Had she lived, jazz great, Billie Holiday, would have been 104 years old on April 7th. She is remembered for her distinctive voice, the way she phrased a song, and her influence on a generation of musicians that followed. We, however, also remember her for her ownership of purebred dogs.
Though her recognizable voice and vocal style made her tall among musical giants of her time – Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and Artie Show, her troubled life, drug addiction, man problems, and arrests made the dogs in her life her most reliable sources of comfort.
She had owned a Poodle whom she wrapped in her best mink coat for his cremation following his death, as well as a Beagle, a Great Dane named “Gypsy,” “Bessie Mae Moocho,” a Wire Fox Terrier, and later came “Chiquita” and “Pepe,” baby-bottle-fed Chihuahuas. Possibly the most famous of her canine escort, however, was “Mister,” the Boxer seen in this image above “snacking” on one of Billie’s shoes backstage at an NYC night club. Many felt that the Boxer was Billie’s soul mate. Today, we’d say he was her heart dog.
She knit Mister sweaters and cloaked him in a mink coat. She cooked for him, took him on midnight walks, and brought him along to Harlem’s most glamorous clubs where porters brought him “plates of thick steak” while she performed and he “kept fans at a polite distance.” He was even with her before her legendary appearance at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
Lena Horne once recalled, “She was just to sensitive to survive. The thing I remember talking to her about most were her dogs; her animals were really her only trusted friends.”
Big Stump said, “Mister was just the best hang-out dog on Earth, you know. Mister could take it, poor thing. I don’t know how he did it, and in between bartenders and whatever would feed Mister. Mister would sit backstage near to where he could hear Lady’s voice. As long as he heard her voice, he was happy….”
Sadly, Holiday had a substance abuse problem. We’re hoping that one thing we came across was inaccurate. Some said that Mister was a junkie, that Billie and her friends would shoot him up. “She would hit Mister,” one source said, “and Mister would get so high and he would scratch behind his ear and flop right down.” She was once arrested on an early morning dope raid, and it’s said that she insisted on bringing her pet Chihuahua dog to City Hall. This photo shows Billie leaving the Central cell with her pet dog.
More than 3,000 people turned out to say good-bye to Billie at her funeral held in St. Paul the Apostle Roman Catholic Church on July 21, 1959. A who’s who of the jazz world attended the solemn occasion, including Benny Goodman who served as a pall bearer, Gene Krupa, Tony Scott, Buddy Rogers and John Hammond. She was laid to rest at St. Raymond’s Cemetery – and someone who knew of her love of dogs left a small momento on her gravestone.