By David Brand
Iconic jazz singer Billie Holiday will become Queens’ permanent artist in residence as part of the city’s new “She Built NYC” statue initiative.
The city will erect four statues honoring Holiday and three other influential New York City women, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Wednesday. The statue of Holiday, who lived in St. Albans’ Addisleigh Park and Flushing, will rise near Borough Hall in Kew Gardens.
“The people and groups we celebrate in our public art should reflect the rich diversity and cultural history that has made New York City such an extraordinary place,” said Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl. “By honoring these four remarkable women New Yorkers, She Built NYC is taking important steps toward a fuller telling of our city’s dynamic story through public monuments. We look forward to the upcoming community engagement and artist selection processes, bringing New Yorkers together to help preserve these legacies and what they represent for generations to come.”
In addition to Holiday, the city will build statues for 19th Century Civil Rights leader Elizabeth Jennings Graham along Vanderbilt Avenue near Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, public health pioneer Dr. Helen Rodríguez Trías at St. Mary’s Park in the Bronx and Robbins Reef Lighthouse keeper Katherine Walker at the Staten Island Ferry Landing.
Last year, the city announced it would erect a statue of former U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm in Brooklyn.
“It is critical that we continue to honor great women who were trail blazers, change makers, and contributed so much to our great city,” said U.S. Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney. “I hope these monuments will remind young women of their limitless potential and will inspire all New Yorkers for many years to come.”
Holiday, nicknamed Lady Day, was born Eleanora Fagan Gough in 1915 in Philadelphia. At 13, she moved to New York City to live with her mother.
In her early teens, Holiday began singing in Harlem’s famous nightclubs and, after a few years, earned a contract with the record company Brunswick. Holiday became a star and recorded several hit songs, some of which became jazz standards.
Holiday’s most famous song may have been her most powerful.
In 1939, Holiday sang “Strange Fruit,” an anti-lynching poem written by New York City school teacher Abel Meeropol two years earlier. The song, a metaphor that refers to African Americans tortured and hanged during the Jim Crow Era, was particularly poignant for Holiday because it reminded her of how her father died, she wrote in her autobiography. Holiday’s father was not lynched, but he was denied medical care at a Southern hospital and died from an illness related to World War I mustard gas exposure.
“It reminds me of how Pop died,” she wrote of the song, according to the Progressive. “But I have to keep singing it, not only because people ask for it, but because twenty years after Pop died, the things that killed him are still happening in the South.”
After achieving international success as an artist, Holiday moved to Addisleigh Park, an enclave that was home to other prominent African Americans including to Jackie Robinson, Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie.
“The house she had in St. Allbans was the only one she ever owned, and she was very proud of it,” said Columbia Professor John Szwed, who wrote a biography about Holiday. “Miles Davis lived nearby, and used to bike over with his little son to sit with her and talk while she played with his child.”
Holiday struggled with substance abuse and died in 1959, but her music, her influence and her legacy live on.
“She can by heard on dozens, maybe hundreds, of TV and movie soundtracks; her recordings from the 1930s and 40s are all still available in one format or other — and that's true of only Sinatra, and his from only the 40s,” Szwed said.
“Singers spoke and still speak of her as among the very best,” he continued. “Though she traveled widely, NY was her home for all but her pre-teen years.”