Billie Holiday: How a Complex Woman Became a Jazz Legend

Desperate Times Call For Desperate Measures

Their landlady in Harlem was a sharply-dressed woman by the name of Florence Williams. Florence happened to run a brothel on 151 West 140th Street. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and so Holiday’s mother became a prostitute. Within a matter of days of moving to New York, a young Billie who wasn’t even 14 years old, fell victim to sex trafficking.

Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, New Orleans – 1947.

Photo By United Artists/Kobal/

The house was raided by police on May 2, 1929. Sadie was sent to prison. Billie left alone, was charged with vagrancy (begging), and was sent to a workhouse. At that point, the 14-year-old was running errands, scrubbing marble steps and kitchen and bathroom floors in the neighborhood’s homes. Her mother was released in July of that year, and Billie in October.