Thursday, April 18, 2024

Billie Holiday’s Signature Song, “Strange Fruit,” Has a Strange Backstory Tying Her to Executed Spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg


As we prepare for Lee Daniels’ “The United States of America vs. Billie Holiday,” here’s a little backstory almost no one knows.

Holiday’s signature song, of course, is “Strange Fruit.” A song about lynching, “Strange Fruit” was Billie’s original hit. As we see in the movie, singing it caused her a lot of trouble with the FBI. The song was considered subversive as it lamented the killing of black people for no reason.

The author of “Strange Fruit” wasn’t Holiday. It was a Jewish schoolteacher from Brooklyn named Abe Meeropol. He wrote the song in 1940 for his wife. A friend slipped it to Holiday, who turned it into her social cause.

If the name Meeropol is at all resonant, that’s because Abe Meeropol became famous for something else in 1953: he and his wife adopted the two sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, convicted spies who were executed after a harassing trial prosecuted by Roy Cohn. Yes, the same Roy Cohn who died of AIDS, and in disgrace, after being Barbara Walters’ best friend and Donald Trump’s mentor. He’s played by Al Pacino in “Angels in America.”

Talk about six degrees of separation.

PS David Margolick wrote a book about Strange Fruit, check it out.

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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