The “bizarre deity”
Posted July 7, 2007on:
At the curb, getting out of a taxi, or at the White Rose Bar drinking, there “they” were, the great performers with their worn, brown faces, enigmatic in the early evening, their coughs, their split lips and yellow eyes; their clothes, crisp and bright and hard as the bone-fibered feathers of a bird.
And there she often was — the “bizarre deity” — Billie Holiday.
Real people: nothing like your mother and father, nothing like those friends from long ago now living in the family house alone, with the silver and the pictures, a few new lamps and a new roof — set up at last, preparing to die.
At night in the cold winter moonlight, around 1943, the city pageantry was of a benign sort. Adolescents were sleeping and the threat was only in the landscape, aesthetic. Dirty slush in the gutters, a lost black overshoe, a pair of white panties, perhaps thrown from a passing car. Murderous dissipation went with the music, inseparable, skin and bone. And always her luminous self-destruction.
She was fat the first time we saw her, large, brilliantly beautiful, fat. She seemed for this moment that never again returned to be almost a matron, someone real and sensible who carried money to the bank, signed papers, had curtains made to match, dresses hung, and shoes in pairs, gold and silver, black and white, ready. What a strange, betraying apparition that was, madness, because never was any woman less a wife or mother, less attached; not even a daughter could she easily appear to be. Little called to mind the pitiful sweetness of a young girl. No, she was glittering, somber and solitary, although of course never alone, never. Stately, sinister and determined.
The creamy lips, the oily eyelids, the violent perfume — and in her voice the tropical l‘s and r‘s. Her presence, her singing created a large, swelling anxiety. Long red fingernails and the sound of electrified guitars. Here was a woman who had never been a Christian.
To speak as part of the white audience of “knowing” this baroque and puzzling phantom is an immoderation and yet there are many persons who have splinters of memory that seem to have been personal. At times they have remembered an exchange of some sort. And of course the lascivious gardenias, worn like a large, white, beautiful ear, the heavy laugh, marvelous teeth, and the splendid head, archaic, as if washed up from the Aegean. Sometimes she dyed her hair red and the curls lay flat against her skull, like dried blood.
From “Sleepless Nights” by Elizabeth Hardwick.