The popular singer-like-no-other, born 100 years ago Tuesday, began to smoke marijuana in the early 1930s when you could buy a couple of joints for twenty-five cents. (Source: Meg Greene, Billie Holiday: A Biography)
At the famous Cafe Society in New York City, "everyone in that group smoked pot," remembered trumpeter Doc Cheatham. "They had a little room off the bandstand and some, including Mary Lou [Williams] and Billie [Holiday], would smoke pot in there. They would put me outside the door in a chair smoking a pipe that would cover the fumes of the pot." (Source: Morning Glory, a biography of Williams by Linda Dahl).
At a 1937 recording session, John Hammond managed to convince a record company executive that the marijuana smoke he smelled wasn't a problem. The result was "considered among the greatest recording sessions in jazz history." Holiday's voice interplayed with VIP Lester Young's saxophone on "He Ain't Got Rhythm," "This Year's Kisses," "Why Was I Born" and "I Must Have That Man," and lead to a lifelong collaboration.
Holiday was hunted down by no less than Harry J. Anslinger, the first and longtime "drug czar" who engineered laws and international treaties banning marijuana. According to newly published research by Johann Hari, Holiday got her first threat from Anslinger's FBN (Federal Bureau of Narcotics) after she recorded "Strange Fruit," a lament against lynching, in 1939. Anslinger assigned agent Jimmy Fletcher to track Holiday's movements; he tried nailing her but ended up becoming an admirer. "She was the type who could make anyone sympathetic because she was the loving type," wrote Fletcher.
Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs her manager/pimp Louis McKay beat her so badly she would have to tape her ribs to go onstage. McKay sought out Anslinger and met with him in DC, agreeing to set Billie up for a bust for which she went to trial. Asking to be sent to a treatment facility, instead Holiday was forced to go cold turkey in jail while serving a year's sentence. Afterwards, she was stripped of her cabaret license as an ex-con and was unable to perform in any venue where alcohol was served.
But the persecution didn't stop there. Anslinger sent another agent, George White, to stalk Holiday in San Francisco, possibly planting drugs in her hotel room as he had with other women. “The hounding and the pressure drove me,” she wrote, “to think of trying the final solution, death.” Although a jury found her not guilty, the ordeal took a toll on her reputation and her health. Nonetheless, she refused to stop singing "Strange Fruit" even though other singers were too intimidated to do so.
At the age of 44, Holiday was hospitalized after collapsing, and was arrested again when narcotics agents claimed they found a small amount of heroin in her room. Pressuring her to reveal her dealer, agents confiscated her record player, radio, candy, and flowers and handcuffed her to her bed. Two policeman stood at her door and turned away friends who tried to visit. Suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, Billie was once more forced to withdraw from heroin without treatment. She died in her hospital bed on July 15, 1959.