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The United States vs. Billie Holiday True Story
Hulu’s The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a fictionalized take on the life of the legendary jazz singer, played in the film by “Rise Up” singer and actress Andra Day in a Golden Globe-nominated performance. But while the movie charts Holiday’s efforts to maintain her career while being hounded by law enforcement and struggling with substance abuse disorder, it’s not just a portrait of the life of one artist: The film also tells an important story about the origins of America’s war on drugs.
The movie is directed by Lee Daniels from a script written by Suzan-Lori Parks, but it’s based on the 2015 book Chasing the Scream by writer Johann Hari. In the book, Hari tells stories of the casualties of the drug war, from its 20th century origins to profiles of contemporary dealers and users. Hari talked to Esquire about the true story behind The United States vs. Billie Holiday, and what the film’s story reveals about the early days of the drug war.
Drugs like opioids and cocaine were legal in the United States until the early 20th century.
While it’s widely known that Coca-Cola used to contain actual cocaine, that wasn’t the only place you could find now-illegal drugs. For years, American pharmacists sold a product called Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, which contained morphine and alcohol. Across the pond, the pharmacist for Queen Victoria, the global paragon of propriety, prescribed the royal family cocaine and heroin. And, as Hari told Esquire, she and the Pope “drank something called Vin Mariani, which was wine laced with opium.”
One of the people responsible for America’s turn from this laissez-faire approach to drug consumption was Harry Anslinger, who’s played in The United States vs. Billie Holiday by Garrett Hedlund. In real life, Anslinger served as the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a predecessor to the Drug Enforcement Administration, from 1930 to 1962.
Racism was a major motivator behind the early days of the drug war.
Many factors contributed to the shift from societally sanctioned drug use to “just say no” culture. There were high-profile incidents, such as the 1933 axe murder of the Licata family by their 21-year-old son, Victor. Newspapers reported that he committed the gory killings while in the grip of a marijuana-induced nightmare. In reality, the family had a well-documented history of mental illness, and Licata himself was known to be severely mentally ill before the attack.
Holiday in 1957.
Bill SpilkaGetty Images
But racist fears that drugs could unleash particular stores of violence in non-white people were also prevalent. Drugs became racialized, with cocaine coded as being associated with Black Americans, opioids with Chinese immigrants, and marijuana with Mexican immigrants. Chinese-Americans, racists warned, were luring white women into their opium dens for sex. Cocaine supposedly made Black people almost superhumanly strong—“NEGRO COCAINE “FIENDS” ARE A NEW SOUTHERN MENACE” blared a 1914 New York Times headline. (This racist belief was behind the removal of the drug from Coca-Cola.) And Anslinger worked “very hard” to encourage the use of the word “marijuana” instead of “cannabis,” “because marijuana is a Spanish-Mexican word,” says Hari.
“Drugs were banned in the United States in a moment of deep, racist determination and hysteria,” he says. “There was a racist, insane belief, that Black people and Latinos and Chinese Americans were using drugs, ‘forgetting their place,’ and attacking white people.”
Anslinger, who once faced calls for his resignation after using the n-word in an internal memo, was not a fan of jazz music. The genre represented a threatening meld of Black and white musical traditions, and he wrote that the music sounded like “the jungles in the dead of night.” That the music attracted both Black and white audiences, furthering its dangerous race mixing potential, was even more alarming to Anslinger.
Anslinger appearing before a congressional subcommittee in 1955. He was supporting the adoption of a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence for first-time offender drug dealers.
As a jazz singer, civil rights advocate and a drug user, Billie Holiday was in Anslinger’s cross hairs.
Just as Anslinger was beginning his tenure at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a teenaged singer was getting her start in Harlem nightclubs. With her signature melancholic voice, Holiday became one of the most influential singers and songwriters of the 1930s and ‘40s, and penned songs including her classics “Don’t Explain” and “God Bless the Child.” Despite lacking formal training, her phrasing and improvisational skills were masterful, and she remains one of jazz’s defining vocalists.
Perhaps the most important song Holiday would ever sing was “Strange Fruit.” Written by communist poet and teacher Abel Meeropol after he saw a photo of lynched Black men, the song describes the bodies of lynching victims hanging from southern trees like the “strange fruit” of its title. Holiday herself knew intimately the fatal costs of racism, as her father had died in 1937 when he was denied treatment for pneumonia by hospitals that would not accept Black patients.
Tragically, her personal life was marked by horrifying abuse. Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan in 1915, and grew up in Baltimore. When she was ten years old, she was raped by an adult neighbor. The man was arrested—but Holiday was sent to a reformatory. When she reunited with her mother, Sadie Gough, in Harlem, where Gough was doing sex work, Billie was forced into prostitution. “When she’s 15, the police raid the brothel,” says Hari. “They don’t say, ‘Oh my God, there’s a 15-year-old girl here. This is heartbreaking. It’s not your fault. This should never have happened to you.’ They sent her to prison.” She would later endure relationships with abusive men, and became addicted to alcohol and heroin.
Holiday after being arrested for heroin possession in 1947.
Michael Ochs ArchivesGetty Images
But meanwhile, decades before the protest songs of the 1960s, Holiday shouldered massive personal risks by performing “Strange Fruit.” Even though some white audience members left her shows when she performed the song, Holiday wrote it into her contracts that she would sing it each night. Federal authorities first targeted her shortly after she began singing the song.
Anslinger really did send Jimmy Fletcher, a Black agent, to tail Holiday.
In The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Andra Day’s Holiday embarks upon a steamy romance with Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), the agent Anslinger tasks with finding ways to imprison her on drug charges. That part of the story is fictionalized, but the agent did speak of her notable affection. “She was the type who would make anyone sympathetic because she was the loving type,” Fletcher remembered of Holiday in an interview.
And the raid scene in which she strips naked before him demanding to be searched for drugs is based on Fletcher’s memory of the incident, which Hari says suggests that “the interaction between them became intense.”
After her autobiography was published, Holiday sent a copy to Fletcher. “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 for what they have to do,” she wrote in her inscription to him. “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.”
Holiday arriving at a court hearing in 1947.
Gilles PetardGetty Images
Holiday wasn’t the only famous drug user—but Anslinger took a markedly different approach with notable white addicts.
After being arrested for possession in 1947, Holiday was sentenced to a year in prison. The conviction also cost Holiday her cabaret performer’s license, which prevented her from singing at nightclubs for more than 10 years.
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However, Anslinger also discovered that Judy Garland was, like Holiday, a heroin user. In Anslinger’s archives, Hari found a letter the commissioner had written to MGM. “He said, ‘You might want [Garland] to take longer vacations.’ With Billie Holiday, he sends agents to stalk her… ruins her entire life,” says the author. “Well, spot the difference.”
Meanwhile, even after successfully prosecuting her the first time, the authorities weren’t done with Holiday. She was arrested again in 1949, though this time she was acquitted. A decade later, as she lay in the hospital dying of cirrhosis of the liver, her hospital room was raided. She was handcuffed to her bed, photographed for a mug shot, and fingerprinted. Police were stationed at her door to stop her visitors from seeing her. While she lay dying, a by-then retired Fletcher attempted to visit Holiday in the hospital. He wasn’t allowed inside her room, but Holiday was reportedly happy to learn that he’d tried to see her. She died on July 17th, 1959, at the age of 44.
“In our culture, there’s one heroic story we tell about people with addiction problems, which is that sometimes they recover from their addiction,” Hari says. “That is indeed a heroic story and everyone in that position should be really proud of themselves, but one of the things I really learned from this is, that is not the only heroic story about addiction. Billie Holiday never stopped being addicted. She died addicted. She was still a hero, no matter what they did to her, no matter how they persecuted her, she never stopped singing ‘Strange Fruit.’ She never let them destroy her.”
Gabrielle Bruney is a writer and editor for Esquire, where she focuses on politics and culture.
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