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BOOK REVIEW

Paul Alexander captures the tragic beauty, survival instincts of Billie Holiday in ‘Bitter Crop’

A major new biography focuses on the jazz legend’s pride, determination, and illness during her last year

Chris Morris for The Boston Globe

On July 17, 1958, exactly one year before she died, Billie Holiday performed on the television show “Art Ford’s Jazz Party.” Ford, like most jazz lovers, was a Holiday devotee, and he almost sounds like a little boy when he asks her to play the ballad “Don’t Explain,” a song about a subject Holiday knew all too well: heartache. Looking frail and wan, the once-full-figured jazz giant gives a performance (preserved on YouTube) of grit and mettle and exquisite pain, her cracking voice only adding to the song’s pathos. Even in her final months, as cirrhosis of the liver set in and law enforcement continued its decades-long campaign of harassment, Holiday worked hard and conjured a brittle form of beauty.

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Paul Alexander’s new book “Bitter Crop” tells the story of that final year, marked by pride and determination as much as illness and regret. Drugs and especially booze had taken their toll, and even as she lay dying in her hospital bed the police saw fit to arrest her on narcotics charges that sound increasingly trumped-up the more information is revealed.

But Holiday, who was 44 when she died, was never terribly interested in playing the victim. As Alexander writes, “What kept Billie going was the next gig — and the gig after that. It was her longing to move on to whatever was to come — a show, a recording session, a television appearance — that allowed her to cling to her unwavering sense of hope.”

The first major Holiday biography in more than two decades, “Bitter Crop” benefits from a tight focus and a cinematic structure. Alexander sets vivid scenes as he moves through the closing months of a life that was difficult from the start, weaving in detailed flashbacks to provide context for where Holiday found herself during her final act. A challenge, or a small victory in 1958 or 1959 gives way to a trip through time, a key moment from Holiday’s childhood — some of which was spent working in brothels in Baltimore and Harlem — or her career, or her ever-tempestuous romantic life.

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Holiday was drawn to abusive men — pushers, pimps, mobsters, and others who used her for their wants and needs and promptly discarded her. The women with whom she was romantically involved, including the actress Tallulah Bankhead, tended to treat her better.

“She was the perfect lesbian,” wrote Linda Kuehl, who was working on her own Holiday biography at the time of her death in 1978. This, of course, wasn’t a public option for an entertainer during Holiday’s life; in any case she returned to abusive men like a moth determined to keep getting burned. Sadness permeates these pages, as it did Holiday’s life. But so does strength, and of course that note-bending voice, which dazzled everyone from Frank Sinatra to Holiday’s most frequent collaborators, including pianist Mal Waldron and saxophonist Lester Young.

Alexander deftly sifts through the massive pile of Holiday misinformation, much of it perpetuated by Lady Day herself through interviews and in her 1956 memoir “Lady Sings the Blues” (later adapted to the screen for a 1972 movie starring Diana Ross). Holiday made up everything from the date and place of her birth to the circumstances surrounding and even authorship of some of her biggest hits. When Holiday claimed she wrote the music to her searing anti-lynching anthem “Strange Fruit” to accompany Abel Meeropol’s lyrics, Meeropol was compelled to correct the record and insist he wrote the music and lyrics. In the words of journalist Frank Harriott, who interviewed Holiday for the magazine “PM,” “No one fed the fires of the Holiday myth machine more than Holiday herself.”

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As Alexander writes, “It was easier for her to tell the truth to an audience in a song than to convey accurate facts about her life to a journalist.” Fictions, to Holiday, were one more escape hatch, though certainly one less harmful than the taste for Gordon’s Gin that led to her death. (Here is another common Holiday misperception: Heroin had much less to do with her death than did booze.)

One constant in “Bitter Crop,” which takes its title from the final verse of “Strange Fruit,” is the tenacity with which law enforcement, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger, made it a mission to destroy Holiday. The fact that Holiday was a heroin addict made their work easier, as did, perhaps more importantly, her ties to Communism. When Café Society opened in Greenwich Village in 1938, Holiday was the star attraction at the club, which broke new ground with its approach to racial integration. The venue was run by Barney Josephson, whose brother and silent partner, Leon, was part of a Communist plot to assassinate Hitler. Café Society was also where Holiday began singing “Strange Fruit,” which dared to take on lynching and was written by Meeropol, an outspoken member of the American Communist Party. This was all enough to send Hoover, Anslinger, and their cohorts into rabid anti-Holiday hysteria. Law enforcement saw her as an easy target — a Black woman with a drug habit — and they went after her like hellhounds.

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Alexander, who has previously written biographies of Sylvia Plath and J.D. Salinger, captures some of the tragic beauty of Holiday’s life and art. But he also does justice to her innate toughness and survival instincts, and the work ethic that burned until her body finally gave out. Even after New York City took away her cabaret card, thereby forbidding her from playing the city’s clubs for the last decade-plus of her life, she hit the road to play gigs in Detroit and Cleveland, London and Paris. For Holiday, to sing was to live. She poured her sorrow into it, and it, in turn, made her life bearable.

BITTER CROP: The Heartache and Triumph of Billie Holiday’s Last Year

by Paul Alexander

Knopf, 353 pp., $32

Chris Vognar, a freelance culture writer, was the 2009 Nieman Arts and Culture Fellow at Harvard University.