Billie Holiday with Jimmy Davis, who (with Ram Ramirez)
wrote Lover Man. Click on photo to enlarge.
Around 1970, a couple of months after I had started work on a biography of Bessie Smith, I received a call from my publisher, Sol Stein, asking if I would mind sharing my research procedure with Linda Kuehl. Linda, he explained, was new to this kind of writing and she had just signed on to do a biography of Billie Holiday.
I told Sol that I would be glad to show Linda my approach, adding that—since this was all new to me, too—it was based more on common sense than on experience. That's how I met Linda, that cheerful, smiling, pretty young lady who came to my apartment the following day. We quickly became friends, shared purchases of tapes and looked out for each other as we both dug in and perused microfilmed newspaper clippings. Some of the people I had interviewed for my Bessie book also knew Billie, so we even shared that, albeit separately.
I don't think there was a day when we didn't speak on the phone at least once. Linda use to call me after an interview and share an anecdote or other tidbit that came therefrom. She was determined to leave no stone unturned, so she ventured into places that most people would not have dared to approach. I recall a trip to Baltimore, where she fearlessly searched for long-since retired pimps and prostitutes. "Did you go alone?", I asked. Yes, she told me, and nobody had bothered her—if one does not show fear, one has less to be afraid of. This was all new to Linda and she approached it with admirable audacity, but there came a time when I sensed a change in her.
One day, she played for me a taped phone conversation that contained a not so thinly veiled threat. Linda had begun looking into the financial side of Billie's career and uncovered some rather shady dealings. I think she already knew that artists were commonly short-changed, but she had grown so emotionally involved in Billie (too much, I thought, even then) that she was taking it all personally. I recall the male voice, with a decided New York accent, telling Linda—in a most patronizing way—"Listen, little lady, stick to the music and forget about the business side of this." Not a verbatim quote, but close.
Linda had more than one such call, and she discovered that people she was interviewing had been forewarned. John Hammond, she told me, was playing games with her. Well, I knew from personal experience what John was capable of doing, so that did not seem far fetched. Of course, all of this was feeding a paranoia, so Linda might, at times, well have been over-reacting.
Whether that was the case, or not, the cheerful Linda Kuehl who came to me for help was rapidly morphing into a very different person. She began to speak in low tones when she called me—almost whispering. I was reminded of Lenny Bruce, whom I had known, somewhat, towards the end. His paranoia—which was probably well founded—had him carry a portable recorder at all times. He never spoke on the phone without turning that machine on. Well, Linda was almost at that stage.
When Robert Hurwitz asked me to write notes for a Billie album on Verve, I suggested that he give the assignment to Linda. I was dismayed when he sent me a copy of her notes. This was the work of an amateur, not of somebody who had spent months researching the subject, not of somebody who in the past had written well crafted pieces for Publisher's Weekly. I had not read any of Linda's manuscript; she had begun writing the book, but seemed not ready to let anyone see it. Now, I began to realize why. I think she also knew that something was wrong, that her emotional attachment to the subject was creating a writer's block. That may be the reason for her decision to give me a look at her Billie. She delivered a chapter to me and said, "don't read it now—call me." She also made me promise to let no one else read it.
The chapter was as stumbling and disorganized as the notes I had seen. I really didn't know what I would tell Linda, who obviously expected an evaluation. I don't recall exactly how I handled that, but I always had a difficult time telling people—especially friends—that I didn't like their work. In this case, of course, I had a strong feeling that Linda was not expecting high praise. If I remember correctly, she took my criticism well, but she never showed me another page.
My publisher, Stein & Day, sent me on an extensive coast-to-coast book tour when Bessie was published. It garnered amazingly good reviews, but the promised follow-ups never came. When Linda heard that, she became even more depressed and had her agent negotiate a deal whereby Harper and Row purchased her contract from Stein & Day. Linda was determined to have her book properly hawked and pushed onto the best seller lists. I mention this to point out that she had not become totally dispirited.
One day, Linda called to tell me that she had helped the Smithsonian arrange a Count Basie concert and would be going to Washington early that day in order to attend the rehearsal. Would it be alright if she dropped by my place in the morning, enroute to the airport? Of course.
Linda was remarkably like her old self that morning. She brought me some jazz books—duplicates, she said—that I might want. She also had a couple of Mae Barnes albums, borrowed from Mae, that she wanted me to transfer to tape. She handed me two reels of blank tape and a couple of blank cassettes. The latter were for friends who shared her newfound love for Mae Barnes. Then she went off to Laguardia.
I was surprised when Linda didn't call me upon her return to New York. This was exactly the sort of event she would have eagerly shared. I think I called her once or twice, but she traveled so much with her roving microphone that I was used to her being away from home.
It was at the Grammy Awards that Dan Morgenstern's wife gave me the shocking news. "I was sorry to hear about Linda," she said, "I know you two were very close."
I was subsequently told that Linda attended the Basie rehearsal, clowned around with his skipper's cap, etc., then left for her hotel with a "see you later." At the hotel, she checked in with one bag and told the desk clerk that her husband would be joining her later. Linda and her husband were no longer together—she obviously made that part up, but why?
Not long after checking in, Linda apparently opened the window and jumped to her death. From what I was told, she wore a nightgown and had cold cream on her face. Scribbled on a hotel note pad were the words: "Love ya, babe." Don't know if that's true, but it is what I as told. If Linda did, indeed, commit suicide, she left unanswered questions. I immediately wondered why—if she had this planned—she would ask me to make those tapes. The ones for her friends were especially inexplicable, for I had no names or contacts. I knew Mae Barnes well, so I was able to return her albums to her, but I am still very puzzled by the whole thing. If Linda took her own life, it had to have been an impulsive act.
Linda's book was never finished and we will never know if she might have overcome the emotional barrier. I often think of her and still miss her—that great smile, the initial enthusiasm and spirit that I thought would come together in a memorable—and then, sorely needed—book.
This is far longer than I had meant it to be, so I will stop for now. The research material Linda Kuehl collected has been used in at least two books, so it isn't going to waste, but that's another story. To be continued.