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Billie’s Blues

My father’s birth name was James Brown. Changing his surname was his expression of solidarity with Billie Holiday, and mandatory if he wanted to make it as a soul singer in the era of “The Payback”: there could be no duplicate James Brown. She wore her stage name like skin; identities can change, even after death. The goal, if we love her enough to live in her name, as I do by inheritance or luck, is to make sure we don’t collude with those who would make her a relic of entertainment, an idea or a set of grandiloquent myths. Best to recall, as Ian Penman does [“Lady Day of the Alhambra,” Review, March], that the more Holiday’s life “has been fact-checked and untangled and demystified, the more mythic power it seems to command and retain.”

Lady Day, we also call her, and the realest elegy she received was from Frank O’Hara, who delivered it in an urgent, flippant stream full of disbelief and careless love caressing lighthearted sorrow. Love oh love oh careless love. She would have clutched his death note to her in furs like a sacred talisman. I believe he loved her. He might have attended the first integrated shows at Café Society to hear her conflate romance and lynching. But no matter where affections land or in what proportion, The Day Lady Died she became a part of him. He wrote her a chance requiem because the seductive ones live longest in the imagination, and most symbolically. They gain charisma and credibility posthumously.

They also haunt us, which is how we get a new Holiday book or film every few years, none making up for her absence, only poems can approximate that. She was among the most visible so-called black activists of the Forties and Fifties just for singing “Strange Fruit,” yet as a black woman she could not charm her way out of being criminalized, especially if she refused to stop singing about terror in a way that seared and changed hearts. Her listeners enabled her; they sought the thrill of a sound built on the need for fixes and honesty, not questioning why the music itself stunned like a narcotic. Holiday sings how she does so that you don’t have to risk your own life to try the white dope. My mother was born the year she died. Everyone asks if I’m related to her and I say, Yes, by myth, and in the stellar DNA of the recording industry, and by association. It’s a skill just to mention her name in the right pitch, neither morbid nor triumphant. We keep trying.

Harmony Holiday
Los Angeles

Larger Than Life

Although I never used the term, I spent much of my late youth and early adulthood aligned with antinatalists. I didn’t want children and believed there was a credible argument that life is an imposition. Strong as I felt, however, I didn’t have the confidence (or is it hubris?) to offer my stance as a prescription for others. The antinatalists are correct that life is full of suffering, but just how full is at least partly a matter of attitude. Last year, I watched my young son nearly die in a medical emergency. In recent years, I’ve had two uncles take their own lives, one with a shotgun and the other with insecticide. My neighbor used car exhaust and a closed garage door. My grandfather used alcohol with, or without, the intention to exit, but either way, it worked. I’ve personally felt despair so debilitating that every argument in Elizabeth Barber’s article [“The Case Against Children,” Essay, March] has seemed like common sense at one point or another.

But when I emerge from my despair, these assertions wither against love. I have a son because I met someone whose very being inspired procreation, and hope for a better world. Child-rearing is not about pleasure, contrary to Raphael Samuel’s claim, and I think most parents would find that notion preposterous. E. M. Cioran is right that those who choose to live are among the “great believers,” but he can’t claim that those who make such a choice are believing in a fiction.

Peter Hoffman
Ann Arbor, Mich.

By Another Tolkien

While I appreciate Hari Kunzru’s overview of the Italian right’s cooptation of J.R.R. Tolkien [“Leggete Tolkien, Stolti!,” Easy Chair, March], I wish he had made it clearer that it is a cooptation: Tolkien was not politically aligned with the Italian Fascist right. Indeed, he was an English conservative and a Catholic, although, as a letter to his son attests, he considered himself something of an anarchist. His politics have been likened to those of William Cobbett, the English pamphleteer and working-class advocate. Tolkien fandom in America, moreover, seems to have had a more left-wing constituency.

It would have been fitting for Kunzru to include these caveats, since his article implies that the Italian right’s reading of Tolkien is a natural result of his work. (Kunzru’s quoting Michael Moorcock’s well-worn critique only adds to this misimpression.) It’s also unfortunate that Kunzru engages in the more-than-tired trope of attributing reading Tolkien’s work to a youthful folly best outgrown. C. S. Lewis, a friend of Tolkien’s, wrote: “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

Bill Bridges

Ladies in Weighting

Gym membership has indeed risen 32 percent since 2010, as Jordan Castro notes in his essay [“Getting the Pump,” Miscellany, February], but he concerns himself with a specific subset of these new gym-goers, those “who’d never before set foot in a gym due to . . . cultural associations.” Curiously, for Castro this category doesn’t seem to include women, who have as much reason to be put off by “meatheads” and “sweaty dungeons” as anyone, and yet have contributed significantly to that rise. The first hint that Castro has not considered women is his dismissal of increased bone density as a motivating factor. I make my living training other women, and for my menopausal clients, fear of low bone density, along with encroaching sarcopenia, is the motivating factor. My own mother, who is seventy-seven, broke a hip last September, then broke the other on Christmas: an object lesson, if a grim one, on why women should lift, heavy and often.

Petra Browne
Ridgewood, N.Y.


“The Holocaust Angle” by Rebecca Panovka [Folio, March] contained four errors. The name of a former member of the Alderney States was misspelled; her name is Sue Allen, not Sue Allan. The article incorrectly stated that a party was held in Mannez Quarry. In fact, the party was held in Corporation Quarry. The music DJed at a bunker party on the island was incorrectly identified as a “German Bass” playlist. In fact, a wider variety of music was heard. And the article incorrectly described the Odeon as the tallest structure in Alderney. We regret the errors.

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May 2024

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