The Bessie Smith Myth | Letters | Chicago Reader

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The Bessie Smith Myth


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To the editors:

Reviewing the Billie Holiday drama Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, Lawrence Bommer tells us that in 1937 "Bessie Smith died, turned away from a white hospital after she was in an auto accident" [September 29].

This preposterous fable was thoroughly investigated some years ago, and not a scrap of genuine evidence was found in support of it.

Incidentally, in her autobiography Billie Holiday wasn't long on veracity either.

Tommy Wheelwright
E. Ontario

Lawrence Bommer replies:

Mr. Wheelwright is correct. From the start there has been controversy over what really happened, but as far as I can tell, there's no evidence that Smith was turned away from a white hospital. Most accounts agree that on September 26, 1937, Smith was driving late at night in a car with a female friend, when her car rear-ended a truck. Bessie was lifted from her car by a passing motorist, a white physician who saw the accident. (Then his car too was hit.) Smith died the next day from internal injuries.

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