Anita O’Day, close to dying from just about everything, sent me her Buddhist prayer-book. John Poole, her old drummer of thirty-two years, delivered it. John is one of those rare individuals who has the grace to pay homage to a monument while it is still breathing. He and his wife Elaine, Christians in every sense of the term, have cared lovingly for Anita throughout the long years of her professional decline.
So now I’ve got her prayerbook and especially since I remember her so fondly, I am delighted to receive it.
It’s been nearly half a century since I saw her. She performed at a supper-club out on Roosevelt Boulevard in what was then the outskirts of Philadelphia but which by now has surely been swallowed up in the city’s ravenous maw.
She stood obelisk and exquisite in a strapless, black velvet sheath, with a tennis-bracelet circle of what looked in the spotlight to be diamonds around her upper left arm. She sang and the world disappeared. There was only the music.
I remember so clearly how she took Patti Page’s signature song, “The Tennessee Waltz”, lured it into a plaintive, minor key, lavished her talent upon it and transformed it from tripe to tragedy. The deed was not mere magic. It was transcendental, a ritualized conversion of profane to sacred.
Only a small cluster of women have had this strange power: Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, Elis Regina, Anita O’Day and Janis Joplin. Piaf, the French Sparrow, tapped our bone marrow with a desperate aging whore’s bravado in her trenchant “Milord”; Holiday lamented “Yesterdays” so sorrowfully that the earth itself wanted to reverse direction; Brazil’s Elis Regina cried out to the Sails of Mucuripe and made us suspect it would require an ocean if ever we were to be cleansed; and the galvanic Joplin, who summed up Zen’s philosophy in a single line from “Me and Bobby McGee”. Yes, Janis, Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. We call it non-attachment, the blessedness of total poverty.
Who are these women, these muses of music whose small selves were so fragile yet so troublesome that it was necessary to sacrifice them, to immolate them with booze and heroin on the altar of Divine Art? How afraid they were of scarring their greater Self with the mundane excoriations of ordinary relationships. We ought to understand. A squabble at work can send us limping to Jack Daniels or to some tranquilizing pills. A petty argument can make us pray for help to make it through the night. But these women suffered from nothing petty. It was always grand. It had to be grand. They were divas of desolation.
Ariadne, a princess of Crete, fell in love with Theseus who was about to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, a monstrous half-man, half-bull creature who dwelled within a labyrinth. Always, the great beast’s victims would scurry in confusion trying to find a way out, but they would be lost in the maze and he would corner, kill and feed upon them. Ariadne could not bear to think that Theseus would meet this fate and so, ignoring her society’s demands, a defiance that would exact terrible punishment, she gave Theseus the secret of survival in exchange for his pledge to carry her away to his kingdom and marry her. She gave him a ball of thread which he unraveled as he was led deep inside the labyrinth and after killing the sleeping beast, he retraced the string and found his way out.
Ariadne, now an alien in her own land, departed with him, but he, in the perfect perfidy of Samsara, had no further need of her and dumped her unceremoniously on the island of Naxos. (Curious how the antidote for heroin overdose is called Naloxone.) Abandoned and hopeless, Ariadne wailed to heaven. “I sing,” said Joplin, “and make love to fifty thousand people; and then I go home alone.”
Dionysus, savior god in whose honor drama was created, and wine, too, heard the wail of Ariadne and came to her in her despair. Loving the beauty of her great soul, he gave her a crown of stars. And when she died, he, disconsolate, threw the lovely diadem into the sky. The circlet is still there: the Corona Borealis.
I don’t know if Anita O’Day found refuge in the Buddha. Her prayerbook is musty and doesn’t seem to be much read. Perhaps, influenced by the exemplary care of John and Elaine Poole, she has found comfort with the Prince of Peace in the Kingdom Within.
There are seven stars in the Corona Borealis. Four of them are named Elis, Janis, Edith and Billie. When Anita leaves us, she’ll be the fifth.
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