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The Story Behind the Writing of "Strange Fruit."

Contributing editor for Vanity Fair David Margolick. In his new book “Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights” (Running Press), Margolick traces the history and impact of the song “Strange Fruit,” a ballad about lynchings which became Billie Holiday’s signature song. It was written by a Jewish school teacher who was inspired to write the song after seeing a newspaper photograph of a lynching.


Other segments from the episode on April 19, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 19, 2000: Interview with Mary Harron; Review of Bob Dorough's album "Too Much Coffee Man"; Interview with David Margolick.


Date: APRIL 19, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 041901np.217
Head: Director Mary Harron Discusses 'American Psycho'
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with FRESH AIR.

On today's FRESH AIR, "American Psycho." We talk with Mary Harron about writing and directing her new film adaptation of the controversial Bret Easton Ellis novel. It's about a prince of Wall Street who wears and buys all the right things but is really a monster who murders women.

Our film critic, John Powers, described the movie as "the best possible adaptation of a novel famous for being despised."

Also, the history of "Strange Fruit," the ballad about lynching made famous by Billie Holiday. We talk with David Margolick about his new book about the song.

And jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews "Too Much Coffee, Man," the new CD by singer Bob Dorough.

That's all coming up on FRESH AIR.

First, the news.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Mary Harron, directed and co-wrote the new movie adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel, "American Psycho." She also directed the movie "I Shot Andy Warhol."

"American Psycho" is about a 26-year-old prince of Wall Street in the 1980s who dresses in the right suits, applies daily facials, and has beautiful living room furniture and an attractive girlfriend. Although everything in his exterior life is perfectly controlled, he's going mad, murdering women in gruesome ways that were explicitly described in the book.

Our film critic, John Powers, said, "Bret Easton Ellis's novel was intended to satirize Reagan-era greed, but he wrote it so ineptly that it was merely vile. Its idea has been redeemed by Harron, who specializes in brainy, aestheticized versions of tabloid material."

Here's a scene from the movie in which the main character, Patrick Bateman, played by Christian Bale, is showing his new business card to his colleagues, hoping to show them up.


CHRISTIAN BALE, ACTOR: New card. What do you think?

ACTOR: Oho, very nice. Look at that.

BALE: Picked them up from the printer's yesterday.

ACTOR: Good coloring.

BALE: That's bone. And the lettering is something called Silian Braille (ph).

ACTOR: It's very cool, Bateman, but that's nothing. Look at this.

BALE: That is really nice.

ACTOR: Eggshell with Ramalian (ph) type. What do you think?

BALE: Nice. Jesus, that is really super. How'd a nitwit like you get so tasteful?

ACTOR: I can't believe that Bryce prefers Van Patten's card to mine.

ACTOR: But wait. You ain't seen nothin' yet. Raised lettering, pale nimbus, white.

BALE: Impressive. Very nice.

Let's see Paul Allen's card. Boy, that subtle off-white coloring. That tasteful (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Oh, my God, he even has a watermark.


GROSS: "American Psycho" is about the extremes some people go to in order to be or at least look successful. Bateman lives in a world of perfect surfaces, but inside he's a monster, and in that sense, Mary Harron sees her movie as a horror film.

MARY HARRON, DIRECTOR, "AMERICAN PSYCHO": Part of it's sort of his disintegration into further madness, and it's also, I suppose, about how he tries -- this man who is deformed, who has nothing there -- he's got this terrible void, he's just not a human being -- how he constructs his surface identity so that he passes, kind of -- you know, he hides his monstrousness with -- by wearing, you know, the perfect clothes and the perfect, you know -- having, you know -- being in all the right restaurants.

So I think -- I guess that's what it is to me.

GROSS: Now, the novel "American Psycho" was boycotted by NOW in Los Angeles for its gruesome violence against women. How do you think the movie adaptation compares to the novel?

HARRON: Well, it's much less violent. I wasn't really interested in portraying the more, you know, graphic aspects of the novel. I didn't -- and also, I didn't think it would work on film. I mean, you know, film is obviously, you know, more powerful medium in that sense, and a little goes a long way.

But I think that the -- you know, the book always had very strong elements of social satire that got overlooked totally at the time it was published. I think it's been recognized in the years since as a kind of quite brilliant, you know, social analysis of the late '80s.

GROSS: How do you think your portrayal of sex compares to the portrayal in the film?

HARRON: There's only one big sex scene in the film, and that's the one that got this censorship problem. In the novel, it's, I think -- or I've always taken it to be, clearly a sort of pornographic fantasy, because it's about a man with two prostitutes, one a street prostitute, the other a sort of expensive escort girl. And he's paying for sex, but he writes in the first person in the novel about this sexual encounter, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) it's an incredibly hot sexual scene.

And (UNINTELLIGIBLE) when I read it, I thought, oh, this is a sort of hilarious, you know, parody, really, because it's written like one of those pornographic fantasies in a men's magazine. But it clearly is not real. The prostitutes, you know, who are being paid to have sex do not react like that.

So when I was directing it, I had a different task. I had to show that it was him trying to recreate a fantasy. So I had Christian Bale, who plays Patrick Bateman, the main character, looking in the mirror the whole time while he's having sex with these girls, and he's just ordering them around in a kind of curt way, and they look kind of bored and disconnected.

And it's a disturbing scene, because it's about sex as a transaction, and it's about, in a way, both the banality and the bleakness of that kind of sex.

GROSS: It's also, I think, about sex as an act of narcissism on his part. It's like, Oh, how do I look? (laughs)

HARRON: Yes, yes, always is. See, it's not -- it's not at all a sexy scene, kind of put you off, I think. But for some reason the censors focused on that, and we had to take about 20 seconds out of it.

GROSS: Now, it's funny, you know, the character at the center here is a man who is satirized for the kinds of obsessions that we usually associate with women -- having the right clothes, the right home furnishings, the right facial cosmetics, a great-looking body, dinner reservations at the right restaurants. I mean, in your standard satire, it would be a woman who had those problems, not a man?

HARRON: Well, that's what I liked about the novel so much was that Bret had caught the vanity and narcissism of these very macho Wall Street guys, these -- they're all mergers and acquisitions, you know, executives. And, you know, they think of themselves, as, you know, incredibly, you know, trusting alpha males. But they act like teenaged girls. You know, they backbite, they -- you know, one of them leaves the table and the other one says, Oh, he looks puffy, I guess he hasn't been working out, you know. They're incredibly competitive and insecure.

And I thought that Bret -- I've never seen (UNINTELLIGIBLE) capture that aspect of that kind of machismo society. But there is, you know, there's a kind of a homoerotic undercurrent to it as well. But I felt like that -- it seemed pretty devastating -- devastatingly accurate to me.

GROSS: Now, the novel "American Psycho" was criticized as anti-woman, and it's paradoxical, I suppose, that it's been adapted by two feminists, you know, you and your screenwriting collaborator, Guinevere (ph) Turner, who made the movie "Go Fish," which is about a young lesbian woman.

HARRON: Well, you know, there can be a very literal-minded judgment on content, I think, today in books and films, that if something is a portrait of misogyny, it is taken to be misogynist itself. The book is guilty of what it is portraying. And political groups like NOW, who are very effective politically, are sometimes, I think, very conservative and literal minded in their judgments of art, or in this case were.

I mean, the book does have some, you know, terrible scenes of violence I didn't much like reading myself. But that doesn't mean that its intention was misogynist.

GROSS: You mentioned that the sex scene in the movie, in which he's having sex with a prostitute and a woman who works for an escort service, ran into censorship problems. Was this the rating that you're talking about?

HARRON: Yes. It was -- originally they wanted -- they tried to give it NC-17, and then I trimmed a few seconds out of that scene and was given an R rating.

GROSS: What did you have to trim out?

HARRON: Just the -- just a little bit of the more explicit sexual stuff. It's not a very explicit scene, but, you know, pelvic grinding, I guess you'd say.

GROSS: Uh-huh. And how did you feel about losing that? Did you feel like you sacrificed the integrity of the scene, or was it OK to lose it?

HARRON: I wasn't happy about it. But I felt better than I would have if I'd had to cut the whole scene. And in Europe and Canada, it's going out uncut, so that's a great compensation.

GROSS: So your alternative was to cut a little or cut the whole scene. The alternative wasn't to leave it alone and get the NC-17 rating?

HARRON: Well, if you get an NC-17 rating, it effectively destroys your film, because you can't -- there's many theater chains won't show it, Blockbuster Video won't stock it. You know, any film of any kind of budget at all just can't afford to do that.

GROSS: Mary Harron is my guest. She co-wrote and directed the new screen adaptation of "American Psycho." She also wrote and directed "I Shot Andy Warhol."

When the main character in "American Psycho" brings women to his apartment to have sex and then murder them, he plays his favorite CDs by people like Huey Lewis and the News and, oh, Phil -- what's his name...

HARRON: Phil Collins.

GROSS: ... Phil Collins, yes. And he gives these little lectures about them. Now, I know you used to be a rock critic before becoming a filmmaker. And I'm wondering if the things that he says in the movie is inspired either by bad rock criticism or press releases.

HARRON: Well, I have to say, I would love to take credit for these things. I didn't -- you know, that's all in the book. There -- one of the things that made me warm to the book was, he'll follow some quite, you know, horrifying scene with an entire chapter of music criticism, completely out of context. It's just there in the middle -- in the center of the novel, he'll suddenly write a whole chapter about Huey Lewis.

And it's very funny -- it's a very funny parody of rock criticism, but it's also revealing about Bateman, because in these kind of upbeat, mainstream pop songs, it's the only place where Bateman actually shows emotion, where he seems to find a reflection of his own soul, and he finds depth and meaning in Huey Lewis and Phil Collins.

GROSS: Now, it's very important for the main character in this movie to have the right fashions and the right home furnishings. This is how he defines himself, this is what he lives for. So did you want the clothes and furnishings to really say 1980s, or did you want them to be a little more timeless so that they could say now as well as then?

HARRON: No, I was very specific about wanting everything to be late '80s. In fact, it was quite an ordeal, because the late -- you know, the late '80s have not yet become a period that people collect. So actually finding things like late '80s cell phones or, you know, video recorders is not easy.

GROSS: What about the living room of his apartment?

HARRON: Well, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- I told Gideon Ponte (ph), the production designer, that I wanted it to look like a page out of "Architectural Digest," you know, in 1987. So it's minimalism, lot of white, lot of black matte, you know, stereo equipment. And then the kitchen is stainless -- all stainless steel, because I liked the stainless steel because it made it look like a morgue, you know, it's kind of sinister. And the apartment looks totally unlived-in.

GROSS: Christian Bale plays the main character of Patrick Bateman. What did you tell Bale about how you wanted him to portray the character?

HARRON: Well, we talked a lot about it over a long period. We -- it's a difficult part to play, because it's not a naturalistic character, it's not psychologically realistic. No one like Patrick Bateman has ever or ever will exist. He's kind of a construct, you know, he's symbolic, really.

But at the same time, you have to make him believable on the screen. So Christian and I talked about Patrick Bateman as being like a Martian who had come to earth who just didn't -- who was pretending very hard to be a human being, but inside was nothing of the kind. And Christian says it's difficult, because most -- you know, in most performances you're trying to hide the fact that you're acting, but here you had to display it, because that was the whole point. His whole life is a performance.

GROSS: After you had cast Christian Bale as the main character in "American Psycho," the movie production company wanted to sign Leonardo DiCaprio in the role. Why did they want to make that change?

HARRON: Well, I think, you know, he was a biggest star in the world. I guess you can't blame him -- blame them at the time. But I had already cast Christian, and I felt very committed to him. And I also thought that it was a mistake to make it a big -- a huge-budget movie with a big star, because you can't really afford to make a risky movie on that scale. And "American Psycho" is a risky movie in many ways.

The riskiest thing about it, I think, is not the violence, because it's not particularly violent in a graphic sense. But the main character is somebody that people would consider extremely unsympathetic. You know, most stories about, you know, a serial killer, a murderer, you know, you make the detective the main character. But in this, you know, you do focus on Patrick Bateman, and that's an unusual move in films.

GROSS: I think DiCaprio would have made $20 million had he signed for this. That's what he was being offered?

HARRON: Yes. And, you know, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the whole budget of the movie that we -- that Christian and I made was under $10 million.

GROSS: Right. So when the company -- when the movie company told you that they wanted DiCaprio in the movie, before you knew that he was going to sign for "The Beach" instead, what did you do? Did you say, Then I'm out? Or, Well, you know, we'll see what happens? I mean, how did you handle it?

HARRON: I just said -- I just disagreed very vehemently, and at that point they'd wanted me to meet with -- and I didn't particularly want to use Leonardo, because I felt that would just compromise my position.

And, you know, they -- I think they didn't particularly want to keep me at that point, because with a bigger star, they wanted a bigger director anyway.

GROSS: So are there any movie-making lessons you've learned from this experience?

HARRON: I guess, you know, it is a great lesson, because, you know, it was my project, and, you know, the script that I had co-written and had shepherded and helped sell, you know, had gone round to many companies trying to sell it with them, with the producers. I think it's amazing how expendable one is. You know, you should never imagine that you're not expendable.

(UNINTELLIGIBLE), I think I did the right thing. At the time, I, you know, I couldn't be sure. But I think if you're a director and you care very much about a project, and you think that the casting is going in the wrong way, and that you will lose control of the project, even if you stay on the film, it probably won't -- it'll be a disaster, you know. And I think that the person who suffers the most in those cases is the director. You know, it's not worth it.

GROSS: Mary Harron will be back after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Mary Harron is my guest. She directed the new movie "American Psycho," which she also co-wrote, and she wrote and directed the earlier film "I Shot Andy Warhol."

Your earlier film, "I Shot Andy Warhol," has something in common with "American Psycho." Both films are about people who are mentally ill, and willing to kill, or at least try to kill. Your film "I Shot Andy Warhol" is based on the true story of Valerie Solanis (ph), who shot Andy Warhol and nearly killed him, but, you know, fortunately he survived that shooting.

What interested you in her story?

HARRON: "I Shot Andy Warhol" is the story of someone who is as much driven mad by the society as they are, you know, intrinsically mad, I think. I was interested in her isolation, and that she had this sort of mad but visionary quality in her writing, that her critique of sexual politics, which is very extreme, you know, obviously, and itself also kind of satirical, but was remarkably prescient. And she said things in, like, 1966, '67, people weren't saying for years, until years later.

And it -- this was -- sort of obviously had a vision of how she felt the world really worked that ran totally counter what everyone in society was telling her, which was that men were superior to women. And in a way, that drove her mad. And I think she had, you know, schizophrenia, I mean, I think she was -- she had madness in her.

But I found her story more poignant. I think it was someone who, in a way, also was born at the wrong time. If she had been born 10 years later, she might have found a much more sympathetic environment.

Patrick Bateman is a very different character. He's -- you know, he seems on the surface to be absolutely at the center of his world, you know, to be one of its finest specimens. And inside he's, you know, this sort of monster.

GROSS: Where were you in the late 1980s when "American Psycho" is set?

HARRON: Well, I was working in television, documentaries, in Britain, and I guess I -- before that, I'd been a struggling freelance journalist, so it was the only time I -- you know, first time I had ever made any money. So I was probably a yuppie myself, you know. I don't think you can satirize something if you haven't been a part of it.

And I was working in Britain, but we would do a lot of filming trips to New York, which would mean, you know, staying in hotels and being on expense accounts. And so I did see some restaurants and some nightclubs, and got a view of the stuff that we'd later be reconstructing.

GROSS: Now, I understand that your father, Don Harron, was a Canadian actor and comedian?

HARRON: Oh, or is.

GROSS: Is, OK, yes.

HARRON: Still around.

GROSS: What kind of work did he or does he do? I don't know if most Americans would be aware of it.

HARRON: Well, actually, he was on "Hee-Haw" for about 18 years, so I think a lot of Americans would be. He played one of the characters on "Hee-Haw." I mean, he lived in Canada, but he used to fly down to Nashville. And he played the guy behind the radio desk on "Hee-Haw." And then he did, you know, my dad did movies, he did classical theater, he did all kinds of things. But for the -- for many Americans, that's where they would know him from.

GROSS: Did his being in the entertainment business lead you into movie making at all?

HARRON: No, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) I was -- I started out as a journalist, so I guess it -- I mean, obviously -- I think when I started directing, you know, film, I realized that I was very comfortable with actors, and I'm sure that, you know, being brought up, you know, being the daughter of an actor helped. But originally I was -- thought I'd be a writer, I think partly because when I was growing up, there weren't any women film directors that I knew of. And I don't think it really ever occurred to me that I could be one until much later.

GROSS: Now, you're very pregnant right now.

HARRON: Yes. (laughs)

GROSS: You due very soon?

HARRON: Yes, in a month.

GROSS: And how has that affected your ability to work?

HARRON: Think?

GROSS: Yes, or to work?

HARRON: Well, fortunately, I didn't -- you know, I got pregnant after we finished shooting, thank God. I mean, I know women have made -- Nancy Savoka (ph), I think made two movies when she was pregnant, and I don't know how she did it, because it's so physically demanding. I got pregnant while I was editing, and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) had to tell my editor that I -- you know, that I was pregnant, because I kept falling asleep at the editing room.

And, you know, luckily I had the editing -- we'd actually hired editing facilities in my building, and so I was able to run upstairs and take a nap.

You know, it's -- it's strange having two different -- you know, being so involved in both a film and a baby, but that's part of having, you know, I think, a family if you're a woman director anyway, or a woman anything.

GROSS: And of course, you know, you're carrying this baby at the same time that you're making this movie about somebody who's really quite gruesome. (laughs)


GROSS: In the act that he commits. Did that affect you at all?

HARRON: I don't know...

GROSS: Some people, when they're pregnant, they just want to expose, you know, the baby that they're carrying to, you know, calming sounds and beautiful (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

HARRON: Yes, well, that was not an option for me, because, you know, I had to do all my sound editing, and, you know, I would be sitting there in the -- in this -- in the final mix, you know, with the chainsaw sequence, where we'd have to do it over and over and over again. So sometimes I would just go and sit in the outside lobby, you know, just to -- because I would start feeling kicks.

So, yes, I mean, I sort of regretted that. But on the other hand, I don't feel that as a woman or as a mother, that I'm just going to make sort of lovely films, or that I won't tackle violence, that I won't tackle the harsher side of things. I don't think just because you've children -- you know, I think having children changes, you know, one's life enormously, but it doesn't mean that it should change your whole artistic sensibility, necessarily.

GROSS: Well, Mary Harron, I thank you very much for talking with us, and good luck with your new baby.

HARRON: Thank you.

GROSS: And your new movie.

HARRON: Thanks.

GROSS: Mary Harron co-wrote and directed the film "American Psycho."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Coming up, the history of "Strange Fruit," the song about lynching made famous by Billie Holiday. And Kevin Whitehead reviews the new CD by Bob Dorough.



Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Mary Harron
High: Film director Mary Harron talks about her latest project, "American Psycho," which is based on the controversial novel by Bret Easton Ellis about a murderous and misogynistic young man on Wall Street. Harron previously directed the film "I Shot Andy Warhol."
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; Wall Street

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Director Mary Harron Discusses 'American Psycho'

Date: APRIL 19, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 041902NP.217
Head: Jazz Critic Reviews Singer-Songwriter Bob Dorough's Latest CD
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:30

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Singer-songwriter Bob Dorough's fans include Lena Horne and Dennis Hopper. Dorough jammed with beeboppers in the 1950s when he also worked as accompanist to Lenny Bruce and Sugar Ray Robinson. Later he became the only vocalist ever to record with Miles Davis.

In the '70s, Dorough became musical director for and chief voice of Saturday morning TV's "School House Rock" shorts, which aimed at teaching kids reading and multiplication. That 12-year gig gave him more exposure than he ever got with his own records, which were all on little labels, until three years ago, when he made his first for a major label.

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews its sequel.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, JAZZ CRITIC: "The Coffee Song" by Bob Hilliard and Dick Miles, as sung by Bob Dorough.

According to a leading medical association, some symptoms of caffeine overdose include restlessness, excitability, twitching, and a rambling flow of thought and speech. Bob Dorough's new CD on Blue Note is called "Too Much Coffee, Man."


WHITEHEAD: No decaf? Bob Dorough, you're an advertisement for decaf. He says that song is about a friend of his. Uh-huh.

These days, Dorough's often tagged as an aging hipster on a mission to cheer folks up, sort of a jazz Mark Russell. But Dorough can win you over even if you didn't learn your times tables from "School House Rock." The thing is, how does he do it?

He has the modest voice of a songwriter pushing his own songs even when singing someone else's. Whenever he sings a note out of his normal speaking range, he sounds half asphyxiated. His timing and intonation are on the beam, but the impression he gives of barely hanging on is a big part of his appeal. It's almost like he's stumbled on stage by mistake and decided to go for it.


WHITEHEAD: Bob Dorough's beebop credentials are in order, but he was also a behind-the-scenes force in '60s folk and pop music. He arranged for the Chad Mitchell Trio, for the foul-mouthed hippie poets the Fuggs (ph) on their big-budget masterpiece, "It Crawled Into My Hand, Honest," and for the harmony group "Spanky and Our Gang," who covered this Dorough tune, derived from an unlikely text. This is from his version of "Love, Webster's Definition."


WHITEHEAD: They say some singers have such great pipes, they could sing the phone book. Bob Dorough would use it for lyrics. He also plays piano here, and holds his own with three snappy rhythm sections that know better than to upstage him.

The cast includes drummers Bill Goodwin, Jamie Haddad (ph), and Billy Hart (ph), and alto saxophonist Phil Woods. But it's Dorough's show all the way. He sounds as good as he ever did, which is more than you can say for most jazz singers who record at age 75.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of "New Dutch Swing," which is now out in paperback. He reviewed "Too Much Coffee, Man" by Bob Dorough on the Blue Note label.

Coming up, the story behind "Strange Fruit," the song made famous by Billie Holiday.

This is FRESH AIR.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Kevin Whitehead
High: Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews "Too Much Coffee, Man" (Blue Note) by singer-songwriter Bob Dorough.
Spec: Entertainment; Music Industry; Bob Dorough

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: They say some singers have such great pipes, they could sing the phone book. Bob Dorough would use it for lyrics. He also plays piano here, and holds his own with three snappy rhythm sections that know better than to upstage him.

The cast includes drummers Bill Goodwin, Jamie Haddad (ph), and Billy Hart (ph), and alto saxophonist Phil Woods. But it's Dorough's show all the way. He sounds as good as he ever did, which is more than you can say for most jazz singers who record at age 75.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of "New Dutch Swing," which is now out in paperback. He reviewed "Too Much Coffee, Man" by Bob Dorough on the Blue Note label.

Coming up, the story behind "Strange Fruit," the song made famous by Billie Holiday.

This is FRESH AIR.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia

Date: APRIL 19, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 041903NP.217
Head: Author David Margolick Talks About New Book on History of Song 'Strange Fruit' by Billie Holiday
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:45

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

GROSS: My guest, David Margolick, has written a new book about the history of one song, a song about lynching made famous by this 1939 Billie Holiday recording.


Southern trees bear a strange fruit.
Blood on the leaves, and blood at the root.
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
(UNINTELLIGIBLE), sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For (UNINTELLIGIBLE) together for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop.
Here is a strange and bitter crop.


GROSS: "Strange Fruit" was named the best song of the century by "Time" magazine. In telling the history of the song, David Margolick's book, "Strange Fruit," tells interconnecting stories about jazz, folk music, cafe society, and the civil rights movement. Margolick is a contributing editor for "Vanity Fair" and former national legal affairs editor for "The New York Times."

"Strange Fruit" was composed by Louis Allen (ph), who also wrote the lyrics, but Louis Allen was just a pen name.

DAVID MARGOLICK, AUTHOR, "STRANGE FRUIT": Louis Allen's real name was Abel Mirapol (ph). Abel Mirapol was a school teacher in the Bronx in New York City. He was a political activist, and -- but basically sort of a compulsive writer of songs and poems and essays. He was a member of the American Communist Party, and he was just -- he was a passionate believer in social justice who tried to use his compositions to advance the cause, and...

GROSS: I think maybe what he's most famous for is being the adopted father of the two sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.

MARGOLICK: Yes, this came along later, and this was actually one of the reasons that I wanted to get into the project. I mean, I knew of him independently because I was always interested in the Rosenberg case, and I knew that the Rosenbergs had been adopted by a man named Mirapol. Abel Mirapol and his wife, Anne (ph) Mirapol, did not actually know the Rosenbergs, but they were childless, and they were sympathizers with the Rosenbergs. They were sort of in the same leftist community in New York.

And when the Rosenbergs were executed and the children were orphaned, the Mirapols, who were childless themselves, made efforts to adopt them, and after considerable difficulties, were allowed to adopt the two children, and I think really saved those two children's lives. I mean, they let the children disappear and have reasonably normal childhoods, which was no mean feat.

GROSS: Who sang the song before Billie Holiday sang it?

MARGOLICK: Well, this is something that I go into in my book. This was part of the obscure kind of history of the song. Billie Holiday was not the first person to sing it. It was kind of a staple of the left-wing bungalow colony set in the Catskills, and Louis Allen and his wife would perform it together, various other members of their sort of social entourage would do it. Another black woman sang it at Madison Square Garden at a rally for the Spanish loyalists during the Spanish Civil War.

It was kicking around for several years before Billie Holiday got ahold of it. And the interesting thing about it is that it was a -- although there are no earlier recordings of it, it was a very different song. He wrote it in sort of a more jazzy -- I guess one can't say upbeat about a song about a lynching, but it was more -- it was more sort of assertive and less sort of languorous than the version that Billie Holiday eventually did. She slowed it down and put her own stamp on it in the way she did with everything that she sang.

GROSS: How did Billie Holiday first get to sing "Strange Fruit"?

MARGOLICK: Billie Holiday was appearing at Cafe Society, which had just opened in Greenwich Village in New York, and it's important to understand that Cafe Society was a unique place in the New York firmament in the late 1930s. It was the only integrated nightclub. Nightclubs even in New York, even the so-called citadel of progressivism, were still segregated places where whites would go up to Harlem, and even in Harlem whites and blacks would sit in separate places. Cafe Society was a deliberate attempt to get beyond that.

And it was a place where progressive people would hang out. It was a place that set out to be very different. And it had just started, and a fellow who had put together one of the shows in which "Strange Fruit" appeared mentioned it to Barney Josephson, who was the man who was the impresario behind Cafe Society. And one day they -- I guess they must have encouraged Abel Mirapol to come in and perform the song for Billie Holiday to see if she'd be interested in it.

And so he came in and sat down at the piano and played it for her, and that's how it was brought to her attention.

GROSS: The story gets complicated here, because there's a lot of different versions of who actually played a part in writing the song, and how Billie Holiday felt about the song. She takes some of the songwriting credit in her autobiography, which was co-written with William Dufty (ph). She says that Mirapol showed her the song and suggested -- and he suggested that her pianist, Sonny White, and she turn it into music. It's a little ambiguous about whether he means, you know, whether she means that he means make it sound more musical, or write a melody.

MARGOLICK: Yes, it is a little bit ambiguous. I mean, there's absolutely no doubt that Abel Mirapol wrote the lyrics to the song and wrote a tune to set those lyrics to. I think the ambiguity comes in partly because, as I said, Billie Holiday put her stamp on everything, you know, and she clearly changed the song around and changed the whole feeling of the song to suit her temperament and her attitude towards it.

And I think that therein may lie some of the ambiguity. I think that she may have felt that the version that she ended up singing sounded very little like the one that he wrote. But that's not the way that he felt. I mean, he was there when she first performed it. He said that she made it sound -- that it was exactly what he had in mind, and he spent the rest of his life, really, trying to clear up this ambiguity and to insist that the composition was his and his alone.

If you're just joining us, my guest is David Margolick, and his new book traces the history of the recording "Strange Fruit." It's called "Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights."

Columbia, her record company at the time, didn't record "Strange Fruit." She recorded instead on a small label, Commodore Records. Why did she take it to Commodore?

MARGOLICK: Well, she took it to Commodore because no other -- I'm sure no other major house would have done it. I mean, Columbia had already turned it down, and she must have known of Commodore. She went to -- she hung out at the Commodore Record Store, which was actually on 42nd Street near Grand Central Station. Commodore was run by a guy named Milt Gabler (ph), and he was a left-wing type, you know, a progressive type who did this kind of -- who recorded a few songs on the side, apart from selling records.

And he was somebody who was sympathetic with the message of this song, and put it out with, you know, with very little fear or fanfare, just got it out there. And so she went to him, she recorded four sides that day. They sat down in the studio and sort of wrote out "Fine and Mellow" on the spot, "Fine and Mellow," which is really one of her most -- one of the other very famous songs that she's done. And that was on the flip side. And they just -- they recorded these four songs that day.

GROSS: Yes, "Fine and Mellow," the -- which was, I guess, meant to be the B side, was really the hit side, wasn't it, of "Strange Fruit"?

MARGOLICK: You know, I've never really gotten an answer to that. I don't know. I think that each side had its own constituency, and I don't know, you know, I think people -- it was a peculiar thing, it was sort of a schizophrenic record, and people bought it for different reasons.

GROSS: So how much air play did "Strange Fruit" get after it was recorded?

MARGOLICK: It got very little air play for many years, for several different reasons. One reason was that at that point, radio stations weren't playing a lot of records. There was a lot of live music on the air, but not a lot of records. And the other reason was that it was just too sensitive to play. Radio was a very uncontroversial medium at that point. Most of the music was, you know, "Lucky Strike Hit Parade" and shows like that, and the Andrews Sisters. I mean, that was the kind of thing that people were doing. And radio had never really heard anything like this before.

So it got very little air play. There were a couple of disk jockeys who made a point to play it, and I interviewed a very interesting fellow named Daddy-O Daley (ph), who was one of the early disk jockeys in Chicago. And he talks about playing it whenever he could get away with it. You know, you had to submit lists of songs to play, and he would get it on there and try to sneak it by the station brass whenever he could.

And he tells the story about how, whenever there was a kind of racial episode in Chicago, you know, when a black man ran a red light or something and a cop beat him up, that he would deliberately put the song on the air. The song became a sort of all-purpose protest weapon for him, and he would play it just to remind people of the kinds of things that went on in America at that point.

GROSS: I think of Billie Holiday as being the singer that owns "Strange Fruit," but it's a song that was also very much associated with Josh White's career. How did he start singing the song? And he's, he's, he's much more of a folk singer.

MARGOLICK: Yes, I think he must have -- I mean, he must have heard Billie Holiday sing it, because he didn't start singing it until a few years after she did. And he was appearing at Cafe Society too. I think he started appearing there in 1944. And I think the song must have grabbed him, and he started to do it, and Billie Holiday was very proprietary about it. And the story is told that Holiday came into his dressing room one night, and there are different versions of this story, again, alluded to in the book, about whether or not she was carrying a knife with her.

But threatened him and menaced him and said, "Stop doing that song." And he pleaded with her, and said, "Billie, we should both be doing this song until no one has to sing it again." And from that moment on, I guess they reached some kind of agreement. And he continued to perform it.

And as I say, I think, you know, in terms of the number of people who heard the song, who heard the song in performance, probably more people heard him than her, because his career lasted a lot longer, and he performed before a lot more people. And so he did -- in a sense, he did as much to popularize the song as she, although to my mind, her version is vastly superior.

GROSS: Why don't we hear Josh White's reading of "Strange Fruit"?


GROSS: That's Josh White's recording of "Strange Fruit." We'll talk more with David Margolick about his new book, "Strange Fruit," after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is David Margolick, author of "Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights."

How did "Strange Fruit" change the life of its composer, Abel Mirapol?

MARGOLICK: Well, I think that -- I'm not sure if it changed his life at all. It was his -- he -- it was the composition that he was the proudest of. It was really his most famous composition. The other song that he wrote that people will remember was "The House I Live In," which is -- which Frank Sinatra sang in 1945 in an Academy Award-winning short subject, sort of a plea for tolerance. And it's a lovely song, and still -- and still -- still do -- you still hear it every once in a while, Frank Sinatra did it at the Bicentennial celebration, for instance.

GROSS: We should mention Mirapol wrote the lyric for that (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

MARGOLICK: Wrote the lyric, and Earl Robinson, the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- Earl Robinson, who wrote many other famous songs, did the music for it.

GROSS: Do you have any idea whether Billie Holiday loved the song, or whether she sang it because she felt it was expected of her? I mean, it is so out of character for her to sing, you know, a protest song, and a song where the lyric has such dramatic import, as opposed to, you know, a wonderful love song about falling in love or out of love, which is what, you know, pop songs typically are, and I say that really believing there's absolutely nothing wrong with that, that's a fine thing, that's a fine thing for music to be about.

MARGOLICK: You know, the more research that I did for the book, the more ambiguous the answer to your question becomes. I think she had very mixed feelings about the song. I think that, again, she adopted it, and it spoke to her, and she liked to perform it under the right circumstances. I think that she resented being asked to do it all the time. She didn't -- you know, there were often times when she didn't want to do it. There's even evidence that she felt sort of a little bit imprisoned by the song.

When I interviewed Bill Dufty for the book, he even mentioned that he felt that one of the reasons that she gave Abel Mirapol short shrift was that she sort of resented that this song had become part of her life and sort of become a metaphor for her life.

I think she had very, very mixed, very torn feelings about the song, but she performed it right up until the end.

GROSS: I wonder how she felt too that, at least at the beginning of the song's life, it was probably primarily white audiences that really wanted her to sing it.

MARGOLICK: Yes, I think that was undoubtedly part of the mix, part of her mixed feelings about it. But that I think, yes, it was a song principally for white radicals at the beginning. And as I said, one of the interesting things in the evolution of the song is, I think that the black community came to it much later, and adopted it much later, and it became sort of an anthem there later than it did in the white radical community.

GROSS: What are some of the interesting developments in the life of "Strange Fruit" now?

MARGOLICK: Well, it's -- I'm trying to think of -- there are various things. I mean, for one thing, it's kind of -- it's been adopted by the gay community. There's a story in the book about "Strange Fruit" having been included in a show in San Francisco with its lyrics having been changed, and the controversy over that, you know.

GROSS: How were the lyrics changed?

MARGOLICK: Well, the lyrics were changed to talk about strange fruit as strange gays, you know, to deliberately play on the word "fruit." And it's applied to strange fruits in the gay community, the idea that more flamboyant gays are discriminated against by straighter, more subdued ones. And this was included in this review in San Francisco, where it turned out that the gay community was divided about the song. Some of them felt that it was perfectly appropriate to adapt it to their particular situation, whereas others felt that this was Billie Holiday's and this was the black community's song, and it shouldn't be mucked around with.

I mean, that's just -- that's one interesting sort of contemporary use of the song.

GROSS: Well, David Margolick, thank you so much for talking with us.

MARGOLICK: My pleasure, thank you.

GROSS: David Margolick is the author of the new book "Strange Fruit."

I'm Terry Gross.

We'll close with Billie Holiday's 1945 "Jazz at the Philharmonic" recording of "Strange Fruit."


BILLIE HOLIDAY: Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.

And now I'd like to sing a tune that was written especially for me. It's titled "Strange Fruit," (UNINTELLIGIBLE).


(singing): Southern trees bear a strange fruit.
Blood on the leaves, and blood at the root.
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.



Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: David Margolick
High: Contributing editor for Vanity Fair David Margolick discusses his new book "Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights" (Running Press). Margolick traces the history and impact of the song "Strange Fruit," a ballad about lynchings which became Billie Holiday's signature song.
Spec: Entertainment; Music Industry; Billie Holiday

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Author David Margolick Talks About New Book on History of Song 'Strange Fruit' by Billie Holiday
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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