Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
Lady Sings the Blues sold many copies in the United States and abroad because of Billie Holiday’s fame as a singer. The book received mixed reviews. Gilbert Millstein’s review in The New York Times, for example, was extremely favorable. Millstein said that the personality of Billie Holiday emerged whole—“colloquial, bitter, generous, loving, foolish and tragic.” On the other hand, Ralph J. Gleason was extremely unsympathetic and even antagonistic in his 1956 review of the book in the San Francisco Chronicle. Holiday had recently received much adverse publicity in that city following a drug arrest. According to Gleason, Lady Sings the Blues is “a story packed with self-pity and biased by Miss Holiday’s view that she was blameless in everything that happened to her and was the unending victim of prejudice.”
It is unfortunately true that few great artists are fully appreciated until after their deaths, and Holiday’s autobiography was published while she still had three painful years left to live. Since her death, biographers and musicologists have tended to treat her book with respect, although they generally concur that it glosses over many unpleasant facts and usually tries to present the singer in the best possible light.
The anecdotes about sexual promiscuity and drug use were shocking at the time. The New Yorker called the book “as bitter and uncompromising an autobiography as has been...
(The entire section is 604 words.)