Billie Holiday and her dog Mister in 1947. Photo: William P Gottlieb Collection
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The bottle, the blues and Billie Holiday

Lady Day, a century after her birth.

In January 1920, when Eleanora Fagan Gough was four, Prohibition began in the United States. Across the country, more than 1,500 federal agents tasked with enforcing the 18th Amendment took to the streets, beginning a 13-year war on temptation that, like any war, had its share of unintended winners and losers. Within the first “dry” year, crime soared by a fifth; as new speakeasies opened and morals loosened, the jazz age erupted “with a bang of bad booze”, as Hoagy Carmichael once put it.

Eleanora lived in Maryland where, eight decades earlier, a bunch of reformed drunks had set up the Washington Temperance Society for something to do. But the state had remained a “wet” one in the face of the Volstead Act, which in 1919 outlawed the production, sale and transport of “intoxicating liquors”. Volstead, schmolstead. Baltimore people liked to drink.

Some more than others. When Eleanora – who had changed her name to Billie Holiday after the movie star Billie Dove and Eleanora’s likely father, the jazz musician Clarence Holiday – failed to wake up in July 1959, the official verdict on the cause of death seemed a euphemism for a hard life of harder drinking and substance abuse. Her lungs had stopped working and her heart failed. She was 44.

 

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One cold, February night in 1933, the final year of Prohibition, Monette Moore was ill. She was on the bill to sing at a speakeasy – her own speakeasy, at that – and she knew her friend John Hammond, a Columbia Records man, was driving into Harlem to see her. Hammond was a fan and a Vanderbilt heir, a committed anti-racist and blues enthusiast who would later discover Robert Johnson and sign Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen.

That night, Moore was a no-show but Hammond didn’t leave her place disappointed. Onstage was a replacement – an elegant 18-year-old who’d been playing small clubs for a couple of years, a survivor of sexual abuse and violence, a dope smoker, already a drinker, most of all a singer, with a tone both soft and strong, a voice that floated from note to note but with the precision of an instrumentalist. Hammond was knocked out. “She was the best jazz singer I had ever heard,” he said.

Over the next decade, dozens of records followed on Hammond’s label. There were jubilant movie songs such as “Pennies from Heaven”; there were sad sighs made up to sound cheerful (my favourite being “Carelessly”). She performed with Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Benny Goodman, some of the era’s defining musicians, who must have sensed in her a peer. Then, in 1939, she recorded “Strange Fruit” and became something altogether new. Holiday was only 24 at the time but here she became a kind of ghost. Think of her as one and her voice makes sense: the whisper of a woman neither alive nor dead, mournful and eternal.

 

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Her life was short and her decline rapid. Booze and drugs took away the softness in her voice. But I always preferred the last recordings. After seeing Holiday sing in 1956, Studs Terkel wrote: “In sensing her mortality, we sensed our own.” There’s something of this in Lady in Satin, recorded a year before her death, a slow, orchestral collection of ballads that captures Holiday at her most fragile. The arranger Ray Ellis was initially disappointed at her vocals, which bore the scars of her alcoholism and wilful disregard of her health. Yet in songs such as “For All We Know”, that shadow of self-destruction makes the breezy phrasing sweeter and the glimpses of optimism all the more haunting.

Holiday was born on 7 April 1915 in a young, still segregated America, with both world wars ahead of it. She died handcuffed to a hospital bed on 17 July 1959 (she had been arrested on a narcotics charge). The jazz age began with a bang of bad booze and intoxication of every kind. And it ended, once and for all, with another.

Yo Zushi’s new album, “It Never Entered My Mind” (Eidola Records), is out now

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

SCIENCE AND SOCIETY PICTURE LIBRARY
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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist