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The Day Lady Died

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don't know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn't even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan's new play or Le Balcon or Les NŤgres
of Genet, but I don't, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

--Frank O'Hara

Sophistication and Grief in New York City:
Frank O'Hara's "The Day Lady Died"

In the years after Billie Holliday died, two well-known pieces inspired by her appeared. In 1972 Diana Ross and Richard Pryor played Billie and her piano player Mal Waldron in Lady Sings the Blues, a movie biography recounting the brief life of the singer known to her fans as Lady Day. That film was the dramatic version which explored the tragic motivations and influences that shaped the singer's life. The other well-known piece is Frank O'Hara's poem "The Day Lady Died." As one would expect of a lyric poem, the subject is only indirectly Billie Holliday. More directly what the poem is about is re-creating the speaker's feelings on the day he learned of Billie's death. In other words, the poem is more an autobiographical sketch of Frank O'Hara the sophisticated New York intellectual who was curator at the Museum of Modern Art than it is an incident from the biography of Billie Holliday.

As O'Hara catalogs the events of July 17, 1959, a picture emerges of a super-sophisticated intellectual running a couple of super- sophisticated errands on his lunch hour. He's been invited to dinner in Easthampton, almost a three- hour commuter train ride to the northeast in rural Massachusetts. He is looking for a gift for his hostess Patsy in the Golden Griffin Bookstore, and is trying to decide among four different authors which would make the best gift -- Paul Verlaine, a homosexual French poet of the 19th Century; Jean Genet, a homosexual diamond thief turned playwright; Brendan Behan, an alcoholic playwright and former terrorist in the Irish Republican Army; and Richmond Lattimore's new translation of the ancient Greek poet Hesiod. (If it has never occurred to you to bring such a gift to your hostess, that's because you are not super- sophisticated.) O'Hara even says that he was "practically going to sleep with quandariness," for making such choices puts him in such a boring quandary.

His second errand is to buy his host Mike a gift, and again his super-sophistication dictates his choices. He doesn't sweat over deciding to buy his host liquor and cigarettes. He "strolls" casually over to the Park Lane Liquor Store and purchases a bottle of Strega, an unusual imported 80-proof Italian liqueur flavored with 70 or more herbs and spices. He then drops into a tobacco shop and newstand in the lobby of the Ziegfeld theater and purchases cartons of exotic cigarettes -- Gauloises imported from France and Picayunes, a brand of cigarettes made in New Orleans and sold only in southern Louisiana. . .and in the sophisticated tobacconist's shop in the lobby of Ziegfeld Theater. If you are as sophisticated as O'Hara, you had better move to the Big Apple right away! He has clearly painted a picture of himself as a member of the ultra-elite.

It is just at this point, the point where those of us who are not super-sophisticated are about to completely lose our ability to identify sympathetically with the speaker, that he looks up and notices the mid-morning edition of The New York Post and sees the full front page picture of Billie and the headline announcing Lady Day's death. In just that split second, grief destroys his cool and collected sophistication:

and I am starting to sweat a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 spot
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.
He remembers the last time he saw her in the over-crowded, rowdy atmosphere of the Five Spot, an after hours jazz club. He remembers the power of her most unsophisticated blues songs that caused him to do something as unsophisticated as standing by the door to the john in a juke joint. He remembers that Billie had the power to make everyone "stop breathing" when they hear her sing. Hearing that Billie is gone has turned the ultra-sophisticated art museum curator into a real human being who can be touched by grief.

It's the contrast between sophistication and simplicity that matters in this poem. O'Hara may have been an arrogant New Yorker happily dwelling in his artificial world of esoteric literature and paintings. He may have had almost comically sophisticated tastes. Faced, however, with Death and loss he becomes a fully developed human being who feels pain just like the rest of us.

Here are the lyrics to a typical Billie Holliday song:

The Stormy Blues

Iíve been down so long
That down donít worry me
Iíve been down so long
That down donít worry me
I just sit and wonder
Where can my good man be

When it rains in here
Itís storming on the sea
When it rains in here
Itís storming on the sea
Every time I come here
Everything happens to me

I lose my man
I lose my head
I lose my money
Feel like Iím almost dead

I need you honey
Need you bad as can be
Iíve been down so long
That down donít worry me