Who was the lady who died in "The Day Lady Died"?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Frank O' Hara's mod-type poem "The Day Lady Died" is about a very preppy man who, seemingly in a haste, puts a poem together about the day that he found out about the death of Billie Holiday, who was also nicknamed "Lady Day".

Billie Holiday was a prodigious blues singer whose voice was so malleable that it could manipulate any song, transforming the Jazz world altogether. She was born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia,1917. Her early life had been marred by drug abuse, prostitution, poverty, an extremely dysfunctional home, and even rape. These horrid obstacles did not prevent Holiday from trying her luck at music and excelling as a vocalist and interpreter in a very unique way, beginning her career in the Harlem night club scene. Her rise to fame occurred during the 1950, having "Strange Fruit" as one of her most successful ballads of the time.

However, Billie Holiday was also notorious for her struggles with drug addiction. This is what ultimately prompted her death at the relatively young age of 44. The poem "The Day Lady Died" is set on Bastille Day (July 17), 1959, which is the exact day when she died in New York City.

In the poem, O'Hara is basically meditating the shock of learning of Holiday's death while, at the same time, he is relating other mundane events of the day. However, the death of Holiday as well as the memories of her voice seem to have permeated the psyche of the poet, for he consistently brings up this fact, and how he feels her "whispers" in his ear.

“leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT/ while she whispered a song along the keyboard/ to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.”

Some modern tributes for Billie Holiday include the movieLady Sings the Bluesand the U2 song "Angel of Harlem".