The “Easy Living” Lyricist’s Rendezvous with Billie Holiday when she was Banned from NYC
A Memoir on March 26, 2021 by Ann Rower
The first time I heard about the movie The United States vs. Billie Holiday was on The View back in February, my favorite daytime talk show. The guest that day was Andra Day, the wonderful singer who played Billie, her very first acting role ever. Since then she’s gotten a Golden Globe for her performance and was just nominated for best actress at the Oscars. I wondered if my Uncle Leo’s song “Easy Living,” one of Billie’s signature songs was in the movie.
But the real reason the movie struck such a deep chord in me was that I too had a Leo-Billie Holiday story that took place in the same period as the film, one I’d never really shared or even investigated but one which elevated my Uncle Leo even higher in my mind and heart. It made him a hero and a beautiful soul. But the mystery always was how did I know about this story of how Leo and another couple drove out to the end of Long Island to hear Billie Holiday sing one night. In 1947, I wasn’t even 10 years old and this is not the kind of story the family would talk about. Their Leo was not an outlaw. He didn’t do wild impulsive things in the dark of night to show support for another outlaw, no matter how great a singer. It was a puzzlement!
I solved the mystery when I was researching my Uncle Leo for my book, which I was going to call Thanks for the Memory, and trying to interview any living people who knew Leo Robin. There weren’t that many of them left. The most exciting gets were Leo’s dear friend Ira Gershwin’s wife Lee, Broadway legend Carol Channing, legendary musician Michael Feinstein and then there were his friends the Justins, the last people I spoke with. It was Sydney Justin who headed up the legal department at Paramount where Leo knew him when he worked for the studio back in the 30’s and the two became fast friends.
The new film takes place in 1947 when Billie got arrested for possession of heroin and her punishment was that she was forbidden to play in NYC anywhere that served alcohol, which meant everywhere she’d normally perform. At this time, Leo who rarely left California was in NYC beginning work on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which everyone nicknamed “Gentlemen,” though by the time the movie with Marilyn Monroe came out in 1952, it was known simply as “Blondes.” Show-biz!
The Justins and the Robins were best friends and the wives were just as close as their husbands when they lived near one another in Beverly Hills. By the time I met them in 1989, they had retired to Newport Beach. I hung out with Sydney’s wife, Bunty. She shared with me that when Leo found out about Billie’s arrest he also found out that although she couldn’t play in the city, she was performing somewhere all the way out at the end of Long Island, where the law couldn’t reach her. Leo wanted to be there for her, his dear friend, to show support when NYC abandoned her.
So it turned out that the Justins were, in fact, “the other couple” in the story. Bunty told me about the adventure they all had when Leo and his wife Fran and the Justins drove all the way out under cover of darkness to Southampton to see Billie Holiday perform. Billie was thrilled to discover Leo in the audience and she worked his song “Easy Living ” right into the set. Leo was beaming at her the whole time and Billie visited his table afterwards during her break and told them all about her troubles. I always thought this story, as I said before, was kind of moving and heroic in a way, and sweet. Leo being there that night at this terrible time for Billie might have made living just a little bit easier.
About Ann Rower
Ann Rower has written a variety of books including If You’re a Girl, Armed Response, Lee and Elaine. She has many reading and theater credits from around the world including the Nuyorican Poets Café; Pyramid; Women’s Interart Center; Literaturhaus in Berlin, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Cologne; The Kitchen; The Wooster Group; The Poetry Project; The Kennedy Center.
Ann has received many prestigious awards and honors including the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship; Jules and Avery Hopwood Award, National Endowment for the Arts; New York Foundation for the Arts; Phi Beta Kappa; Gary Carey Award, Humanities and Sciences Department, School of Visual Arts.
She graduated magna cum laude with a BA at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; MA, Harvard University; PhD, Columbia University. She taught at the School of Visual Arts for over 30 years.