Billie Holiday’s Cause of Death and How She Really Got Her Nickname Lady Day

Billie Holiday with Her Dog
Photographer: Carl Van Vechten | Source

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Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915, in Baltimore, Maryland. She grew up in a tough neighborhood, where she learned to sing from her mother who was also a singer. Her father was an alcoholic who would often beat up his wife and kids when he was drunk.

She maintained an elegant, graceful presence throughout her career, even when she was surrounded by the seedy machinations of the jazz scene in Harlem. Yet while she may have had a regal air, there are surprisingly few details about how she came to be known as Lady Day.

When Billie was just 13 years old, she ran away from home and joined a traveling show called “The Southbound Stompers.” She then got married at 14 to a trumpet player named Louis McKay and had two children with him before divorcing him in 1937.

In 1943, Billie Holiday got mixed up with drugs after being introduced to heroin by her boyfriend Teddy Wilson who played piano for Duke Ellington’s Orchestra. This led to an arrest in Philadelphia for possession of narcotics—she pled guilty and spent 10 days in jail before being released on parole.

Billie Holiday’s Cause of Death

Billie Holiday died from a combination of cirrhosis, heart failure, and pneumonia. She was only 44 years old when she passed away. The most likely cause of her death was alcohol abuse.

Nevertheless, it is a bit of a mystery. The singer died on July 17, 1959, at age 44, but the official cause of death was listed as heart failure. However, many people believe that she actually died of an overdose.

But who gave Billie Holiday the nickname Lady Day? The answer may surprise you!

There is another speculation about the “Lady Day nickname”. It turns out that Lady Day was actually a guy named Lady. Lady was a pimp who used to be frequent at Billie’s house when she lived with her husband in New York City. 

He would often give her advice on how to make more money singing and even helped teach her how to sing better. He also helped introduce Billie to heroin—which is probably why he left town after she started using it regularly!

The nickname “Lady Day” comes from her nickname as a child: “Little Miss Day.”


Well, if you made it through this blog post—and you can read this sentence!—then you’ve just reached the end of our investigation into the origins of “Lady Day.” 

While we still don’t know exactly who gave Billie Holiday her nickname (or when!), we have a few guesses; we may never know the truth for sure. 

Given that Holiday herself was not all that interested in sharing how she got her nickname, we don’t feel all that bad about being unable to solve the mystery ourselves. 

All we know is, that people loved hearing her sing and calling her “Lady Day,” and she loved singing for them. That seems like enough to us.