Manhattan in Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died”

Billie Holiday at the Club Bali, Washington. PHOTO CREDIT: Ralph F. Seghers c/o Ken Seghers. This photo is licensed under the the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

“and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing”1

In his poem “The Day Lady Died,” Frank O’Hara never names the woman whose death announcement stops him in his tracks as he runs errands around Manhattan, preparing for a dinner date on a July afternoon in 1959. He merely alludes to the woman’s nickname (Lady Day) in the poem’s title and instead lists the names of all the places he visits in the course of this particular afternoon: a shoeshine stand, a diner, a bank, a bookshop, a liquor store, a tobacconist’s at the Ziegfeld Theatre. The last is where he buys a New York Post with the jazz singer Billie Holiday’s face on the cover and the news of her death. The news changes O’Hara’s focus and the mood of his poem, which goes from breezy to elegiac with a stanza break—as gracefully as the rhythm changes in a jazz song. In the last stanza O’Hara drops one more place name: the 5 Spot Café, where O’Hara once heard Holiday sing. O’Hara’s poem has been discussed by scholars for its supposed commentary on everything from American consumerism to the mass production of art to “authenticity.” But the poem is as much about how place becomes entangled with emotion and art and how seamlessly Holiday’s music was a part of the New York City landscape.

The places named in O’Hara’s poem are all located in Manhattan in New York City. As with Billie Holiday—who was only 44 when she died in Harlem of congestive heart failure—most of the places named are long gone. The Golden Griffin closed in the 1970s. The Ziegfeld Theatre (on the corner of 6th Avenue and 54th Street) was razed in 1966. The 5 Spot Café, a Bowery jazz club that was a hotspot for jazz artists and aficionados in the ‘50s, closed in the ‘60s. (A second 5 Spot on St. Mark’s Place closed in the ‘70s.) O’Hara too is gone, having died in 1966 at the age of 40 in a beach accident on Fire Island. Today, Billie Holiday is considered one of the 20th-century’s greatest singers, influential to singers of pop and rock as well as jazz. Frank O’Hara’s popularity and influence as a leader of the “New York School” of poets have likewise grown since his death. Places change, people come and go, but art endures.

Read the complete “The Day the Lady Died” and a biography of Frank O’Hara on Poetry Foundation. Read “Frank O’Hara riffing at the Five-Spot” on Jazz Riffing on a Lost Worcester. Read more about Billy Holiday and the 5 Spot Café on Wikipedia. Find Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems at a http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/859192401 or on Amazon.

1O’Hara Frank. “The Day Lady Died.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. September 15, 2014. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171368.

René Ostberg is a native Chicagoan who still resides in Illinois. She writes a travel blog called Writing and Wayfaring (www.writingandwayfaring.blogspot.com). Her writing and photography have been featured or are forthcoming at Eunoia Review, Literary Orphans, Rockwell’s Camera Phone, Wilderness House Literary Review, We Said Go Travel, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica blog.

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