Novelist Nelson Algren and singer Billie Holiday are two iconic figures of mid-20th-century American culture, though Holiday’s name and visage–not to mention her voice–is surely better-known and remembered than Algren’s is today. (At least Starbucks hasn’t taken to hawking copies of The Man With the Golden Arm at the coffee counter yet.) Algren, perhaps, made the mistake of living too long and fading into relative obscurity before his death in 1981. Both contributed their own intense form of urban poetry through their respective art forms; both were associated in the public eye with illicit drugs, Algren through the protagonist of his best-known book, Holiday through her high-profile arrests for possession. Both also felt at home with pimps, gamblers, and other people of the street–a place they viewed with neither sentiment nor castigation, but rather as a world in which they each could find their own battered but insistent signposts of significance. Algren assigned his characters the grace of humanity–the idea that even in failure their lives still meant something. A similar, sometimes-grim and existential courage informed Holiday’s vocal work. Recently I came across author Studs Terkel’s account of a brief but touching encounter between Algren and Holiday in 1956.
Algren, who had enjoyed such success several years prior with The Man With the Golden Arm, had just published a followup novel, A Walk On the Wild Side. It was not, however, the novel he had wanted to write, and he was at the beginning of a long and unhappy period in his career. Holiday had just published her memoir Lady Sings the Blues (largely authored by William Duffy). Though her story was being marketed as a “comeback,” her health was declining, her personal life was still in turmoil, and death was only three years away. Studs Terkel writes:
I had gone to see her at the Budland. It was a short-lived jazz club in a South Side Chicago cellar. I was in the process of working on a children’s jazz book. “Sure, baby. Come on,” she said at the other end of the phone. Nelson Algren accompanied me. He was, at the time, wearing glasses.
…After her performance, Algren and I shambled into her dressing room. Dressing room, did I say? It was a storeroom: whiskey cases stacked against the walls, cartons of paper napkins, piles of plastic utensils spread about, this, that, and the other. It didn’t matter. She was there, with the gardenia in her hair. Lady, in the gracious manner of a lady, bade us be seated. Algren slouched into a chair against the far wall, in the semidarkness. He appeared a character out of one of his works: Bruno or Frankie or Sparrow or Dove.
…And when the conversation ended, as casually as it had begun, and the waiter had brought her a tumbler of gin–”Lemon peel, baby”–she indicated the man in the shadows, Nelson Algren. She had been aware of his presence from the beginning; there had been mumbled introductions. Now she murmured inquiringly, “Who’s that man?” Algren explained that she and he had the same publisher. The Man With the Golden Arm and Lady Sings the Blues had both been put out by Doubleday.
“You’re all right,” she said to him.
“How do you know?” he asked.
“You’re wearin’ glasses.”
He laughed softly. “I know some people with glasses who got dollar signs for eyes.”
“How can you tell?” he persisted. How could she tell? He was half-hidden in the shadows.
“Your glasses.” She was persistent, too.
Watch Billie Holiday perform “I Love You, Porgy”:
Photo of Nelson Algren by Art Shay