This is a follow-up to a recollection that begins here.
Not long after Linda Kuehl's death, I received a call from her sister, who lived in California but was in New York to perform the sad task that is so often left to friends or relatives. She was in Linda's apartment and she was wondering what she ought to do with all the Billie Holiday material.
I explained to her that we owe much of our knowledge of jazz history to dedicated collectors, but that there are among them unprincipled scavengers who might attempt to get their hands on Linda's material. It turned out that such attempts had already been made and Linda's sister realized that some were simply legitimate efforts to retrieve loaned objects, but it was confusing to her and she asked for my advice. I suggested that she place all the material in a safe place, such as a bank box, until she heard from Harper & Row, Linda's more recent publisher. They had given Linda a healthy advance (by jazz book standards) and might wish to find an author who could complete the book. In such a case, the material would be indispensable. Being a total novice when it came to legal matters and rights in such a case as this, I thought the material should at least be kept safe and intact until the future of the book was resolved. In other words, hold on to it, for now.
There was no question about Linda having borrowed many items, especially photos, and that they ought to be returned to the rightful owners. I was adamant about that, having myself been a victim of a photo collector whose obsession drove him to thievery. Over the years, many people have made me a gift of photos and other items, usually because they were advanced in age and feared that someone might simply throw in the trash that which had been so dear to them over a lifetime. I understand that now better than ever, having myself reached an age where the end of the tunnel looms. Not all the material I have came to me as a gift, some simply happened to be in my possession at the time of the owner's death. What does one do when there are no rightful claimants? One preserves and gives the material the life its original owner sought for it. Well, that's how I see it. That's also how Lil Armstrong's family saw it, which is why I still have so many precious photos from her early years—they and the material Alberta Hunter left me will all go to a collection that gives researchers and other interested parties access.
The importance of that was underlined for me by what happened to Linda's Billie Holiday material.
I don't recall how much time had passed since Linda's death when my phone rang and a producer asked me what had become of the Billie Holiday material. My working relationship with this man had been a roller coaster ride—he had proven himself to be a bit shaky on the business side, but he had a good idea when he formed a company that married quality books and filmed documentaries in a neat package. It was a clever way to milk (utilize is a nicer word) material, because the same photos and interviews could be used for book and film, but it also produced satisfying results and added positively to the jazz and blues library. This producer (who has asked not to be further identified) hired some of the top music writer/historians for these projects, and affiliated himself with established, prestigious distributors. I should disclose that I was involved in two of these projects*, and while getting paid was akin to pulling teeth, I did eventually get my money—at least one colleague had fight more fiercely, but that's another story, which I will leave alone.
Getting back to this man's call, I had in mind his past accomplishments rather than his business practices when I informed him that—as far as I knew—Linda's collection was in California, in the hands of her sister. Almost in the same breath, it occurred to me that I had made a mistake by pointing him in that direction. Of course, I did not know that Linda's sister would sell the entire collection to him, which, I gather, is what she did. I admit to having felt guilty when I later learned that this valuable material—some of which was only on loan to Linda—was being exploited for profit rather than reasonably made available to serious researchers. Linda worked hard to gather together these pieces of Billie's life, so she deserved to have the material used by people who shared her dedication to Billie rather than to have it be offered to the highest bidder.
My second-thought fear was not unfounded, as it turned out. I have recently learned that at least one precious photos was returned to the rightful owners, but through no effort on the producer's part. I hope I'm not being too cynical and that others have managed to get back what belongs with them. The only thing I know for certain is that one can rent access to Linda's collection for a rather steep fee, and I suspect that this arrangement has probably made back many times the initial investment.
While I assume that the entire collection was sold intact, it may not have been. I suspect that there may be missing pieces. Linda never showed me what she had gathered, but she told me about this and that piece, and brought to me one very special item the memory of which I vividly retain. It was a small plastic disc from one of those coin-operated recording booths that in a bygone era often were placed side by side with the photo booths. Greer Johnson, who had been editor of Cue Magazine and a close friend of Billie Holiday, gave or lent the disc to Linda, and it was just too exceptional for her not to share with me.
When she brought it to my apartment, we played it, very carefully. I wish we had made a tape, for this was the most extraordinary Billie Holiday recording I had ever heard—here she was at Christmas time, drunk and alone in a little booth on 42nd Street (according to Greer Johnson), singing "Come All Ye Faithful". It was both poignant and devastating—Linda became teary-eyed and I wasn't far from it. This short moment, captured for a few pennies, almost summed up Billie's life.
It is possible to bind thin plastic audio discs into books, as a tear-out page, and I suggested to Linda that she almost had to do this. She agreed, but her book never materialized and the disc seems to have disappeared. If it is in somebody's hands, I hope they appreciate its worth and don't put it up on e-bay like some discarded celebrity-chewed gum wad.
* A documentary film and 2 biographical essays in a book.