Billie Holiday the d’Orly airport, Paris, photographed by Jean-Pierre Leloir, 1958. (Photo Image and Caption via Abongond)
I was listening to “On The Media” a couple of weeks ago and the episode was on the topic of America’s long and costly War on Drugs. One of the segments focused on Harry J. Anslinger, the first commisioner of the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics. One of the hosts, Brooke Gladstone, interviewed Alexandra Chasin, author of Assassin of Youth: A Kaleidoscopic History of Harry J. Anslinger’s War on Drugs. Here’s part of the interview transcript:
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From the late 19th century into the 20th, most opiate addicts were middle-aged middle and upper class women but, as would happen ever after, the new drug laws were far more about race than drugs. So as itinerant workers and urban African Americans became another visible group of drug users, the laws grew harsher. The Harrison Act of 1914 was passed, the first to link drugs and criminality. It came down hard on habituated drug users and their physicians, turning them both into criminals overnight.
ALEXANDRA CHASIN: Tens of thousands of cases in which physicians were tried for prescribing maintenance levels of drugs. The Feds were opposed to this use of narcotics and the Harrison Act created the doctors as the first dealers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And all this brings us then to Harry Anslinger, who is the first commissioner of the Bureau of Narcotics, and he’s there from 1930 to 1962, through five presidencies.
ALEXANDRA CHASIN: Anslinger was a very effective bureaucrat. He didn’t have any substantive background in the problem of drugs. His background was in prohibition.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The child of the temperance movement, according to his creed, only the depraved drank booze. Those with strong moral constitutions did not.
ALEXANDRA CHASIN: He carried with him a bunch of ideas into office and he turned them into the foundation of prohibitionist drug policy and law.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Throughout the Great Depression, Anslinger’s op-eds and speeches presented narcotics as the agents of certain death dispatched by alien aggressors. By this calculation, drug dealers were not just venal, they were evil.
HARRY J. ANSLINGER: The Treasury Department intends to pursue a relentless warfare against the despicable dope-peddling vulture who preys on the weakness of his fellow man.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Anslinger focused his crusading lens on one drug in particular, one grown naturally across the nation, known at the time by such names as hop, gage, mez, juju, muggle, tea and reefer. But he claimed it had been newly introduced to our shores by Mexican laborers.
ALEXANDRA CHASIN: He put marijuana on the map. It didn’t really exist before as a social problem, and so he got to define the problem. In fact, marijuana wasn’t marijuana at the time. Anslinger is responsible for that coinage, which has the effect of linking cannabis with Latinos.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Not only was he certain that it corrupted youth and increased crime, he also saw criminalizing pot as a means to revive his dwindling agency. When alcohol was legalized in 1933, the funding of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was slashed. Since alcohol was being rehabilitated, Anslinger needed a new threat to combat. He dramatized the marijuana threat in a widely-read article called, “Assassin of Youth.”
ALEXANDRA CHASIN: I’d like to read from the beginning of “Assassin of Youth.” “Not long ago, the body of a young girl lay crushed on the sidewalk after a plunge from a Chicago apartment window. Everyone called it suicide but, actually, it was murder.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Da-duh!
ALEXANDRA CHASIN: The killer was a narcotic known to America as marijuana and to history as hashish.” It makes all of Harry’s most typical moves. Right at the beginning, we have, again, the threat to white women realized.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And on the hells of “Assassin of Youth” came a movie.
MAN: The truth is that every reefer is loaded with immorality and bestial perversions, brutality, murder, sex crimes, insanity or suicide.
Wait, weed is a gateway drug to bestiality???? Why does these slippery slopes always slide down to beastiality on the way to Hell? Always?!? Anyway, I’m going to include the trailer for “Assassin of Youth” here because… it’s hilarious. And weird.
Back to the transcript:
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Anslinger’s anti-pot propaganda yielded a major policy shift. In 1937, Congress effectively criminalized the drug with the Marijuana Tax Act. Still, his rhetoric did draw criticism, so he doubled down by publicly denouncing conflicting medical research.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Most of his racism was betrayed through his draconian enforcement, his coded rhetoric and the policies within the Bureau; he didn’t let the few black agents he had upstairs. But, boy, if you want to see jazz as a stand-in for black, did he hate jazz.
[JAZZ MUSIC UP & UNDER]
He said the lives of jazzmen reeked of filth and that the music sounded like the jungles of the night.
ALEXANDRA CHASIN: And it reeked of something else, as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coloreds with big lips, he told Congress, lure white women with jazz and marijuana. Anslinger set his sights on persecuting several musicians, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington.
JOHANN HARI: If you want to understand Harry Anslinger, the most influential person who no one’s ever heard of, and you want to understand the origins of the war on drugs, I think you have to look at the story of what he did to Billie Holiday.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.
JOHANN HARI: In 1939, Billie Holiday worked onstage in a hotel in Manhattan Midtown where she wasn’t even allowed to walk through the front door ‘cause she was African American and they made her go through the service elevator. And she sang the song that your listeners are gonna know. It’s called “Strange Fruit.” It’s a song against lynching.
BILLIE HOLIDAY, SINGING:
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
JOHANN HARI: That night, Billie holiday received a warning from Harry Anslinger’s men, and it basically said, stop singing this song.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What did it have to do with the war on drugs?
JOHANN HARI: To Harry Anslinger, Billie holiday was like the symbol of everything that America had to be afraid of. She had a heroin addiction because she’d been chronically raped as a child and she was trying to deal with the grief and the pain of that. And also, she was resisting white supremacy. And when she insisted on continuing on her right as an American citizen to sing “Strange Fruit,” Anslinger resolves to destroy her.
You have to understand that he was regarded as an extreme racist in the 1920s. He used the N word so often in official memos that his own senators said he should have to resign. So although he hated employing African Americans, he employs a man called Jimmy Fletcher. He was what they called a bagman. And for two years, Jimmy Fletcher stalks Billie Holiday, on Harry Anslinger’s orders. Jimmy Fletcher fell in love with her and his whole life he felt ashamed of what he did next. He busts her. She was convicted. She’s sent to prison. She gets out. And to perform anywhere where alcohol was served you needed what was called a cabaret performer’s license. And Harry Anslinger makes sure she doesn’t get a cabaret performer’s license, and they take away singing from Billie Holiday. She naturally relapses. Of course, how could she not? And a few years later, she actually collapsed in Manhattan. She’s taken to hospital. She says to one of her friends, Maely Dufty, they’re gonna kill me in there. She’s convinced that Anslinger’s men are not finished with her.
She’s diagnosed with very advanced liver cancer and she starts to go into heroin withdrawal. So she’s given methadone and she starts to recover. And then Anslinger’s men cut it off.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Federal Bureau of Narcotics agents fingerprinted Holiday, took her mug shot in bed and grilled her without a lawyer present. Not long after, on July 17th, 1959, Billie Holiday died in that hospital bed.
Billie Holliday leaving a police station after being arrested on drug charges in 1956. (Image Source)
I’ve always found Billie Holiday’s life exceedingly tragic. Born to a 13 year old mom, no father, poor, forced out of school and into prostituion as a young teen to eat, raped repeatedly… it’s an actual horror story. But that end, handcuffed to a hospital bed? As if she were a murderer? Heartbreaking. At the close of the segment, we learn Anslinger’s end:
JOHANN HARI: My favorite hypocrisy about Harry Anslinger is later in his life he developed angina and the doctor prescribed him really powerful opiates.
He took them very happily, and I sometimes wonder, when he first injected himself with opiates, years after Billie Holiday had died, did he think about Billie Holiday, did she cross his mind? I sometimes wonder about that.
I wonder, too. You can listen to the segment in it’s entirety here.
Billie Holiday in her casket at her 1959 funeral. (Image Source)
To learn more about Billie’s life and music, check out this BBC 4 documentary:
Or to hear the haunting “Strange Fruit”: