Human Flower Project
Gardenias on the Left—Lady Day
With vocal improvisations to beat the band—and white flowers behind her ear—Eleanora Fagan became Billie Holiday.
Billie Holiday with her dog “Mister,” 1946
Photo: William Gottlieb, via Library of Congress
Athena had her helmet and Spanky McFarland his two-tone beanie. Where would The Cat in the Hat be today except for that teetering stovepipe with the stripes? Curled in obscurity. Headgear makes for legend. Ask Monica Lewinsky.
Flowers have been accessories to myth, too. We’re thinking of Billie Holiday, born April 7, 1915. Do you even know what she looked like? Maybe not, but you know that grainy, supple voice and recognize her beautiful attribute: the white flower she wore next to her face. Like most flower emblems, it richly suggests – sensuality, glamour, fragility – without ever pinning much down. Pins are for taxonomy, not myth.
In anticipation of “Lady’s Day’s” birthday, we hunted for the story behind her floral signature and found several. The most convincing, in its specificity and chronology, is biographer Bud Kliment’s account of the early 1940s:
“Holiday’s success at the 52nd Street clubs (New York City) was partly due to her becoming a torch singer. Many people identified with her songs about loneliness and lost love, especially at a time when the horrors of World War II were affecting everyone’s life. ‘In some ways,’ noted (historian Arnold) Shaw, ‘Billie’s tortured style, the sense of hurt and longing, may have been a perfect expression of what servicemen and their loved ones were feeling.’
Billie Holiday with fresh gardenia
Photo: via Maryland Civil Rights
“During Holiday’s tenure at Kelly’s Stable, Sylvia Sims, a fellow jazz singer, furnished Holiday with an accessory that was to become a lasting part of her image. One night before a performance, Holiday burned her hair with a curling iron. Sims, who was in the room with her, promptly went to a club down the street, where the coat check girls were selling flowers. Sims bought a big white gardenia and gave it to Holiday, who wore it that night to cover the burned section of her hair. She liked wearing the flower so much that she began to put a gardenia in her hair before every performance.”
As human-flowers so often manage to be, Billie’s gardenia was at once an attraction and a distraction. A come on and a cover up. “Look at me,” it says, “but don’t look at me.”
Could this picture, taken when she was only two, also have inspired her to adopt the white flower as a personal accessory?
Holiday usually chose gardenias but not always (Here’s quite an amazing orchid). Sometimes the blossoms were real, though she wore fabric flowers, too—either up front, above her brow, or most often cascading along the left side of her face. After the hair-burning episode (gardenia of expediency), was this a kind of code? We believe that among Polynesian cultures, a woman’s wearing a flower over her left ear means something quite different from a bloom on the right. But does a lefty flower say ”Let me take you down” or “I’m taken, buzz off”? Interpretations we’ve found devolve into a hilarious snarl. In any case, Billie Holiday’s audiences were not Polynesians. They were jazz buffs and curiosity seekers, or just lonely people looking for great music that sexuality and exoticism could enhance.
Certainly, Billie’s gardenias were only one element of her mythology. Her singing was the soul of it, and stories of rape and prostitution, her heroin habit and incarceration, though perhaps not so news-worthy these days, shocked her contemporaries and underscored her credentials as a haunted princess of the dark, jaded world called jazz. There’s been considerable doubt cast on some the details of her impoverished and violent childhood, but assuming only a tenth of them are true, she was brutalized. And in adulthood she turned to the self-degradation, first so mellow, of drugs and alcohol. She died in New York City of cirrhosis of the liver, age 44.
Billie Holiday, still from New Orleans (1947)
Photo: via youtube
Here, with flowers, she lip synchs The Blues Are Brewing with Louis Armstrong’s orchestra, from the movie New Orleans (1947)
And here, without flowers but a group of jazz all-stars, is Fine and Mellow, 1957.