Saturday, July 11, 2009

Billie Holiday and Her Dog's Steak

A few days ago, on San Francisco Chronicle, I saw a photograph by Herman Leonard of Billie Holiday making steak for her beastly huge dog. I became instantly angry, though I was not sure what the sense the photographer was trying to convey – exposing the absurdity or celebrating the glamor? I read carefully and saw a story like this:

A woman answered the door wearing a house dress and an apron. "First I thought, 'This is the maid,' " says photographer Herman Leonard. "She said, 'Excuse me, but I've got to feed the dog.' She had a steak in the frying pan, and she was cooking the steak for the dog."

The woman was Billie Holiday, one of the greatest voices of modern times.


The scene was sealed forever on film by Leonard, now 86, who captured the odd, intimate moments in the lives of jazz greats. In the last half of the 20th century, he documented the most fertile period in jazz history; the Smithsonian has more than 130 Leonard photographs.

My suspicion was confirmed. An intimate moment? Yes, sure. However great Billie Holiday was, I cannot help but feeling uneasy by such indulgence, and disgusted by the celebratory tone of the adoring writer of the article and Chronicle editor. The picture was taken in 1949. Did any American think about how many meals that steak could buy for the poor third-world people? How could Americans waste so much precious food while other people were dying of malnutrition? We all are human and have our weaknesses. But celebrating them?

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