Brian Dillon in Cabinet:
Consider the possibilities broached in “Billie Holiday.” Here is Hardwick describing a young trumpet player (most probably Joe Guy) with whom the singer had recently become involved: “He was as thin as a stick and his lovely, round, light face, with frightened, shiny, round eyes, looked like a sacrifice impaled upon the stalk of his neck.” Or recalling Holiday’s coiffure: “And always the lascivious gardenia, worn like a large, white, beautiful ear…. Sometimes she dyed her hair red and the curls lay flat against her skull, like dried blood.” Holiday’s huge dogs, always present, are “like sculpted treasures, fit for the tomb of a queen.” As an admirer and hanger-on of the perennially “over-scheduled” performer, “one felt like an old carriage horse standing at the entrance, ready for the cold midnight race through the park.” In her most dismally concise image, Hardwick writes of Holiday’s death: “The police were at the hospital bedside, vigilant lest she, in a coma, manage a last chemical inner migration.”
And then there is this sentence—here it is again: “In her presence on these tranquil nights it was possible to experience the depths of her disbelief, to feel sometimes the mean, horrible freedom of a thorough suspicion of destiny.” It is one of those Hardwickian moments when the figural falls away and we’re faced, she and we, with the calamitous, gnomic essence of her subject: a woman who has never been a Christian, who cannot believe in family—Holiday’s mother fusses at the edges of the essay—and still less in the men she meets. A person whose sole commitments are to her “felonious narcotism” and perhaps to her art. The realization is stark, and unadorned by simile. But it is also not simple: it was “possible,” merely, to apprehend (or is it to inhabit?) Holiday’s absence of faith, and then only “sometimes.” Why?