How “America’s First Drug Czar” Waged War Against Billie Holiday and Other Jazz Legends

The U.S. government’s so-called “War on Drugs” pre­dates Richard Nixon’s coinage of the term in 1971 by many decades, though it is under his admin­is­tra­tion that it assumed its cur­rent scope and char­ac­ter. Before Wood­stock and Viet­nam, before the cre­ation of the DEA in 1973, the Fed­er­al Bureau of Narcotics—headed by “America’s first drug czar,” Com­mis­sion­er Har­ry J. Anslinger, from 1930 to 1962—waged its own war, at first pri­mar­i­ly on mar­i­jua­na, and, to a great degree, on jazz musi­cians and jazz cul­ture. Anslinger came to pow­er in the era of Reefer Mad­ness, the title of a rather ridicu­lous 1938 anti-drug film that has come to stand in for hyper­bol­ic anti-pot para­noia of the ’30s and ’40s more gen­er­al­ly. Much of that mad­ness was the Commissioner’s spe­cial cre­ation.

Like so much of the post-Nixon drug war, Anslinger staged his cam­paign as a moral cru­sade against cer­tain kinds of users: dis­si­dents, the coun­ter­cul­ture, and espe­cial­ly immi­grants and blacks. Accord­ing to Alexan­der Cockburn’s White­out: The CIA, Drugs, and the Press, Anslinger’s “first major cam­paign was to crim­i­nal­ize the drug com­mon­ly known as hemp. But Anslinger renamed it ‘mar­i­jua­na’ to asso­ciate it with Mex­i­can labor­ers,” and claimed that the drug “can arouse in blacks and His­pan­ics a state of men­ac­ing fury or homi­ci­dal attack.” Anslinger “became the prime shaper of Amer­i­can atti­tudes to drug addic­tion.” And like lat­er despis­ers of rock ‘n’ roll and hip-hop, Anslinger’s hatred of jazz moti­vat­ed many of his tar­get­ed attacks.

Anslign­er linked mar­i­jua­na with jazz and per­se­cut­ed many black musi­cians, includ­ing Thelo­nious Monk, Dizzy Gille­spie and Duke Elling­ton. Louis Arm­strong was also arrest­ed on drug charges, and Anslinger made sure his name was smeared in the press. In Con­gress he tes­ti­fied that “[c]oloreds with big lips lure white women with jazz and mar­i­jua­na.”

“Mar­i­jua­na is tak­en by… musi­cians,” he told Con­gress in 1937, “And I’m not speak­ing about good musi­cians, but the jazz type.” Although the La Guardia Com­mit­tee would refute almost every­thing Anslinger tes­ti­fied to about the effects of smok­ing pot, the dam­age was already done. (Anslinger’s pros­e­cu­tion of jazz musi­cians, par­tic­u­lar­ly Louis Armstrong—paralleled that of anoth­er pow­er-mad, para­noid bureau­crat, J. Edgar Hoover.)

Anslinger did not sim­ply dis­like jazz. He feared it. “It sound­ed,” he wrote, “like the jun­gles in the dead of night.” In jazz, “unbe­liev­ably ancient inde­cent rites of the East Indies are res­ur­rect­ed.” And the lives of jazz musi­cians “reek of filth.” And yet, writes Johann Hari in his book Chas­ing the Scream (excerpt­ed in Politi­co), his cam­paign large­ly failed because of the jazz world’s “absolute sol­i­dar­i­ty” in oppo­si­tion to it. “In the end,” writes Hari, “the Trea­sury Depart­ment told Anslinger he was wast­ing his time.” And so, “he scaled down his focus until it set­tled like a laser on one sin­gle target—perhaps the great­est female jazz vocal­ist there ever was,” Bil­lie Hol­i­day.

Any­one with even the most cur­so­ry knowl­edge about Hol­i­day knows she had a drug prob­lem in des­per­ate need of treat­ment. And, of course, Hol­i­day was­n’t addict­ed to a rel­a­tive­ly harm­less sub­stance like mar­i­jua­na, but to hero­in, which—along with alco­hol abuse—eventually lead to her death. Yet, as Cock­burn writes, Anslinger had “hammer[ed] home his view that [drug addic­tion] was not… treat­able,” but “could only be sup­pressed by harsh crim­i­nal sanc­tions.” Accord­ing­ly, he “hunt­ed” Holiday—in Hari’s apt description—sending agents after her when he heard “whis­pers that she was using hero­in, and—after she flat­ly refused to be silent about racism.”

Recruit­ing a black agent, Jim­my Fletch­er, for the job, Anslinger began his attacks on Hol­i­day in 1939. Fletch­er shad­owed Hol­i­day for years, and became pro­tec­tive, even­tu­al­ly, “it seems,” writes Hari, “fall[ing] in love with her.” But Anslinger broke the case through Holliday’s vicious­ly abu­sive hus­band, Louis McK­ay, who agreed to inform on her—something no fel­low musi­cian would do. In May of 1947, Hol­i­day was arrest­ed and put on tri­al for pos­ses­sion of nar­cotics. “Sick and alone,” writes Het­tie Jones in Big Star Fallin’ Mama: Five Women in Black Music, “she signed away her right to a lawyer and no one advised her to do oth­er­wise.” Promised a “hos­pi­tal cure in return for a plea of guilty,” she was instead “con­vict­ed as a ‘crim­i­nal defen­dant,’ and a ‘wrong­do­er,’ and sen­tenced to a year and a day in the Fed­er­al Women’s Refor­ma­to­ry at Alder­son, West Vir­ginia.”

After her release, Hol­i­day was stripped of her cabaret license, restrict­ed from singing in “all the jazz clubs in the Unit­ed States… on the grounds,” writes Hari, “that lis­ten­ing to her might harm the morals of the pub­lic.” Two years after her first con­vic­tion, Anslinger recruit­ed anoth­er agent, a sadist named George White, who was all too hap­py take Hol­i­day down. He did so in 1949 at the Mark Twain Hotel in San Francisco—“one of the few places she could still perform”—arresting her with­out a war­rant and with what were very like­ly plant­ed drugs. White appar­ent­ly “had a long his­to­ry of plant­i­ng drugs on women” and “may well have been high when he bust­ed Bil­lie for get­ting high.” (See the declas­si­fied case against her here. Her man­ag­er John Levy is erro­neous­ly referred to as her “hus­band” and called “Joseph Levy.”)

A jury refused to con­vict, but Anslinger glo­ried in the toll his cam­paign had tak­en. “She had slipped from the peak of her fame,” he wrote, “her voice was crack­ing.” After her death in 1959, he wrote cal­lous­ly, “for her, there would be no more ‘Good Morn­ing Heartache.’” For her part, though Hol­i­day “didn’t blame Anslinger’s agents as indi­vid­u­als; she blamed the drug war,” writ­ing in her auto­bi­og­ra­phy, “Imag­ine if the gov­ern­ment chased sick peo­ple with dia­betes, put a tax on insulin and drove it into the black mar­ket… then sent them to jail…. We do prac­ti­cal­ly the same thing every day in the week to sick peo­ple hooked on drugs.”

Many jazz musi­cians, but espe­cial­ly Hol­i­day, paid dear­ly for Anslinger and the Fed­er­al Bureau of Nar­cotics’ “war on drugs.” Hari doc­u­ments the “race pan­ic” that under­lay most of Anslinger’s actions and the egre­gious dou­ble stan­dard he applied, includ­ing a “friend­ly chat” he had with Judy Gar­land over her hero­in addic­tion and kid gloves treat­ment of a “Wash­ing­ton soci­ety host­ess,” in con­trast to his relent­less pros­e­cu­tion of Hol­i­day. His per­se­cu­tion of Hol­l­i­day and oth­ers was accom­pa­nied by a pro­pa­gan­da cam­paign that demo­nized “the Negro pop­u­la­tion” as dan­ger­ous addicts. As Hari points out, Anslinger “did not cre­ate these under­ly­ing trends,” but he pro­mot­ed racist fic­tions and manip­u­lat­ed them to his advan­tage. And his sin­gling out of cul­tures and groups he per­son­al­ly dis­liked and feared as spe­cial tar­gets for vig­or­ous, prej­u­di­cial pros­e­cu­tion helped set the agen­da for anti-drug leg­is­la­tion and cul­tur­al atti­tudes in every decade since he decid­ed to go after jazz and Bil­lie Hol­i­day.

Har­i’s book, Chas­ing the Scream, is now avail­able on Ama­zon.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bil­lie Hol­i­day — The Life and Artistry of Lady Day: The Com­plete Film

Duke Ellington’s Sym­pho­ny in Black, Star­ring a 19-Year-old Bil­lie Hol­i­day

Curi­ous Alice — The 1971 Anti-Drug Movie Based on Alice in Won­der­land That Made Drugs Look Like Fun

Louis Arm­strong Plays His­toric Cold War Con­certs in East Berlin & Budapest (1965)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • Topham Beauclerk says:

    The past is, indeed, a dif­fer­ent coun­try. But even in the past, J. Edgar Hoover, was­n’t Her­bert Hoover.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Whoops, indeed! Cor­rect­ed.

  • Gerry Myers says:

    The oth­er very inter­est­ing thing about one of her hus­bands, McK­ay, was that he was a Mafia knee­break­er. He was a ruth­less enforcer. I nev­er under­stood why some­one with so much tal­ent and abil­i­ty seemed to be attract­ed to some of the worst men around her.

  • Julie of Australia says:

    By this account, Anslinger was a vicious unbal­anced racist and that some­one such as he could be giv­en that power,-probably unchecked — for so long. So many jazz musi­cians, Char­lie Park­er, Miles Davis, Dinah Wash­ing­ton Chet Bak­er etc all had peri­ods of drug depen­dan­cy as Hero­in etc become more read­i­ly avail­able at the end of WW2.
    Good read­ing here!

  • Alyce says:

    What a heart-break­ing, soul-crush­ing, infor­ma­tive look into what our gov­ern­ment and nation allowed to be per­pe­trat­ed on sure­ly some of the most tal­ent­ed, note­wor­thy peo­ple in the his­to­ry of our coun­try just because they were black. What a ter­ri­ble, idi­ot­ic per­son Anslinger was.

  • Larry Poke says:

    Anslinger went quite a bit fur­ther than sim­ply spread­ing his anti-pot pro­pa­gan­da in the U.S. He trav­eled all over the world, con­vinc­ing many coun­tries that pot was the cause of the unrest. Between he and J.Edgar Hoover their bla­tant racism reached ridicu­lous heights, most of which still exist today. I’ve always been amazed that when the ban on dis­tilled spir­its and beer was lift­ed, mar­i­jua­na was still con­sid­ered in the same light as hero­in and oth­er nar­cotics. While the laws have been relaxed some­what, a major­i­ty of states still con­sid­er it in the same cat­e­go­ry as metham­phet­a­mines and opi­ates. At this time in 2015, a major­i­ty of our nation’s lead­ers are still unin­formed and near­ly rabid about its dis­tri­b­u­tion and use. I’m afraid it’s still an upward bat­tle against intol­er­ance based on igno­rance.

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