How did Billie Holiday die? The butterfly effect of the short, tumultuous life of a jazz icon

Considered to be a pioneer and one of jazz music's biggest influencers, Billie Holiday's life was filled with pain and addiction led to her death with less than a dollar in her bank

                            How did Billie Holiday die? The butterfly effect of the short, tumultuous life of a jazz icon
Billie Holiday (Getty Images)

Sometimes an artist becomes more famous after their death. Not because their careers weren't powerful enough but because it's once they are gone that people realize the impact and legacy they left behind. One of the best examples of this is iconic and influential jazz singer Billie Holiday. With her definitive documentary film, 'Billie', just around the corner, here's a look at her life and death. 


To explain her death, we'd have to look at Holiday's life, which went through a butterfly effect of difficulty, ongoing financial struggles, abuse, and eventually her passing which ended her life too short. Before her career began to take off, Holiday's personal life was already clouded in pain and hardship. Holiday was born in 1915 to parents, Sarah Julia "Sadie" Fagan and Clarence Holiday, who were an unwed teenage couple. Shortly after Holiday was born, Clarence abandoned his family to pursue a career as a jazz musician. Holiday was staying with her aunt Eva Miller, who was Sadie's married half-sister, as her mother couldn't support her after being kicked out of her parents' home because she was pregnant. Already suffering from her parents' absence, Holiday's childhood would continue to be rough, albeit her mother did help her get into what was then known as "transportation jobs," serving on passenger railroads.

Holiday attended juvenile court at just nine years old for truancy and was sent to a Catholic reform school. She was then paroled nine months later to her mother. Sadie had opened a restaurant, and Holiday worked long hours there with her mother. She then dropped out of school at age 11. A year after joining her mother, Sadie came home to discover a neighbor was trying to rape Holiday. Things began to get even worse for both Holiday and her mother. 

Singer Billie Holiday (Eleanora Fagan, 1915 - 1959). (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

In 1929 Sadie became a sex worker while her daughter, not even 14 yet was a victim of sex trafficking at $5 per client. Instead of being rescued, Holiday and her mom were sent to prison. It was after her release during her teenage years that Holiday's name began to grow in the industry. She landed her first record at 18, produced by John Hammond, who said of her, "Her singing almost changed my music tastes and my musical life, because she was the first girl singer I'd come across who actually sang like an improvising jazz genius."

Career and personal life

Holiday would then become one of the most influential jazz singers of all time, while some have declared her a pioneer of the genre. Holiday would see a thriving career for years until she lost a battle with addiction. Again, her life and career was darkened by personal problems. In 1941, Holiday married James Monroe. At this stage, Holiday was already a heavy drinker, but it took a turn for the worse when Monroe introduced her to opium.

When her mother died in 1945, Holiday's alcohol and drug addiction escalated to ease her grief. Additionally, her and Monroe got divorced in 1947, but Holiday's problems with substance abuse continued. Her next relationship wasn't any better as Holiday took on the heroin habits of her boyfriend Joe Guy. 

Her personal problems began to spill out into her career, getting banned on sets of films she was starred in, spending money she earned from club ventures on heroin, and arrested and convicted for possession of narcotics possession in 1947. Holiday spent a year and a day in a federal rehabilitation facility in Alderston, West Virginia. After her release, she was unable to get the necessary license to play in cabarets and clubs due to her conviction. Although she could still perform at concert halls and had a sold-out show at the Carnegie Hall shortly after her release. 

Holiday's voice also took a toll and was arrested twice again on drug charges, although acquitted of one. The second arrest occurred in 1956 when she dated Louis McKay (they married a year later), who is reported to have used Holiday's name and money to advance himself.


Holiday's final performance was in New York City on May 25, 1959, and shortly after, she was admitted to the hospital for heart and liver problems. She had initially stopped drinking on her doctor's orders, but it was not long before she relapsed and had lost 20 pounds. Even while in hospital, Holiday was arrested for possession of narcotics. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics had been targeting Holiday since at least 1939. During Holiday's final moments her hospital room was raided, and she was placed under police guard. She died on July 17, at 44, of pulmonary edema and heart failure caused by cirrhosis of the liver. It is reported that she had been continually swindled out of her earnings and had less than a dollar in her bank at the time of her death.

After her death, Holiday left an estate of $1,000 and her best recordings from the '30s were mostly out of print, but the following years would see her honored. She was voted to the Down Beat Hall Of Fame in 1961, and soon after, nearly a hundred of her early records were reissued. One of the most memorable homages was a Diana Ross portrayal of Holiday in the 1972 film 'Lady Sings The Blues', which was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe. Holiday was posthumously nominated for 23 Grammy awards.

Disclaimer : The views expressed in this article belong to the writer and are not necessarily shared by MEAWW.