The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Mister and Lady Day: The Illustrated Story of Billie Holiday and the Dog Who Loved Her

One of the most trailblazing and influential vocalists of all time, Eleanora Fagan (April 7, 1915–July 17, 1959) — better known as Billie Holiday and famously nicknamed Lady Day — shaped the evolution of jazz and pop music. With her distinctive vocal delivery inspired by jazz instrumentation and her innovative manipulation of tempo and phrasing, she ushered in a new era of singing and, in the process, popularized jazz among wider and wider audiences. And yet Holiday’s life was far from a fairy tale of stardom. Raised by a single mother and raped by a neighbor at the age of eleven, she spent her early teens running errands at a brothel in exchange for the chance to listen to Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith records.

Shortly after her mother became a prostitute in Harlem, so did Eleanora. She was barely fourteen. But in the darkness of those early years, she somehow found the light that would guide her life — music.

Billie Holiday and her beloved dog Mister. Photographs by William Gottlieb from his series The Golden Age of Jazz

Even as she rose to celebrity, Holiday’s personal life remained a whirlwind of turmoil and heartbreak. Openly bisexual, she bounced between numerous affairs with men and women. By the height of her career in the 1940s, she was earning $1,000 per week — more than $17,000 in today’s money — but had spiraled into addiction and was spending nearly all of her income on drugs.

Over the decade that followed, despite having become commercially successful, her addiction and tumultuous relationships with abusive men gradually but steadily eroded both her health and her ability to defend her professional standing. Progressively defrauded of her earnings, she died with $0.70 in the bank — but her imprint on the evolution of music remains priceless and inextinguishable.

In Mister and Lady Day: Billie Holiday and the Dog Who Loved Her (public library) — a fine addition to the most noteworthy picture-book biographies of cultural icons — writer Amy Novesky and illustrator Vanessa Brantley Newton tell the story of what is perhaps the only unconditional and untragic love Lady Day ever knew.

Holiday’s life was always full of beloved dogs — among them the tiny poodle she carried in her coat pocket; Gypsy, the Great Dane; Chiquita and Pepe, the baby-bottle-fed Chihuahuas; and Bessie Mae Moocho, the wire-haired terrier. But her true canine soul-mate was a boxer named Mister.

Mister and Lady Day were rarely apart.

She knit him sweaters and cloaked him in a mink coat. She cooked for him and took him on midnight walks.

Although the social critic Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf’s nephew, might have raised an eyebrow at the besweatered and mink-clad portion of Holiday’s relationship with Mister, theirs was a special bond — so much so that Mister accompanied Holiday to Harlem’s most glamorous clubs, where porters brought him “plates of thick steak” while she performed and he “kept fans at a polite distance.”

She sang to him. Mister was Lady’s favorite.
Someday, she’d have a house in the country filled with dogs.
Life would be good. Mister would be there.
He always was.

The only downside of this otherwise wonderful book is that it betrays E.B. White’s assertion that one must write up to children, for “anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time” — something Neil Gaiman echoed in insisting that dark stories help rather than harm children. Instead of including the essential biographical point of Holiday’s arrest at the peak of her career for drug possession — essential because it is an indelible part of her tragedy and a necessary reminder that tragic lives, not only fairy-tale ones, are also part of the canon of genius — Novesky simply writes that Lady Day “got into trouble” and “had to leave home for a year and a half.”

But both the dramatic farewell and the blissful reunion, as Mister greets Holiday on the train platform upon her return, capture with elegant simplicity the heart of the story — the deep, unconditional love between Lady Day and Mister.

Complement Mister and Lady Day with the illustrated biographies of e.e. cummings, Jane Goodall, Pablo Neruda, Frida Kahlo, and Albert Einstein, then revisit the story of Emily Dickinson’s beloved dog Carlo and Mary Oliver on how dogs ennoble human life.

Published September 17, 2015




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