The Hunting Of Billie Holiday

Source: Johann Hari / Politico

From his first day in office in 1930, Harry Anslinger had a problem, and everybody knew it. He had just been appointed head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics—a tiny agency, buried in the gray bowels of the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C.—and it seemed to be on the brink of being abolished. This was the old Department of Prohibition, but prohibition had been abolished and his men needed a new role, fast. As he looked over his new staff—just a few years before his pursuit of Billie Holiday began—he saw a sunken army who had spent fourteen years waging war on alcohol only to see alcohol win, and win big. These men were notoriously corrupt and crooked—but now Harry was supposed to whip them into a force capable of wiping drugs from the United States forever.

Jazz was the opposite of everything Harry Anslinger believed in. It is improvised, relaxed, free-form. It follows its own rhythm. Worst of all, it is a mongrel music made up of European, Caribbean and African echoes, all mating on American shores. To Anslinger, this was musical anarchy and evidence of a recurrence of the primitive impulses that lurk in black people, waiting to emerge. “It sounded,” his internal memos said, “like the jungles in the dead of night.” Another memo warned that “unbelievably ancient indecent rites of the East Indies are resurrected” in this black man’s music. The lives of the jazzmen, he said, “reek of filth.”



One night, in 1939, Billie Holiday stood on stage in New York City and sang a song that was unlike anything anyone had heard before. ‘Strange Fruit’ was a musical lament against lynching. It imagined black bodies hanging from trees as a dark fruit native to the South. Here was a black woman, before a mixed audience, grieving for the racist murders in the United States. Immediately after, Billie Holiday received her first threat from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

Harry had heard whispers that she was using heroin, and—after she flatly refused to be silent about racism—he assigned an agent named Jimmy Fletcher to track her every move. Harry hated to hire black agents, but if he sent white guys into Harlem and Baltimore, they stood out straight away. Jimmy Fletcher was the answer. His job was to bust his own people, but Anslinger was insistent that no black man in his Bureau could ever become a white man’s boss. Jimmy was allowed through the door at the Bureau, but never up the stairs. He was and would remain an “archive man”—a street agent whose job was to figure out who was selling, who was supplying and who should be busted. He would carry large amounts of drugs with him, and he was allowed to deal drugs himself so he could gain the confidence of the people he was secretly plotting to arrest.

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