In her brief but highly effective time on this earth, renowned American jazz singer Billie Holiday (1915-1959) was an undeniable musical legend, despite the trauma, racism, substance abuse, legal troubles and violence that shaped her life. Unfortunately, her third and final husband, Louis McKay, was no different from the previous men in Billie’s life. But few know much about who he was.
As a child, Holiday was abused and spent time in a Catholic children’s home before cleaning and running errands for a brothel. In 1928 she moved to Harlem with her mother, where both ended up working in a brothel. The years that followed were a nightmare of chronic rape, abuse and subsequent imprisonment by the police who should have been protecting her. She was accused of vagrancy and sent to a workhouse when she was 14 – when she got out she miraculously began her career as an artist, singing in nightclubs around Harlem in uptown Manhattan.
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She produced 12 studio albums, three live albums, and dozens of hit singles, including haunting hits like “Strange Fruit” and “God Bless the Child,” which was named one of the “Songs of the Century” by the National Endowment for the arts.
Unfortunately, Holiday’s struggles with her abusive husband, Louis McKay, would ultimately lead to her downfall. But who was the man behind the scenes?
How Billie Met Louis McKay
Louis McKay and Billie Holiday met while she was touring Europe and working on her autobiography in 1956. Some accounts state that he acted as her pimp and eventually rose to become her “manager” and brutally abusive husband. He would also steal most of her money.
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Louis McKay wasn’t a musician, but he still won Billie’s heart — despite his bad reputation. According to NPR, McKay was a “wannabe gangster” and “by most reports…a louse.”
Louis McKay and Billie Holiday were arrested before getting married
When Billie Holiday embarked on her new romance with McKay, she seemed “happier than she’s been in years.”
But shortly after the meeting, the two were arrested for possession of narcotics. This wasn’t Holiday’s first run-in with the law – in her autobiography, she describes her first arrest in 1947 for drug possession and said it felt like the world was against her.
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She was then charged with heroin possession and sentenced to one year in prison. She quit drugs after being released from prison in 1948, but it wasn’t long before the cycle of trauma and abuse caught up with her and she reverted to the bad habit.
Billie Holiday’s marriage to Louis McKay
In 1957, after her arrest, Holiday and Louis McKay were married in Mexico. She had previously married several times, always to abusive men with drug problems, but McKay was the last. He worked as a mob enforcer and was naturally abusive.
Soon McKay was also Holiday’s acting road manager. According to biography.com, “McKay, like many other men in her life, used Holiday’s name and money to advance.”
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McKay was so physically abusive that Holiday often had to “tape her ribs” before going on stage after brutal beatings. Although she did not report the abuse to authorities for fear of Mckay and the police, she eventually left him when she found out he had lost her money in a risky real estate speculation.
After the breakup, Billie moved into an apartment in New York, where she lived alone with her dog. When Holiday died in 1959, the two were estranged but still married, which would ultimately allow for further theft of their funds even after her death.
Louis McKay’s betrayal
It’s hard to choose just one path in which Louis McKay betrayed Holiday. First off, McKay admitted he was involved in the operation that arrested Holiday in West Virginia in 1947, almost a decade before they met.
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Holiday had been on the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) radar since at least 1939. To make matters worse, FBN Commissioner Harry Anslinger was a well-known racist and made it his mission to bring down Holiday over her drug and alcohol addiction. He pursued her relentlessly until her death in 1959.
“She got away with too much shit,” McKay said of setting it up, adding, “I’ve got enough to get her done.” will remember as long as she lives.”
Louis McKay continued to benefit after Billie Holiday’s death
While living alone with her dog, Billie Holiday’s drug and alcohol abuse increased, and in 1959 she was hospitalized. She died at the age of 44 from complications of liver cirrhosis.
At the time of her death, Billie Holiday had $0.70 in her bank account and $750 strapped to her leg.
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Holliday died intestate, which unfortunately meant he would inherit her estate, including her royalties, as she was still legally married to McKay under New York law. It was estimated that these royalties amounted to between $15,000 and $20,000 annually at the time. In 2014, Billy Holiday’s estate was valued at $14 million.
In tragedy there is an abiding legacy
It’s hard not to read Billie Holiday’s story and be overwhelmed by the tragedy of it all. But there is also beauty in tragedy, and Billie’s life, full of struggles and sorrows, is a stunning example of the human ability to overcome adversity. Born and raised in the midst of a major trauma she would never fully escape, Billie Holiday still somehow managed to rock the world with her voice and create soulful, otherworldly music.
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Holiday won four Grammy Awards, all posthumously, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1976, as well as the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The latter have said, “Billie Holiday changed jazz forever.”
It’s hard not to wonder what Louis McKay would think once he could see how cherished Billie’s legacy still is today. One could find countless inspired music quotes based on the way their art ultimately conquered everything.
Several films about Holiday’s life have recently been released The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021).
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https://www.goalcast.com/billie-holiday-husband-louis-mckay/ Who exactly was Billie Holiday’s husband?