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Reviews of Bitter Crop by Paul Alexander

Bitter Crop

The Heartache and Triumph of Billie Holiday's Last Year

by Paul Alexander

Bitter Crop by Paul Alexander X
Bitter Crop by Paul Alexander
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  • Published:
    Feb 2024, 368 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Valerie Morales
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About this Book

Book Summary

A revelatory look at the tumultuous life of a jazz legend and American cultural icon

In the first biography of Billie Holiday in more than two decades, Paul Alexander—author of heralded lives of Sylvia Plath and J. D. Salinger—gives us an unconventional portrait of arguably America's most eminent jazz singer. He shrewdly focuses on the last year of her life—with relevant flashbacks to provide context—to evoke and examine the persistent magnificence of Holiday's artistry when it was supposed to have declined, in the wake of her drug abuse, relationships with violent men, and run-ins with the law.

During her lifetime and after her death, Billie Holiday was often depicted as a down-on-her-luck junkie severely lacking in self-esteem. Relying on interviews with people who knew her, and new material unearthed in private collections and institutional archives, Bitter Crop—a reference to the last two words of Strange Fruit, her moving song about lynching—limns Holiday as a powerful, ambitious woman who overcame her flaws to triumph as a vital figure of American popular music.

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Billie's relevance returns annually whenever "Strange Fruit" is either sung or discussed during Black History Month. It is her best-selling song and Alexander devotes an entire chapter to its rich history. His stirring prose evokes a camera following Billie all over the world. Billie at the Blue Note. Billie at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Billie at the Chatterbox Musical Bar. "No matter what the motherfuckers do to you, never let them see you cry" is one of my favorite Billie quotes resurrected in this biography because of the perception it creates, that Billie Holiday was confident — and she was at times. But her insecurities were pronounced. Male abandonment beginning with her father, whose name she carried, triggered self-loathing that drugs, alcohol, and violent men only exaggerated. The aggressive and continued harassment of government agencies until her death affected her. Here's something to understand about Alexander's biography of Billie: He isn't in awe of her, and therefore treats her like one would the non-famous if they earned the right to a public biography...continued

Full Review Members Only (1035 words)

(Reviewed by Valerie Morales).

Media Reviews

Harper's Magazine
"A quietly gripping read."

The Boston Globe
The first major Holiday biography in more than two decades,Bitter Crop benefits from a tight focus and a cinematic structure. Alexander sets vivid scenes as he moves through the closing months of a life that was difficult from the start, weaving in detailed flashbacks to provide context for where Holiday found herself during her final act... . Alexander deftly sifts through the massive pile of Holiday misinformation, much of it perpetuated by Lady Day herself through interviews and in her 1956 memoir Lady Sings the Blues ... . Alexander, who has previously written biographies of Sylvia Plath and J.D. Salinger, captures some of the tragic beauty of Holiday's life and art. But he also does justice to her innate toughness and survival instincts, and the work ethic that burned until her body finally gave out.

The New York Journal of Books
In Bitter Crop, Paul Alexander … details the 'perennial hardships' of Lady Day's life but argues that she finally triumphed as one of America's greatest singers... . Engrossing and moving... . The author calls Billie 'the consummate performer whose gift was her ability to make a listener experience the emotion she was feeling as she sang a song.' As a writer, he, too, is a stellar performer, using his considerable writing skills to help readers experience the emotional tenor of Holiday's turbulent life. His book is quite special—authoritative, highly readable, and filled with vivid scenes.

Booklist (starred review)
In a stringent and clarifying inquiry into the betrayals and abuse [Billie] Holiday faced, and the triumphs she nonetheless achieved, [Paul] Alexander chronicles the last harrowing year of the singer's tragically shortened life... . Alexander delves into Holiday's loving affairs with women, disastrous relationships with duplicitous and violent men, sustaining friendships, and essential musical collaborations. In fluent command of an enormous amount of detail both enraging and awe-inspiring, Alexander vividly recounts Holiday's valiant and ravishing last recordings and performances as her health deteriorated but her conviction stayed strong. A portrait as affecting and indelible as Holiday's exquisite performances.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A talented biographer paints a memorable portrait of an American master... . Alexander's evocative prose seamlessly complements the painstaking research that he conducted via interviews with contemporaries of Holiday, his thorough archival mining, and his use of never-before-seen material from private collections to distinguish the fact, fiction, and embellishment about Holiday's life that has been disseminated by music critics, early biographers, and Holiday herself...An extraordinarily fascinating book.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[A] stellar and sometimes-devastating account [of] the remarkable life of a jazz legend... . Chronicling Holiday's career, Alexander covers in meticulous detail her early successes; collaborations … and the music itself, including 1958's Lady in Satin, her penultimate album and a 'masterpiece of longing and sorrow' made singular by her beautifully 'damaged, tortured voice.' The result is an excellent biography befitting of its inimitable subject.

Author Blurb Dan Morgenstern, executive director emeritus, Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University
Making it as real as if you had been there, Paul Alexander has done an incomparable job bringing to life both elements of his title. He shows us the malice and ignorance of Billie's accusers and eventual killers, the love and support of friends, and her own courage and purity of heart. A must- read for all lovers of the immortal Lady Day.

Author Blurb Don Winslow, New York Times best-selling author of City of Dreams
A nonfiction portrait of Billie Holiday that reads like a novel, Bitter Crop takes you into the rooms where she lived and the venues where she performed to give you a revealing, up-close look at a musical genius who became an American icon. A brilliant achievement!

Author Blurb Gloria Steinem, award-winning author and political activist
The unfinished life of Billie Holiday haunts us. In Bitter Crop, Paul Alexander tells her story in a way that could put her soul and our questions to rest.

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Beyond the Book

The Tangled History of "Strange Fruit"

In February 1959, Billie Holiday sang the anti-lynching song she popularized, "Strange Fruit," on the London television show Chelsea at Nine. She was battling liver disease because of a prodigious vodka and gin addiction. It was rare for Billie to sing "Strange Fruit" when she was this physically fragile.

"She just needed a reason to sing it," notes journalist Paul Alexander, author of Bitter Crop: The Heartache and Triumph of Billie Holiday's Last Year.

As Billie was known to do, she exaggerated the facts that night, telling the London audience it was a song written just for her. It wasn't.

"Strange Fruit" began as a poem titled "Bitter Fruit." It was written by a Russian Jew named Abel Meeropol, a Harvard University ...

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