I’m obsessed with Billie Holiday. I’ve been intrigued by the beleaguered but relentlessly strong-willed singer for years. Still, it wasn’t until I happened to get tickets to the Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill photo collection that I began to connect my obsession with the blues legend and my determination to get on with my life after Michael died.
Marty’s and my visit to the exhibit was magic from start to finish. A halo of light surrounded us as we entered the vast Art Deco lobby of Omaha’s beautiful Durham Museum. The white-haired volunteer behind the counter tried unsuccessfully to scan our tickets, finally ending up writing the ID number down before directing us across the checkerboard of parquet floor to the elevator.
Completed in 1931, the 124,000 square foot terra cotta stone building was home to the city’s Union Station for the next forty years until it was reborn as the Deco art palace it is today. As the elevator doors opened on the first floor, a passenger train, forever silent now, ran along the far wall. The corridor leading to the Smithsonian-sponsored collection by photographer Jerry Dantzic celebrating Holiday’s 1957 Easter week engagement was empty. Smiling, Marty glanced over at me. “I rented out the entire place just for us,” he said.
As I studied the hauntingly lit, large black and white portraits on the gallery walls, I felt as if I was getting a small glimpse into the great artist’s life. I saw a smiling Miss Holiday accepting a birthday gift from a fan waiting on Broad Street outside the club. Billie being zipped into a sequined gown by her husband, Louis McKay, before an evening’s performance. The singer-to-end-all-singers in deep, full-throated song.
I looked into the eyes of the woman who both intrigued and inspired me and wondered why I was so drawn to her music and her story. Sure, I’m a gay man who identifies with the outsider in Billie. But that wasn’t it. Then it dawned on me, despite the alcohol and the drugs that raised her mood and haunted her life. Despite the succession of men who said they loved her in one breath and beat her in the next, Lady Day lived her life on nobody’s terms but her own, and with a few caveats, it’s the way I want to live mine.