“I spent only one night photographing Billie Holiday,” he [Carl Van Vechten] wrote, “but it was the whole of one night and it seemed like a whole career.” The session began badly. Gerry Major had arranged the meeting, and had asked Holiday to wear a gown for the sitting. Holiday, however, arrived “at the appointed hour in a plain gray suit and facial expression equally depressing.” In spite of his disappointment, Van Vechten began photographing Holiday. It wasn’t going well and he was considering giving up when he thought to show Holiday his photographs of Bessie Smith. The photographs brought Holiday to tears; she explained that Smith had been an inspiration to her in the early days of her career. Their discussion of Smith softened the mood, and Holiday agreed to wearing a drape fashioned to look like an evening dress instead of her suit for some of the photographs.
At midnight, Holiday announced that she had to go home; she promised to come back shortly. Van Vechten, afraid she might go in search of drugs, sent his assistant Saul Mauriber to Harlem with her to insure her return. Holiday and Mauriber reappeared with Mister, Holiday’s boxer. She was in a different mood entirely, more lively and relaxed. Van Vechten continued to photograph her for some time.
Afterward, “she related in great detail the sad, bittersweet story of her tempestuous life.” Van Vechten’s wife Fania soon joined the group, and “in a short time Fania, like the rest of us, was in tears, and suddenly, also like the rest of us, found herself attached to Billie as if she had known her intimately for years.” Holiday didn’t leave the apartment until shortly before dawn. “We never saw her again,” Van Vechten wrote, “but not one of us will ever forget her.”
Portraits of the Artists, Esquire Magazine (1962)
Billie Holiday photographed by Carl Van Vechten, c. March 1949