If Billie Holiday and Ethel Rosenberg were alive, they’d both celebrate their 100th birthdays this year. At first glance they may seem an unlikely couple, but a closer look reveals surprising parallels.
They were each born into poverty six months and a hundred miles apart. Billie in April 1915 in Philadelphia, and Ethel in September in lower Manhattan. Both had extraordinary singing voices, although Billie’s vocal genius eclipsed Ethel’s. Still, Ethel’s teachers considered her voice so special that they called her out of class to sing the national anthem at assemblies.
Both girls were precocious. Ethel graduated high school at 15 and tried to pursue a singing and acting career. At the height of The Great Depression, she could only find work as a clerk-typist in New York’s garment district. There she helped organize and lead a strike at 19. Billie was singing in clubs in Harlem at 17, and made her mark as a recording artist before she was 20.
Both got in trouble with the law. Billie first ran afoul of powerful forces for singing “Strange Fruit,” the anti-lynching anthem. Her performances generated threats, even riots. Josh White also sang the song and was questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy period. He bowed to their demands that he stop. Billie defiantly refused and continued singing “Strange Fruit.” Many believe that her resistance led law enforcement to hound and arrest her in 1947 for drug possession. She served almost a year in prison, and her conviction disrupted her career for the rest of her life.
In 1950 Ethel was arrested with her husband Julius and charged with Conspiracy to Commit Espionage; they were convicted and sentenced to death. The government knew she had not committed espionage, but they held her as a hostage to coerce her husband into cooperating with the authorities. She refused to confess to something she did not do and backed her husband’s refusal to implicate others. The FBI files never claimed she was guilty, but consistently described her as “cognizant and recalcitrant.”
You might conclude that Billie and Ethel had similar talents and defied similar enemies.
Both died prematurely, victimized by law enforcement. Ethel was executed in 1953 at age 37, and Billie died in a hospital bed at age 44, while awaiting arraignment after another drug arrest.
Billie and Ethel followed different paths in life and probably never met, but they converged in death. High school English teacher, poet, and songwriter Abel Meeropol wrote “Strange Fruit” after seeing a photograph of a lynching. He played it for Billie Holiday in 1939, when she was performing at Cafe Society and she subsequently began performing it.
Fourteen years later, Abel helped carry Ethel Rosenberg’s coffin to her grave site. Within a year, Abel and his wife Anne had adopted Ethel and Julius’ sons. The man who abhorred lynching and wrote one of the most iconic songs in Billie Holiday’s repertoire, adopted Ethel’s orphans, my brother Michael and me.
In 2015, the centennial year of both of their births, we remember Billie Holiday for singing about lynching, and we remember Ethel Rosenberg for being legally lynched.
Robert Meeropol is the younger son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and founder of the Rosenberg Fund for Children (www.rfc.org), a foundation he started in his parent’s honor to help the children of today’s targeted activists.