Ethel and Billie, Again

Guest blog by RFC Founder Robert Meeropol

Six years ago I posted a blog on the RFC website entitled “Strange Convergence” (available here). In it I compared details of the life of my mother, Ethel Rosenberg, to that of Billie Holiday, the singer who made Abel Meeropol’s song, “Strange Fruit,” famous. Ethel and Billie appeared to be an unlikely couple. However, they were both born in poverty in 1915, had excellent singing voices, although Billie’s surpassed Ethel’s, and were precocious.  Ethel graduated high school at 15 and helped lead a victorious strike at 19, while Billie sang in Harlem clubs at 17, and was a successful recording artist by 20. And they both got in trouble with the law, which led to their untimely deaths. Finally, there’s the Abel Meeropol connection; Abel adopted Ethel’s children and wrote Billie’s most famous song.

And now, a new convergence has emerged this year.

Today (February 26th, 2021), Lee Daniel’s film, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, premieres on Hulu.  I viewed an advance copy of the film, and found it to be a powerful anti-lynching and anti-racist statement.

The film dramatizes efforts by government agents to destroy Holiday’s career and life because she refused to stop singing the anti-lynching anthem, “Strange Fruit.”  The film features Andra Day as Billie Holiday, whose powerful performance earned two Golden Globe nominations including one for best actress in a motion picture – drama. She also gives a stunning performance of “Strange Fruit” that ranks among the best performances of the song I’ve ever heard.  Aside from having good politics, the film also provides a multifaceted and nuanced portrayal of Billie Holiday’s life. I believe it is the first film that does Billie Holiday’s life justice.

In June, St. Martin’s Press will publish New York Times best-selling author, Anne Sebba’s new book, Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy.  Anne is a well-known British historical biographer with a strong feminist bent. While she makes clear in her acknowledgements that this is an independent, rather than authorized, biography, my brother and I did cooperate with her and are pleased with the result. 

In 2021, more than six decades after their deaths, Ethel and Billie both are the subjects of major works.  And as with the film about Billie, we finally have a book that does my mother’s life justice.

I encourage members of the RFC community to see the film and read the book; you won’t be disappointed.

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Thanks, Jenn, for this post about Billie and Ethel. I look forward to seeing the movie and reading the book. And thanks for all the great work of the RFC.

"The wheels of the gods grind slowly, but exceeding fine." I have to remember this because it seems such an eternity before justice is accomplished. I am so happy for you and your brother for what artists have, again, produced for you, your brother and the rest of of us humans.

Ethel and Billie were both exceedingly strong women in voice, talent and in spirit...they each had a unique story to share with the world high lighting the significant daily struggles of growing up in a dark and strenuous environment of devastating racism and poverty that continues to this day.......THANK YOU!

love it....thanx for doing this...

in solidarity, Jules

In 1963, as a 19 yr old college student, I attended a Josh White concert at the Berkeley Community Theater. The full house responded to each of his folk songs with robust applause. Then, midway, he sang Strange Fruit. At the end, there was simply a stunned, respectful overwhelming silence. My recollection is that after what seemed like a rather lengthy time, Josh White then resumed his concert.

It was the first time I had heard that song. I don't think any of us in that audience was prepared for it; nevertheless, his performance demanded our attention, and received it.

From time to time, I listen again to that song to be reminded how horribly shameful our past is, and that our past is sadly not yet really past. Sometimes, I listen to Billie Holiday, sometimes to Josh White, and sometimes to Nina Simone.

That song , Strange Fruit, is absolutely haunting. As it well should be.

I remember how excited my parents were when they heard the praise Billie's Strange Fruit was receiving in the early '1950s. I believe they thought the song's reception by the mainstream could be significant in the transformation of white society's understanding of racism and its consequences in the United States. The lynching of Emmett Till brought even more importance to the song's recognition. Even though the song had been around for 6 years, it may very well have contributed to the end of this atrocity in particular.

As I mentioned on the RFFC FB page - Gloria Agrin was Manny Bloch's legal assistant. After Manny's death she married a man who opened a Greenwich Village cafe that was ahead of its time. Why because it was integrated. And Billie sang Strange Fruit there for the first time.

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