabeth Bishop

Songs for a Colored Singer” was first published in 1944. Composers Ned Rorem and Elliott Carter would later set the lines to music.

Elizabeth Bishop continued to write long after this dramatic episode with many more tragedies and triumphs. 

Fortunately, the life of this great poet is well-documented. She died in Boston on October 6, 1979.

Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: walnutharmonicas@gmail.com. Also see: www.worcestersongs.blogspot.com
Thank you.


1 comment:

  1. hello there just wondering about your source re the review of the Coffee Concert "last night has given me something to think about for the next fifteen years." Which source is the quotation taken from? Looking forward to hearing from you.