When Billie Holiday died in 1959, thousands of mourners attended her funeral at St. Paul the Apostle Roman Catholic Church in New York City. The overflow crowd lined the sidewalks. Honorary pallbearers included such jazz greats as Benny Goodman and Mary Lou Williams. Newspapers and magazines ran heartfelt tributes.
But where is Holiday buried? She’s not in New York’s Woodlawn Cemetery, the well-known spot for famous dead jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington, Celia Cruz, Miles Davis and Lionel Hampton. She’s buried at St. Raymond’s Cemetery — or, as singer and Holiday fan Queen Esther puts it, “Way, way, way out,” in the Bronx.
Queen Esther and Columbia University professor Farah Jasmine Griffin recently did a show at The Apollo Theater based on Holiday’s music and the writings of Zora Neale Hurston. Griffin is the author of If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday. They are both huge admirers of Lady Day. And they recently paid their first visit to her grave.
“I think people assume she’s in Woodlawn,” Griffin says. “Because that’s where everyone else is. … So people assume that, unless you go looking.”
So why is one of the most influential singers in the world buried in a place that is so inaccessible?
“Probably because it was cheap,” says Donald Clarke, author of the Holiday biography Wishing on the Moon.
The story goes that, when Holiday died, her life savings of $750 were found strapped to her leg. Decisions around her death were left to her estranged husband, Louis McKay, who, by most accounts, was a louse.
Clarke says McKay was a “wannabe gangster” who didn’t pay for Holiday’s funeral.
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