1. Fidel Castro, 1961.
2. Kathy Acker, 1989.
3. Johann Hari, 2015.
Numero Uno—“The people know a great deal about the events which have taken place as a result of our special reports, the newspaper accounts, and the interrogation of prisoners. The people know about the invasion, the details of its organization, and the way in which it was crushed.
We can give you some general ideas about how their plans developed and how ours were developed in the zone of operation. In the first place, we had known for some time that a force was being formed to attack our country. Since the revolution, we have been living amid a series of threats—all of them from abroad. But there were differences in our enemies—that is, imperialism was the only one strong enough to attack.
The aggression was indirect only in regard to the personnel. It was direct aggression in that it came from camps of the North Americans, that North American equipment was used, and that it included a convoy by the U.S. Navy and the participation of the U.S. Air Force. It was a combined thing: they used mercenaries amply supported by the navy and air force.
We were awaiting an indirect attack. But one type of indirect attack is the type of attack made against the Arbenz government in Guatemala; it is known that U.S. aircraft were used against him. We also thought of an indirect attack utilizing the OAS to launch some type of collective action. And we also were expecting a direct attack. The United States has always advocated all three types of action.
It began to prepare immediately for direct action. But it was not able to gather enough support in Latin America for collective action. The Mexican Government has been very firm against intervention in Cuba. So have Quadros and Colombia. So the United States has encountered powerful resistance among the governments and people of Latin America in seeking to further its desire for collective action in the OAS.
On whom could it count? Only on the most corrupt Latin American governments. First the United States tried to work with Trujillo, and most of the Cuban aggression came from the Dominican Republic.
Then it tried to enlist the so-called democratic governments, under the guise of democracy, when they broke with Trujillo because, they said, he was a dictator.
While the United States was taking action against Trujillo, it was strengthening its ties with Somoza and Ydigoras, who are typically corrupt, despotic, and reactionary. Those are the instruments on which the United States can count. It cannot count on Brazil, Mexico, or any other decent Latin American country. Its partners in this venture have been the most reactionary and corrupt governments in Latin America, the governments of Nicaragua and Guatemala.
We have always been in danger of direct aggression. We have been warning about this in the United Nations: that they would find a pretext, that they would organize some act of aggression so that they could intervene. That is why we have followed a cautious policy in regard to Guantanamo Base.
We wish to avoid giving them a pretext for intervention. We made this known in the United Nations. We said that we would never want to obtain the base by force, only through international law, so that we would not provide a pretext for direct aggression.
Danger of World War
Our position is that we will fight to the last man, but we do not want direct aggression. We do not wish to suffer the destruction that aggression would bring. If the aggression comes, it will meet the total resistance of our people.
The danger of direct aggression could again gain momentum following this failure. We have said that imperialism will disappear. We do not wish it to commit suicide; we want it to die a natural death. If it dies the world will live in peace. But it will die violently if it begins a world war.
If imperialism acts with a maximum of responsibility it will bring about a war which it could survive only a relatively short time. As an economic way of life, it will have to disappear through historical laws. (Applause) We do not wish it to commit suicide by attacking us. If they attack us, we would resist in an unbelievable manner. (Applause)
They are the ones who are bringing the world to the brink of war through their warlike spirit, their own contradictions, and their economic problems which cause them to provoke a series of crises in order to maintain their war economy. Their factories run only when they are building war material. Their regime is marching toward a crisis. It is not like our economy, which is perfectly planned.
The economy of our country is based on an increase of 10 percent a year, while in the United States the figure is only two percent. The U.S. economy is managed in the interest of only a few groups; it is divorced from the interests of the people. In war they have a cure for their crises.
They have the capacity to do all sorts of things for the benefit of their people. But their system demands production for war, not peace. As a result, there is extensive wasting of natural resources. Look at their military budget. What they could do with this money for schools, industry, homes! What good it could mean for the world!
And that is only part of the story. Some of their factories are working on a part-time basis. How different from the Soviet Union, where everyone works! If someone wants to build a factory in the United States, he does so whether it is needed or not. This is the result of an unplanned economy. In the United States, war militarizes the economy. They plan for that.
The government does not permit any monopoly to produce what they want— they have to produce war materials. Then the government plans and controls production—they produce fantastically. In time of war they plan, then all the people work. They are not capable of solving the problem of unemployment in producing for peace. Only in time of war can they resolve their economic crisis. That is why there are groups who wish to go on a war footing, if possible, with local wars. This has been the American policy after World War II. With respect to our country, they have been holding these ideas of aggression. We have been and are now facing that threat.
Concerning the type of aggression against us: How could they organize a mercenary force against the united people, against our army and militia? They did not think about that type of war. They thought of a frontal attack with mercenaries and of taking over our country.
First Step: Economic Aggression
The first step was economic aggression—to weaken the revolution—that is to say, they attacked on the economic front: they took away our sugar quota. Our economy was based on one product—the export of sugar— with one market: the United States.
When Guatemala tried to take over the United Fruit land, intervention took place immediately. Since the days of Roosevelt, direct aggression has no longer been used. Instead a puppet is sent. In Guatemala there is hunger and oppression and a gentleman who dedicates himself to harboring mercenaries to attack our country.
In our country, when reforms were initiated, a clash resulted with the imperialists of the United States. Here they had no army directed by their diplomats to turn against the people. Here the old army had been destroyed and their weapons left in the hands of the people. The U.S. military mission which had been here until the fall of Batista—when our troops arrived in Camp Libertad were still there to see if perhaps they could teach us, too. We told them to go home. (Laughter) I well recall I told one of them “You taught Batista and we beat him. We don’t wish to be taught by you.” (Laughter and applause).
Here they had no military organization to direct, and they found that the interests of the government were directly opposed to the military proposals. The Revolutionary Government has an army of the people. They then began their economic aggression and their harrassment.
They said: Cuba depends on us economically. It is underdeveloped. Any government from which we take the sugar quota will surely fall.
We were truly underdeveloped and our imports all came from the United States. Our imports exceeded our exports. We then began a program of economy but not for the poorer classes. They were not the ones who took trips abroad and consumed luxuries—I understand that the import of cars alone was 30 million dollars—agricultural machinery was only 5 million. Much land was not being used. Many lived only during the few months of the harvest, the rest of the time they piled up debts.
We began a program of lowering rents, giving land to cooperatives, investing in programs which would give work to people. The country was saving money, contrary to what the imperialists believed. They have a policy of exploitation of the people. We established a policy of austerity which affected only the social strata which lived in luxury. For their trips abroad we only allowed them a few dollars. This austerity campaign did not afflict the people but only the privileged ones. The revolution imposed a program of austerity for the luxury- using class and not the people. When they heard of the appointment of Che to the national banks they waited for the country to fail. This did not come about.
Then, they took another step of aggression, and tried to leave us without oil. Thanks to our agreement with the USSR, we agreed to sell the USSR sugar in return for oil. Before that, we had had to pay for oil with dollars. So then they decided not to refine Soviet oil. That was because they had control of refining and exploitation of oil in other countries; it was a real monopoly. When they learned that some oil for Cuba would come from other sources, they refused to refine it. They thought if we had anything against them we would be left without oil. But the refineries were taken over, and the USSR made great efforts to give us all the oil we needed. We got through that [U.S.] aggression thanks to the USSR. We get the oil much more cheaply than from the U.S. monopolies, and we pay for it in sugar, not dollars.
Faced with the revolution’s success in regard to oil, they took another step—cutting us off entirely from the U.S. market. Aggression like that can be resisted only by a Revolutionary Government supported by the people. When Cuba sold sugar to the U.S. market, most of the sugarmills and cane- growing land belonged to North Americans. The Cuban workers received miserable pay and had employment only part of the year. There was no profit for our country; the profit was for the monopolies. When the agarian reform went through and cooperatives were formed and year-around employment was provided, then our people began to get profits from our economy. So then the U.S. market was cut off in an effort to make our people yield.
The people responded with determination. The Soviet Union again, and other socialist countries—even though they had plenty of sugar production of thier own, made a great effort and agreed to buy four million tons of sugar from us so the revolution could withstand the blow. The OAS, the American system, this hemispheric system the United States talks about so much, had a clause forbidding economic aggression. That clause said no country could use economic pressure or aggression to gain its objectives or influence affairs inside another country.
Economic aggression was banned expressly, and yet our country was brutally attacked economically. Representatives of Latin American countries met at Costa Rica, and did not condemn the aggressor; but there was a declaration against the victim. The powerful country had violated the law against economic aggression; but when the time came to condemn the shark, the sardines met and condemned the other sardine. But this sardine was no longer a sardine.
And some people ask why we distrust the OAS. How could we not distrust the OAS? The other sardines were afraid. We got no protection from the inter-American system. But, thanks to the USSR, China, and the other socialist countries, we had the sale of millions of tons of sugar assured. Our revolution could keep going.
Then they forbade the export of raw materials and parts to us. Almost all equipment for transportation, construction, and our industries came from the United States. So we were to be left without raw materials or parts to keep our machinery in operation.
Not content with that, they blocked export of our molasses. Some U.S. companies had already agreed to buy our molasses, but by using pressure, they deprived us of millions of dollars we would have received from that. It was not easy to sell molasses elsewhere.
It was one step after another designed to blockade us, to drive us in a situation in which we would face shortages. The purpose was to defeat the Revolutionary Government, which was working for the people, and return to the old system of corruption, a system under which the monopolies got all types of concessions and controlled the Cuban economy.
U.S. imperialism also used pressure in other countries to get them to blockade us. In the midst of all this, the revolution was carrying out education, reforestation, public beach programs, and so forth.
Second Step: Terrorism
Then they turned to backing terrorists and saboteurs. A campaign to destroy our stores and factories began. Now that the people own the installations, sabotage comes. When the wealthy owned them, there was no sabotage. But now that people own the establishments, the CIA goes into action. There is a sabotage campaign.
They organize sabotage against our wealth, they burn cane. They began to send planes over to burn it, but there was so much scandal that they changed tactics. They began to stir up counterrevolutionary groups, using formed soldiers, the worst elements. The worst were those who directed the second Escambray front. They sent them all kinds of arms. You have seen the display of weapons in the Civil Plaza. These worms, in a few weeks, got a thousand weapons, while we, in our battles, had to acquire arms one by one. They sent arms by air, by sea. And we are [Unreadable text] seizing these arms.
Aggression began economically, with maneuvers in sugar and an economic blockade; then came sabotage and counterrevolutionary guerrillas.
The United States has no right to meddle in our domestic affairs. We do not speak English and we do not chew gum. We have a different tradition, a different culture, our own way of thinking. Our national characteristics are different. We have no borders with anybody. Our frontiers are the sea, very clearly defined.
Only because it is a big country did the United States take the right to commit that series of brutalities against Cuba. How can the crooked politicians and the exploiters have more rights than the people? What right does a rich country have to impose its yoke on our people? Only because they have might and no scruples; they do not respect international rules. They should have been ashamed to be engaged in this battle of Goliath against David—and to lose it besides.
What did we have against their might? First, we had a sense of dignity and courage. We were not afraid. That is a big thing. Then, we were determined to resist. No matter what they throw against us, we will fight. Our men know how to die, and they have shown it during the past few days.
Next Step: Direct Aggression
So far they have gone from aggression to aggression without stopping to think. Only direct aggression is left. Are we going to be afraid? No! (Applause) Imperialism’s soldiers are blood and flesh too, and bullets go through them. Let them know they will meet with serious resistance. That may be enough to make them reflect a little. Our people—men, women, and children—must maintain that spirit. If they have no weapons they can take the place of somebody who falls. Have no fear; be calm! After all, the result of aggression against Cuba will be the start of a conflagration of incalculable consequences, and they will be affected too. It will no longer be a matter of them having a feast with us. They will get as much as they give.
To resist is to meet the enemy and fight him with whatever is at hand. To resist is to prepare our spirit, our minds for what comes, for the bombs they drop, because in such a case they would have superiority in the air. We would have to dig many trenches to defend ourselves. They would not have a bomb for each man in a hole.
We would most strongly defend our capital from house to house, as we have said before, from position to position—above all, without retreat. We would mine the fields. We would kill whatever parachutists fell in our zone of control.
If they think they can take our territory by surprise, they are mistaken. They would encounter firm resistance here and would awaken an unprecedented feeling of solidarity with us throughout the world. The attack by the mercenaries had demonstrated this. I am certain that such aggression would be suicide for them. Of that I am completely sure!
I am sure that we would resist in the same spirit as the men who have fallen up to today. In the fight in the Sierra Maestra and in the fight with the mercenaries, many of our friends have fallen. They paid their final tribute. They did their part. We all have the same obligation to act with that spirit of duty, with that feeling of loyalty. None of us has the right to save his life. That is to say, that our decision is firm. To resist regardless of cost, in all ways. That is what we have to do under the circumstances imposed on us through no fault of ours. We feel proud of our position. We used to be the last card in the deck, now we are among the first.
Throughout the whole world there are demonstrations in support of us and against the United States. They are surprised because in less than 72 hours we have destroyed the invasion which was prepared by the brains of the Pentagon with all the tactics and preparations of a war. The leaders of the invasion had great faith in the plans on which the United States placed its prestige, and out of which they came without prestige. Their plans were defeated. This they cannot accept. They fell into this ridiculous situation through their own fault. They cannot stand that consequence, so now they threaten with direct intervention, because they could not win. Well, who doubts that if they were capable of making such a mistake, they may not make a greater mistake? Who doubts that if they were capable of making this mistake, they will not make another great mistake? We think that they are capable of making even a greater mistake which will cost them not only their prestige, but will cost them their very existence as well; and no one knows what it may cost the world. The fact is that it is they who are threatening the entire world. They are the gangsters who are threatening the world peace, threatening the world with a war, threatening Cuba with intervention, and threatening Latin America. What can Latin America say to these threats? What they want is to bring back the right of intervention.
Our duty as a soldier in the trenches is to defend our country. All our spirit, all our thoughts, all our energy should be concentrated on this history-making period. We must defend our country. We defend the peace of the entire world, because our defense of our country may perhaps make these gentlemen stop and reflect. If they believe that we will run, they are wrong—nobody ran. Our firm decision is that before they subdue us, they will have to erase us from the map. Resistance will be strong in all sectors, in the fields if they take the cities. Let’s see how they take Havana for example. We must look at all these things objectively because of our experience—we cannot go to sleep and rest on our laurels, because imperialism has received a rude blow and it is like an infuriated beast. Let us see if they reconsider, this gentleman we have there now, let us see how he acts.
Kennedy Intensifies U.S. Aggression
We awaited his inauguration to see if he would do something different. We did not believe that he would continue with the errors of the previous administration. He himself said: “Let us begin anew.” He did not begin anew; he began as of old. He not only followed the policy of Eisenhower, but he was even more aggressive against us. This gentleman has brought this problem on himself, through his lack of commonsense. He has earned this discredit all by himself. While we waited for him to show what policy he was going to follow, he increased the attacks against us. He increased in intensity the aggression against our country.
“Now he must do what he has to do: to recognize his mistake. What he has to do is to fire Mr. Allen Dulles. Because after a government has been placed before the world in such a ridiculous position, as the Yankee intelligence service has placed the U.S. Government, it is the least he can do now. What he has to do is to fire the chief of the intelligence service. You know why he should fire him? Well, because he `shipped’ him too.” (porque tambien lo embarco—Sp.) (Laughter)
What was one of the most ridiculous things that ever happened in the history of the United States, and they brought it on themselves. All we did was defend ourselves. It is clear that to please Mr. Kennedy and Allen Dulles we could not let ourselves be beaten by mercenaries. What did we do? We threw them into the ocean. (Laughter) This invasion organized by the United States was a species of Normandy which did not end in a Dunkirk because they did not get off the beaches.
Return to Trenches
That is what happened and that is why they are now furious and threatening. What are we going to do before the threats of Mr. Kennedy? Be frightened? No, we smile, because there are many thousands of men in the trenches with weapons in their hands. Once again we must take to the trenches. We have no other alternative—once more we must wait to see what happens in this crisis.
The defense of our country is what I wish to speak of first today. The expedition should strive to warn us that these people make many mistakes and that they are capable of committing the greatest imbecilities. As far as we are concerned, we cannot stop them from meddling. We do all we can to prevent it by arming ourselves and preparing for defense so that they may reconsider. But if they make a mistake, we cannot stop them from making it. Our duty is to maintain our firm position and be ready to defend ourselves without alarm, without panic, just as our many comrades went to fight and die. Nobody has the right to preserve his life. We all have the same obligations. We must keep this thought ever-present, especially right now when we have just finished a bloody battle where a great number of friends and brothers of the people have fallen. Of that we want to speak first.
The lackeys that took part in this Yankee-planned invasion evidently had confidence that the plan would not fail. They were so confident that they even sent their sons. Now they are seeking for clemency for the prisoners. Let them have clemency of the victims of their bombing. Let them cease sending arms to Cuba; arms to murder and kill, and the send of explosives and incendiaries. Let all this cease if they wish clemency.
Instead of defending the mercenaries, and there are some who do, they should be defending the victims of aggression. That is the situation.
Let us now analyze the plan of attack by imperialism against Cuba, and why they landed where they did, and why they did not land on the other side. In the first place they exaggerated the number of mercenaries. Instead of four or five thousand they did not have anywhere near that number. What they landed here was the group they had in Guatemala.
They have another in Caimanera, but it is smaller and not armed as well. The group that had the most arms, were better trained, and had air cover, was the Guatemala group. At first it appeared that the intentions were to take the Isle of Pines, to take it and free the war criminals imprisoned there and add them to their ranks and to take a piece of national territory and then give us the problem of dislodging them.
They were to direct their efforts toward gaining a piece of territory to establish there a provisional government from which to operate. The establishment of a base on our territory would have given them a base to bomb our country and would have created a difficult situation for us. We had to stop this at all costs. The Isle of Pines was ideal for the establishment of a base on our territory which would open the road for aid on territory of Cuba and make unnecessary to use of other countries to launch aggressions. But here is what we did. We filled the Isle of Pines with tens of batallions of cannon and tanks, we posted a force in the Isle of Pines that make the Isle of Pines invulnerable. A huge army would have been needed to attack it. They could not count on Escambray after it had been cleaned out. Would imperialism land mercenaries with just one combat force, or would it split its force into several groups, that was the problem if faced. Would it try to introduce groups and send them arms from the air, to establish many counterrevolutionary networks. We took measures to counter multiple landings, concentrating on logical points, in case they divided force into many groups. We concentrated especially on places giving access to the mountains.
A few days before the aggression, many U.S. papers carried the report that imperialism had decided on splitting up the force and opening different fronts in Cuba. That could be true. It could also be true that the rumors were intended to throw us off the track. Events later showed that they had decided to send the whole force together and seize a point of our territory. Among the rumors in the U.S. press, it was said that it was risky to send all forces against one point and expose them to a crushing defeat and strengthening the revolution.
If they had split up their forces in many landings, they could have used it for much propaganda. A defeat in that case would have been diluted. I believe they could have chosen either tactic. We trusted that we would defeat them wherever, they came. For us it would be best if they all came against the same point but we did not think they would do this. They chose something that offered more but also was much more risky for morale and prestige. They should have been worried about the blow to the morale of imperialism and counterrevolution. For us it was better for them to come in one force, but we thought they would avoid that mistake. But we were still ready with adequate force if they all came together.
Preparations for Invasion
A series of facts showed that the time was near: statements; formation of council of worms in exile; the famous White Book from Kennedy. A whole series of political facts and statements plus the indications in the U.S. press, including discrepancies about possible tactics. We heard that the last shipments of arms and men had gone to Guatemala. We increased our vigilance. On 15 April, because of a report from Oriente, we had not gone to bed. Everything indicated the attack might come at any minute; we got news from Oriente that many groups of ships were off Baracoa. Our forces were put on the alert.
It was necessary to be very careful because American ships often came close to the coast trying to cause trouble. One American ship without any flag was very close to the coast. It was detained by our craft. Then U.S. planes came, apparently to provoke an incident, so our vessel was ordered to let the ship proceed to avoid an incident. In connection with the mercenary landing, Americans carried out some ship movements to throw us off the track. The Baracoa battalion was waiting for a landing so there could be no doubt as to what kind of a ship it was. But in the end there was no landing at Baracoa. We still did not know what group of ships that was. It may have been mercenaries who never landed, it may have been U.S. ships; anyway, nothing happened.
We heard bombs and ack-ack. We saw it was a bombing raid in Ciudad Libertad. We decided it was definite that the aggression was beginning. We tried to get in touch with San Antonio to get our planes up and found that a simultaneous attack was going on there; and Santiago was attacked too.
We had taken measures at the air base. We have few planes and even fewer pilots. We were taking care of those planes. We wanted to be sure they would not be destroyed. So our planes were kept scattered. At San Antonio they managed to destroy one transport plane and one fighter; that was not much. At (Santiago?) they destroyed one fighter and several civilian planes.
They had hoped to destroy our air force. Imperialist aggressions are characterized by an attack on aviation to immobilize it. Our force is small, but we expect to make good use of those few planes and pilots.
At San Antonio the ack-ack reaction was formidable. Planes were driven off and our planes took off in pursuit of the enemy till he was on way to Miami. The first step of aggression—to destroy our planes on the ground—had failed. We reinforced our ack-ack but they did not come back. They had attacked with six planes. Some did not get back, others were riddled. Our air force was intact and ready. And our pilots wanted revenge. That was Saturday. All forces were alerted. Sunday the funeral services were held, our own planes kept guard.
An ammo truck has been set afire by the attack but the people kept calm. They drove the other trucks away while the ammo on the first one was exploding. (Applause) Of course no trucks with ammo should have been there but those things do happen. We were alert all day Sunday. We slept in the afternoon and not at night. We figured that the air raid was not just harrassment but had a military objective, to destroy our air force. Therefore we figured the aggression would come soon. We reinforced our measures after the air attack.
Why was this attack made two days early? Tactically speaking it was an error because we had a chance to take some measures. We mobilized all combat units. On Sunday nothing happened. On Monday morning at 3:15 I was informed that fighting was going on at Playa Giron and Playa Larga. We confirmed this. Then came the report that an invading force was bombing heavily with bazookas and cannons at the two beaches. There was no doubt of a landing attempt at that point—one supported by heavy equipment. Resistance began. Results of the attacks came. The microwave system was cut off. Communications were then cut off. This was the situation.
Here is Cochino Bay and here is Cienfugeos. There was a Cienfugeos battalion at the Central Australia. These were the first to meet the aggression. Here is Playa Larga and here Playa Giron. Here is Zapata Peninsula. This piece of impassible swamp land was the sole communication available to peasants. This area bothered the revolution most.
(Editor’s Note: At this point Castro discusses for approximately six minutes the Zapata swamp area and tells what the revolution has done for it and its people, the building of schools, roads, and medical facilities. He then spends about five minutes giving in some detail a list of the weapons captured in this area, apparently reading from a report. Then during a period of bad reception of approximately 10 minutes, he discusses the invader miscalculations of the Castro air force and, in some detail, the battle plans and the tactical situation during the early stages of the invasion. During much of the time Castro seems to be referring to maps.)
That was the plan. They put two battalions here, and five further back; here were four and six, that was very early in the morning. Then planes were to drop paratroops. They began landing very well. But at Playa Larga and Playa Giron they met resistance. They began losing time. They got two battalions ashore. Paratroops began operating. As they dropped paratroops at these spots, our troops were caught between the main force and the paratroops. Our first measures were to alert all commands and the air force. Orders were given to disperse planes and have ack-ack ready if an attack was made on the airstrip.
We had planes ready for defense against air attack. The battalion at the Australia central was ordered to Playa Larga to fight. It was an infantry battalion recently formed. At the same time an order given to mobilize Matanzas militia battalion and advance to here. Orders were given to other forces. We had two battalions in Las Villas. The problem first of all was to keep a beachhead here. The main thing was to keep a bit of Playa Larga here, on this side. The Cienfuegos battalion got there before dawn and began fighting. But then came time another group of our forces was fighting at Cayo Ramona. The air force was ordered to take before dawn and attack all ships off Giron and Playa Larga. Our battalion prevented battalion five from getting ashore. Our planes began attacking the ships and doing much damage. Meanwhile our battalion was facing strong fire, and was taken from the rear. It fell back fighting the paratroops. A battalion was sent from Matanzas to reinforce it.
Enemy planes were painted with revolutionary armed forces insignia. They attacked our advancing troops. We were most interested in keeping this bit of territory. When we saw paratroops dropped we realized that the attack would come against a single point and any other move would be for diversion. Mobilization of two combat columns of the army was ordered; also of a company of tanks and anti-tank batteries and mortars. Since they controlled the air, the first day our forces had to wait till night to advance. Our planes could not shift from attacking the ships.
Our planes continued to attack the ships. They did wonderful work. Besides attacking the ships, they fought with enemy planes. But they kept hammering the ships until not much was left of their fleet. We lost two planes the first morning. Five enemy planes were downed. Four ships were sunk. That was the first day.
They had an unexpected surprise. They had thought our air force was knocked out, and so the first day ended. They lost more than half of their ships. Our pilots acted with special courage. What they did was incredible.
The militia attacked the Playa Larga position. The battalion had only a narrow road to attack from. On the first day they deployed forces. They were attacking with planes here, and here. We tried to approach the enemy as close as possible under B-26 fire. The battle was accompanied by tanks. So we attacked them all day without respite, fighting constantly. An early morning tank attack came from the same beach with antiair fire support. One of our tanks was damaged. An antitank battery hit us and also another entrenched tank. The goal was to take Playa Larga beach.
U.S. Sabre Jets Involved
They then began to flee. Here a tank surrendered. At dawn on 19 April the planes bombed the Australia central. On the 19th we had antiaircraft in position. This column, when in movement, was attached by American Sabre planes. They (the invaders—Ed.) had B-26’s, not jets. Then, this column of ours, when it advanced between Playa Larga and Playa Giron during the afternoon, suffered many casualties under attack of American Sabres. Those planes were at high altitudes, and on that day when it was already dusk on the 18th, they attacked our column, with Sabres, with jet planes, and they caused many casualties in the column. That was one of the cases in which American planes participated directly. They attacked the column coming from Playa Larga to Giron. At dawn on 19 April a plane attacked the Australia central and was downed and then two more planes. Our planes downed more B-26’s. We downed 10 planes during the entire fighting. On the 19th none of their planes returned and we did not see the enemy anymore.
List of Casualties
On 19 April there were losses, as they were well entrenched. Our people had to fight facing heavy mortar fire and anti-tank guns. There were 87 dead on our side and 250 wounded. That means that our combat units paid a high price in lives while they were on the offensive and that was due to the fact that we were on the offensive constantly until the last position was taken. It is possible that the dead on our side will amount to 100. That indicates the heroism of our troops. They fought constantly without relief against an enemy with relief and more planes than we had. (Castro confers with one of his aides on figures—Ed.) An exact figure cannot yet be given on losses because many of those who came in ships were drowned. According to date here 88. One cannot count those lost in bombing and sunken ships. This will be possible only after identification and a check of personnel lost from each unit. There are some 450 prisoners. We cannot study all data of units and determine how many men were in ships which were sunk. One cannot give an exact figure on that. As I said, one of the basic principles of battle was the courage with which our men fought. It is one thing to defend a position and another to attack without protection under heavy fire. Of course, under such circumstances the losses increase. In the future, we shall be able to have more officers, Battalion chiefs are learning more. The training of units and officers will be better. All kinds of personnel—mortar, shell, cannon—will be specialized. The fact have shown us the necessity of using our knowledge to defend the revolution. The units have acquired considerable experience.
Decorations and Pensions
The government plans to create a decoration—to decorate as “Hero of the Revolution” those who were outstanding for valor; and another type of decoration to reward acts of valor in battle. Meanwhile the government will pass a pension law to give a pension to kin of militia and soldiers who fell in this fighting. The least the revolution can do for those who fell is to protect their families who depended on them. This will be done as soon as the cabinet meets.
If our troops had had more experience, we could have had fewer casualties. When imperialism found what had happened, it had no army left here. The enemy is still dumbfounded.
Counterrevolutionary Suspects Rounded Up
The committees for defense of the revolution acted too. There was a needed to arrest anybody who for one reason or another might help the counterrevolution. That kind of measure always entails some injustice, but that is inevitable. The country faced aggression and had to take any measure for defense. Those persons will be released unless there are charges against them other than that they were considered suspect. Those who have counterrevolutionary activity proven against them or are well known will continue to be held. Since yesterday, those arrested as a precaution have started being released. This does not mean that the danger is past. We think the danger is great, especially of direct aggression from the United States.
At Mesa, Arizona, Senator Goldwater said he had recommended direct intervention if all else failed. That is the idea of right that this ultra has. What respect for sovereignty of other countries and international law! How calmly they speak of direct military intervention. They respect nothing. And they talk as if it were so easy. They do not learn. They should think of the sorrow military aggression causes—and all to restore privileges here. What need was there to bring this bloodshed to our country? What need to threaten us with intervention? They are so irresponsible that after causing bloodshed here, they threaten with more intervention. The reply is our determination to resist; and if they attack, it will be the end of imperialism. Better to die than live under the yoke of those gentlemen.
First Imperialist Defeat in America
Glorious death fighting to defeat imperialism deserves a monument. There should be a big monument in Zapata swamps with the names of the fallen on it, to tell the world that on that day Zapata imperialism sustained its first great defeat in America. Precious lives were given in this battle. The militia performed countless feats of prowess. The people defended their land, honor, rights. They have earned the admiration of the world and prestige. They waged a battle for peace.
Just think, during these past days the literacy campaign was not halted; the lifestock fair is opening; the Conrado Benitez literacy brigade is about to set forth. This work did not stop in the midst of tension. This shows the stuff the revolution is made of.
The comrades who fell saved tens of thousands of lives. Their service to the nation is incalculable. The pilots who fought so steadily and eagerly have created the air force. I am sure no air force ever did before what they have done. We believe 17 April should be made Cuban revolutionary air force day.
Mansfield said the Cuban crisis is very grave. The Vermont senator said Cuba is a permanent threat to the hemisphere. If that means they will invade Cuba, nobody here is frightened at all. We will give them a great reception. The might of an empire cannot go as far as the dignity of the people. It will collapse when it runs into the will of the people.
Latin American War
It is regrettable that U.S. leaders make so many mistakes, such as this one. Why did the U.S. Government need to make itself so ridiculous? It calculated a lot but it calculated badly. In Latin America, there will be war by all who support our revolution. Latin American forces would have a hard time to protect U.S. ambassadors. They should reflect on that. It is too bad they are playing with the idea of attacking us. Such a mistake—nobody knows where it would end. It is too bad the world has to be exposed to the mistakes of those men who know nothing about politics.
Kennedy’s speeches and his threats are similar to Hitler’s. Hitler threatened the small neighboring countries, and Kennedy is threatening Cuba and is saying that he will intervene. He says that his patience is coming to an end. Well, what about our patience, with all the things we have had to endure? In attacking Cuba, they shall unmask themselves more and arouse more revolutionary spirit in Latin America and they will only increase their own future worries. We want them to leave us alone. We want to live in peace with our revolution without losing any more sons. They should stop supplying the counterrevolutionaries with weapons. We will simply have to use a heavy hand. (Applause)
The imperialist powers use the method of surprise attacks, the same method of Hitler and Mussolini. We wish they would reconsider things, take a cold or a hot shower, anything. Let humanity, let history, end a system which is outdated now. Imperialism must pass just as feudalism did, just as slavery did.
The wars of 1914 and 1940’s were bad. Nazism didn’t save itself. The forces in the world in favor of peace are great. They know history is with them. They need not fight against history to preserve their system and privileges. It will be a sorry day for the world if those gentlemen are not able to reconsider. This is the question we must consider quietly. Cuba is part of the world today and there can be no discussion with Cuba that do not effect the world. (Applause)
We shall keep all the revolutionary forces mobilized and we shall plan for the May Day celebrations and we shall work for the victory of the revolution. We shall prepare ourselves to make the necessary sacrifices. The people have tasted victory. Victory is based upon sacrifices, on the basis of the 87 who died to guarantee the future of the country. They sacrificed themselves for the rest, for the independence and sovereignty of the nation and to obtain a better nation. This joy of today we owe it to those who fell and we hope that the future generations will enjoy their lives for today’s sacrifices.
The first prisoner, (Anzon Bayon?) said he was in training for two months in Guatemala under American instructors and then went to Nicaragua but was there only one day. He said that the situation in Cuba was pictured as intolerable.
The second prisoner, whose name was not heard, said he was trained at the Helvetia Ranch in Guatemala, that he saw the Guatemalan minister of war at the Retalhuleu base in November and that President Ydigoras visited the camp in December. When asked if he had joined or enlisted in Miami, he replied, ‘In Mexico.’
Questioned about the nationality of two destroyers which the prisoner said served as an escort, he replied;
‘They came in the area of the straits between Caiman Grande and Jamaica. I could see in the distance that two destroyers escorted us. I could see the number on one of them that came more to the North. The number was 507.’
Question: ‘Did you understand what I asked about the destroyer?’
Answer: ‘It was of North American nationality. The destroyer accompanied us from Caiman strait and Jamaica up to very near the Playa Giron.’
Question: ‘What idea did you and those who were with you have about the Cuban situation?’
Answer: ‘Our ideas were principally from information media we had from (here?). We had bulletin board notices at the brigade headquarters, a series of notes headed News about Cuba: That the militia was discontented; that there was friction between the army and the militia, very great friction’—I do not have to tell you that that was not true; that the people were discontented with the government, with the economic measures—the propaganda was constant. They emphasized that the investigation services of the government were…” Fidel Castro, “We Must Defend Our Country–Denouncing the U.S. Bay of Pigs Invasion;” speech, 1961
Numero Dos—“ELLEN G. FRIEDMAN: I’d like to begin with your novel Don Quixote. The epigraph to Part II of Don Quixote reads, ‘Being dead, Don Quixote could no longer speak. Being born into and part of a male world, she had no speech of her own. All she could do was read male texts which weren’t hers.’ In your parodies and plagiaristic writing, are you that Don Quixote reading male texts?
KATHY ACKER: There’s a certain amount of ironic distance between me and Don Quixote, a distance that varies, but at that point in the text, I’d say, yeah, I am.
EGF: In ‘reading’ Don Quixote, you’re a woman reading Don Quixote. Is it a way of appropriating the language for women?
KA: Not really. I had the actual copy of Don Quixote, and as a kind of joke, simply made the change from male to female to see what would happen. I don’t think there was much more behind it than this direct and simple move. Whenever I use ‘I,’ I am and I am not that ‘I.’ It’s a little bit like the theater: I’m an actress and that’s the role I’m taking on.
EGF: There’s a great deal of overt feminism in your work. You do appropriate a lot of male texts and that’s an issue in your work. I’d like you to comment on that aspect of your work.
KA: When I did Don Quixote, what I really wanted to do was a Sherrie Levine painting. I’m fascinated by Sherrie’s work.
EGF: What fascinated you about Sherrie’s work?
KA: What I was interested in was what happens when you just copy something, without any reason—not that there’s no theoretical justification for what Sherrie does—but it was the simple fact of copying that fascinated me. I wanted to see whether I could do something similar with prose. I came to plagiarism from another point of view, from exploring schizophrenia and identity, and I wanted to see what pure plagiarism would look like, mainly because I didn’t understand my fascination with it. I picked Don Quixote as a subject really by chance. I think it was a bit incidental, perhaps consciously incidental, that it was a male text. When I grew up I went to an all-girls’ school. By the time I first heard of feminism, I was in college. I never really thought about feminism until I got older and realized that the society was deeply sexist. I don’t consciously write as a feminist, although there are a few places in Don Quixote where I was dealing with Andrea Dworkin. There is an attack on Andrea Dworkin in Don Quixote, not her personally (in fact I saw her on a TV show and quite admired how she stood up for feminism), but on her dualistic argument that men are responsible for all the evil in the world. Her views go beyond sexism. She blames the act of penetration in sexual intercourse. I find that not only mad but dangerous. With all the problems in the world, such a view doesn’t do feminism any good. But as a rule I haven’t thought, ‘I am a woman, a feminist, and I’m going to appropriate a male text.’ What happens is that I frame my work way after I write it. The epigraph you quoted at the beginning comes out of my asking, ‘Why did I write all of these texts?’ In fact, I wrote the second part of Don Quixote first by rewriting texts, out of a Sherrie Levine-type impulse. Then I wrote the first and third parts later. The Lulu segment had been commissioned by Pete Brooks as a play. And I think I did the Leopardi part early on as well. Then I actually had an abortion. While I was waiting to have the abortion, I was reading Don Quixote. Because I couldn’t think, I just started copying Don Quixote. Then I had all these pieces and I thought about how they fit together. I realized that Don Quixote, more than any of my other books, is about appropriating male texts and that the middle part of Don Quixote is very much about trying to find your voice as a woman. So whatever feminism is there is almost an afterthought, which does not invalidate the feminism in any way. I don’t say, ‘I’m a feminist,’ therefore I’m going to do such and such. A complaint people have had about my work is that I’m not working from a moralistic or ideological tradition. I take materials and only at the end do I find out what’s going on in my writing. For instance, while writing it, I never considered that Blood and Guts in High School is especially anti-male, but people have been very upset about it on that ground. When I wrote it I think it was in my mind to do a traditional narrative. I thought it was kind of sweet at the time, but of course it’s not.
EGF: Sweet is not an adjective I would use to describe it.
KA: It’s about kids and kids are sweet. I was really in kid time when I wrote that. So that’s a very roundabout way of answering your question.
EGF: What about the schizophrenia and plagiarism. You said that was your original way into plagiarism.
KA: When I first started writing, I was influenced by poetry, mainly the Black Mountain school of poetry, so there’s a bit of poetry in that book. I was searching for my own medium. The middle section of the book interested me more than the other sections because I was working in a sex show, and this middle section was based on sex shows, diaries of sex shows. I was very influenced by Burroughs, so I was really writing out of a kind of “third mind,” through Burroughs and the sex show diaries. It was during the hippie days when sex was fun, when everybody slept with everyone else. I had another point of view, having seen it from the 42nd Street angle. I became politicized.
EGF: You say Burroughs was an influence on you.
KA: Oh, he was my first major influence.
EGF: Can you say what in Burroughs you admire or took?
KA: I came out of a poetry world. My education was Black Mountain school—Charles Olson, Jerry Rothenberg, and David Antin were my teachers. But I didn’t want to write poetry. I wanted to write prose and there weren’t many prose writers around who were using the ways of working of poets I was influenced by. Their concerns certainly weren’t narrative in any way. Any prose writer, even if he doesn’t use narrative the way narrative is traditionally used, is concerned with narrative. I mean the reader has to go from A to Z and it’s going to take a long time and that’s narrative. There’s no way to get around it; that’s the form.
EGF: So Burroughs seemed a natural?
KA: There were Burroughs and Kerouac really. I love to read Kerouac, but Burroughs is the more intellectual. He was considering how language is used and abused within a political context. That’s what interested me. The stuff about his relation to women and all that was really secondary for me to the main work, books like The Third Mind. I was also looking for a way to integrate both sides of my life. I was connected to the St. Mark’s poetry people at the time. On the one hand, there were the poetry people, who were basically upper-middle-class, and on the other, there was the 42nd Street crowd. I wanted to join the two parts of my life, though they seemed very un-joinable. As if I were split. Of course, the links were political.
EGF: There were political links between the two?
KA: A political context was the only way to talk about the link between them. Politics was the cause of the divergence. It was a question of class and also of sexism. The poetry world at that time denied any of this. Sexism wasn’t an issue, class, forget it. Money—we’re all starving hippies—ha, ha. That I worked in a sex show for money was not acceptable at all, despite the free love rhetoric. Warhol was interested in this convergence as well. I knew Warhol people who worked on 42nd Street, and his was the only group that did any crossover. He was interested in sex hype, transsexuals, strippers, and so forth.
EGF: What attracted you to 42nd Street? Was it the political aspect you’ve been talking about?
KA: Oh, no. I just needed money. I had gotten out of university and I had nowhere to go.
EGF: Where did you study?
KA: At Brandeis, at UCSD, and a little bit at CCNY and NYU.
EGF: We were talking about your early work.
KA: The first work I really showed anyone is The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula.
EGF: What about the schizophrenia?
KA: The thing about schizophrenia: I used a lot of autobiographical material in Black Tarantula. I put autobiographical material next to material that couldn’t be autobiographical. The major theme was identity, the theme I used from Tarantula through Toulouse The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec, the end of the trilogy. After that, I lost interest in the problem of identity. The problem had for me in a sense been solved by that trilogy. After that I became interested in plagiarism, working with other texts.
EGF: What comprises the trilogy?
KA: The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula, I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac, and Toulouse Lautrec.
EGF: And this trilogy was about identity? In Tarantula there’s a constant metamorphosing “I.” It’s a very unstable “I.
KA: Well, it’s a very simple experiment in Tarantula. When one first encounters the “I” in Tarantula, it’s the autobiographical “I.” Then the “I” takes on other, non-autobiographical qualities and gradually the invisible parentheses around the “I” dissolve and the experiment in identity proceeds from that. In Nymphomaniac, I suddenly realized that I wasn’t even thinking about how language works. So I began to explore language, how language works within the parameters of a particular problem. I began to work with memory and with repetition. How does the reader remember, or what does the reader remember when you repeat something over and over again? How do language and memory work even in the most well constructed, logical texts?
EGF: Do you know that Books in Print lists your books twice? It lists Black Tarantula by an author called Black Tarantula and then has a listing for Black Tarantula by Kathy Acker. The same with Toulouse.
KA: In those days, we did a lot with performance. We performed for each other. This was in the same vein. I put Black Tarantula in the phone book. Much of women’s art had to do with performance and identity. At art parties at the time, there was a lot of cross dressing, playing with gender and with identity.
EGF: Let’s get back to Don Quixote. You know, of course, that Borges also has his Don Quixote story. Were you playing with both Cervantes and Borges?
KA: Not really. I reread Borges’s story somewhat toward the end of writing my Don Quixote.
EGF: Here’s a quote from Don Quixote having to do with semiotics: “What it really did was give me a language with which I could speak about my work. Before that I had no way of discussing what I did, of course I did it, and my friends who were doing similar work—we had no way of talking to each other” (54). Was there an element of truth in that statement?
KA: I felt very isolated as part of the art world; I could never talk about my work until the punk movement came along and then I don’t know for what reason or what magic thing happened, but suddenly everyone started working together along the same lines. But we had no way of explaining what we were doing to each other. We were fascinated with Pasolini’s and Bataille’s work, but there was no way of saying why or how. So Sylvdre Lotringer came to New York. His main teachers were Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze and somewhat Foucault. That’s why I didn’t want to use the word “semiotics” because it’s slightly inaccurate. He was looking in New York for the equivalent of that scene, which wasn’t quite Derrida’s scene. What he picked on was the art world, especially our group, which was a kind of punk offshoot.
EGF: Who was in your group?
KA: Well, there were my friends Betsy Sussler who now does Bomb, Michael McClark, Robin Winters, Seth Tillett. People who started the Mud Club. Bands were forming, such as X, Mars, and the Erasers. Bands with ties to Richard Held, Lydia Lunch. Very much the Contortions. It was that amalgam of people he found. Sylvere started hanging out at our parties. I knew nothing about Foucault and Baudrillard. He’s the one that introduced me to them, introduced everyone to them. But it wasn’t from an academic point of view, and it certainly wasn’t from a Lacanian point of view or even from Derrida. It was much more political. When he did the Italian version of Semiotext(e), there were very close ties with the Autonomia, and it was very political. When I went over to France, friends of mine were working on the Change. There were connections with Bifo and Radio Alice. For the first time we had a way of talking about what we were doing. It was mainly, for me, about decentralization, and in Don Quixote I worked with theories of decentralization.
EGF: Empire of the Senseless seems to indicate a new direction for you. For instance, the plagiarism is not so apparent.
KA: Empire is a new direction, but I did use a number of other texts to write it, though the plagiarism is much more covered, hidden. Almost all the book is taken from other texts,
EGF: What other texts?
KA: I’ve used tons of other texts—sometimes it’s just a phrase. You know I’ve gotten very good at it. There’s a lot of Genet for instance. The beginning is based on Neuromancer, a book by William Gibson. But from page to page, I’ve adapted a lot of other texts. I couldn’t even say exactly. The first part is based on the oedipal complex and of course, there’s a lot of Freud in it. At first, I was going to name everyone after Freud’s patients, but I didn’t do that for all the characters. The first chapter is, on the whole, de Sade because I thought if anyone has to find the oedipal society, it’s de Sade. He was quite a brilliant man in that as he personified evil, he was at the same time reflecting what was going on in society. The first chapter of Part 11 is about the Haitian revolution and about voodoo, and then there’s A Thousand and One Nights and there’s some Genet. The reason for these particular texts is that I try to find writers who describe the particular place I want to get to. The third part of Empire is Huckleberry Finn. That’s one of the primary American texts about freedom and about how you live free in a society that isn’t.
EGF: What is the new direction you’ve taken with Empire?
KA: The search for a myth to live by. The purpose is constructive rather than deconstructive as in Don Quixote. What I particularly like about Empire of the Senseless is the characters are alive. For instance, in Blood and Guts, Janey Smith was a more cardboard figure. But I could sit down and have a meal with Abhor. However, it was the structure that really interested me, the three part structure. The first part is an elegy for the world of patriarchy. I wanted to take the patriarchy and kill the father on every level. And I did that partially by finding out what was taboo and rendering it in words. The second part of the book concerns what society would look like if it weren’t defined by oedipal considerations and the taboos were no longer taboo. I went through every taboo, or tried to, to see what society would be like without these taboos. Unfortunately, the CIA intervenes; I couldn’t get there. I wanted to get there but I couldn’t. The last section, “Pirate Night,” is about wanting to get to a society that is taboo, but realizing that it’s impossible. The CIA is symbolic.
EGF: The CIA is symbolic of what?
KA: That you can’t isolate yourself from the world. Two examples: Say, the hippie movement in which the goal was that you make things better by isolating yourself from society and going your own way. The same sort of thing with the separatist feminists. You form your own group. In the end you pull things that way a little, but it can’t work successfully. Neither one is in any way a viable model of true separation. It’s impossible. In the same way you try to imagine or construct a society that wasn’t constructed according to the myth of the central phallus. It’s just not possible when you live in this world. That’s what I wanted to do in the second section of Empire, but the CIA kept coming in. That’s what I mean by the CIA being symbolic. It could have been anybody. So I ended up with “Pirate Night,” You can’t get to a place, to a society, that isn’t constructed according to the phallus. You’re stuck with a lot of loneliness, so how do you deal with that isolation and loneliness? The third part concerns that issue. Also I’m looking for a myth. I’m looking for it where no one else is looking. That’s why I’m so interested in Pasolini.
EGF: The myth never surfaces?
KA: The myth to me is pirates.
EGF: Pirates is the myth?
KA: Yes. It’s like the tattoo. The most positive thing in the book is the tattoo. It concerns taking over, doing your own sign-making. In England (I don’t know if it’s so much true here), the tattoo is very much a sign of a certain class and certain people, a part of society that sees itself as outcast, and shows it. For me tattooing is very profound. The meeting of body and, well, the spirit—it’s a real kind of art, it’s on the skin. It’s both material and not material and it’s also a sign of the outcast. So that’s what I’m saying about looking for the myth with people like that—tattoo artists, sailors, pirates.
EGF: They represent the outcasts?
KA: Not just outcasts—outcasts could be bums—but people who are beginning to take their own sign-making into their own hands. They’re conscious of their own sign-making, signifying values really.
EGF: The wordplay in the book is quite wonderful, the relation between “tattoo” and “taboo,” for instance. That’s one of the things I was going to ask you about, tattooing. Is the tattooist an image of the writer?
KA: No, the tattooist is an image of the tattooist. I’m much more simple. The tattooist is the tattooist. The tattooist is my tattooist. I’m heavily tattooed.
EGF: But you were just talking about the tattooist as a sign-maker.
KA: Oh, the writer could do the same thing. I’m fascinated with the relationship between language and body. That’s something not many people have started working with, I’m interested in the material aspect of the tattoo. I admire Pierre Guyotat because he’s very much concerned with the body as text. This business of “When I write I masturbate.” Erotic texts at their best—I don’t mean pornographic, which is something else—are very close to the body; they’re following desire. That’s not always true of the writer, whereas it’s always true that the tattooist has to follow the body. That’s the medium of the tattoo. If you’re looking for values, it’s where the ground would be for real value. Whereas the ground for the values we have now, such as religion, there’s no reality to it, especially the evangelical movements, other than politics. It’s now something very sick. I have that feeling about the whole spectrum of what’s going on in America, from malls to religion, it’s very sick. It’s not real.
EGF: Why did you leave the United States’
KA: Not enough money.
EGF: You do better in London?
KA: It’s better for a writer over there, for me. There I’m an accepted writer. Here it was very difficult; I was sort of an adjunct to the art world. I really wanted to get out of New York. I’m forty now. I was thirty-seven when I got out of New York. I was feeling that my life was never going to change. To survive in New York is to be a little like those hamsters on a wheel, the wheel turns faster and faster. I felt that either I had to get very famous, just as a calling card for survival—I had to write movie scripts, I had to do whatever writers do here, write for popular magazines—or else become like a lot of poets I know who are very bitter about their poverty. And I don’t want either alternative. What I like is the middle ground. And I didn’t see it possible to maintain that middle ground.
EGF: And it is possible in London?
KA: Yes, very much. It’s a very literary society and you don’t want for money, so you can work.
EGF: Do you have a community of writers whose style of writing is closer to yours than here in America?
KA: No, I’m probably closer to people here. I have very good friends in London, but the people I’m closest to are people here.
EGF: Are there any contemporary writers whose work you’re following?
KA: Oh, I have friends who are wonderful writers, Lynne Tillman and Catherine Texier—very much I’m following their careers. I was just sent a novel by Sara Schulman called After Dolores, which is just lovely. But what would be the feminist writers in England don’t interest me that much.
EGF: Too ideological?
KA: No, it’s not too ideological; I don’t mind that. It’s just social realists. It’s too much, “I used to be in a bad nuclear marriage and now I’m a happy lesbian.” It’s diary stuff and the diary doesn’t go anywhere, and there’s not enough work with language.
EGF: I understand.
KA: I’m more interested in the European novel now. Pierre Guyotat. Duras’s work interests me. Some of Violet Leduc, early Monique Wittig. Some of de Beauvoir’s writing, Nathalie Sarraute. There is Elsa Morante’s writing. Luisa Valenzuela, I like her work. Laure, an amazing woman, a French woman from the upper classes who lived with Georges Bataille. Wonderful writer.
EGF: In Pasolini there are letters from Emily to Charlotte. Why the Bronte’s?
KA: Because they were Catholic.
EGF: Because they were Catholic?
KA: Well, anything Catholic was the point. You see, I was setting up the text so that all the connections were based on nominalism. So about Pasolini’s childhood, the son/sun pun became important, anything that had to do with the son, the son is Catholic, Pasolini was Catholic.
EGF: That’s fascinating. Can you talk a little more about that?
KA: The book’s structured that way. I think it’s probably unreadable, but it fascinated me to write it.
EGF: No, not at all. It’s one of my favorites.
KA: The idea fascinated me. I’ll never do it again. It’s as far into structure as I’ll ever go. I wanted to fashion a book out of different ways of ordering that weren’t causal. Again, I was fighting against oedipal structuring. The first part of the book is about the death and the second about the life of Pasolini. So there were two sections to death and life: In “Death” I was fascinated by his murder and also by the media around his murder. In the media, the idea advanced was “porn maker, homosexual” murdered in gory, homosexual murder. Everything was covered over at the trial. I was fascinated with why the media sensationalized it, what they were getting out of it. I always wanted to write a crummy crime book. It started out that way. I was going to write an Agatha Christie version of Pasolini’s murder.
EGF: An Agatha Christie version?
KA: It just started out that way.
EGF: It’s far from Agatha Christie, though.
KA: The first books I ever read came from my mother’s collection. My mother had porn books and Agatha Christie, so when I was six years old, I’d hide the porn books between the covers of Agatha Christie. They are my favorite models, the books I read as a kid. That’s why I originally became a writer—to write Agatha Christie-type books, but my mind is fucked up. I was going to write the Agatha Christie version of Pasolini’s death. But it didn’t turn out as planned. I picked three ways of solving the murder, I wanted a non-political way of solving it. So I picked three categories: sex, language, and violence. They had to be three appropriate categories. The way of solving it was by way of nominalism. Once I had the categories, anything went. Once I had the category sex, anything went that was about sex. Language was any language experiment, so I played with language school theory. In the end I wasn’t so much interested in solving his death as I was interested in his life. As I got into solving his murder, I didn’t learn how he died, so much was covered over. What I did learn was how multileveled he was. He was a man whose life was his work. He would always make the material of the body his subject. He never allowed people to ignore the body. He didn’t exploit the body as many thought. As I became more and more involved in his work, the “My Life” section of my novel became more important. The influence of Pasolini’s theories on my work is particularly important. He refused to separate genres-film, poetry, criticism. He refused to separate body and mind. When he was an old man he demanded that a series of pornographic pictures be taken of him.
EGF: Who’s your ideal reader? Do you like academic readers?
KA: I don’t imagine an ideal reader. I write for myself and maybe my friends. Although as I give readings more and more, I try and see whether the audience is bored. So in that way I’m aware of an audience. There has to be that element of entertainment, really, or there’s limited accessibility. So I do care about my readers in that way. Academics-I feel a confusion about academia.
EGF: You’ve come out of the academy?
KA: I absolutely hate it. I’ve seen too many English departments destroy people’s delight in reading. Once something becomes academic it’s taken on this level—take the case of semiotics and postmodernism. When I was first introduced to the work of Foucault and Deleuze, it was very political; it was about what was happening to the economy and about changing the political system. By the time it was taken up by the American academy, the politics had gone to hell. It became an exercise for some professors to make their careers. You know, it’s just more of the same: the culture is there to uphold the post capitalist society, and the idea that art has nothing to do with politics is a wonderful construction in order to mask the deep political significance that art has—to uphold the empire in terms of its representation as well as its actual structure.
EGF: What do you mean “in terms of its representation”?
KA: In England, for instance, they don’t have an empire anymore though they refuse to recognize that fact. What they have is Milton and Shakespeare. Their attitude toward Milton and Shakespeare is something absolutely incredible. A person’s speech denotes his class. Those who can speak Milton and Shakespeare are in the top class. It goes much deeper than this, obviously. The literary world should be a populist world, it should be the world in which any class can discuss itself. But in England, the literary world is so tightly bound to the Oxford-Cambridge system. Nobody but nobody gets into that world who hasn’t come from Oxbridge. It assures that its representation of itself always comes from its upper class. And those classes which are not Oxbridge have no representation of themselves except in fashion and rock and roll. So you really have two Englands: one represented by fashion and rock and roll, and one is the literary representation.
EGF: That’s very true for England, but not so much for the U.S.
KA: No, but I still think there’s an element of it here.
EGF: Fostered by the academy?
EGF: So when you get a book that’s experimental or postmodernist …
KA: I think that sometimes the word “experimental” has been used to hide the political radicalness of some writers. Oh, they’re “experimental,” that means they’re not really important.
EGF: They’re marginal?
KA: What this society does is marginalize artists. ” Oh, artists, they have nothing to do with politics.” So the experimental—it’s a way of saying things. I hate this way of saying things. I want to say “fuck, shit, prick.” That’s my way of talking, that’s my way of saying “I hate you.” But what they’re doing is marginalizing the experimental and that’s why I hate the word “experimental.” It’s another form of sticking people into the corner.
EGF: You grew up in New York?
KA: Yes, 57th Street and First Avenue.
EGF: Ever married?
KA: Married twice. The second marriage ended ten years ago.
EGF: What hasn’t been noticed about your work?
KA: Well, I’ll use the word “experimentalism,” my work with language and postmodernism—that’s been noticed about my work—it’s been noticed quite a bit now. Feminists hate me. Well, that’s not true anymore, Ten years ago, I was damned by them. But even in England, they are finding something to like in my work.
EGF: Here in America you’ve certainly been praised by feminists.
KA: In England the complaint is that I’m a ‘bad’ writer. The sex is OK, but they mind my coming out against the literary culture.
EGF: Are you a bad writer purposefully?
KA: Yes, sure—’piss, fuck, shit’ scrawled over a page—sure, of course. This appalls the literary establishment. When I appeared on a radio program, the announcer said, ‘We now have Kathy Acker, the author of Blood and Guts. She’s the most evil person in the world.’
EGF: That really happened?
KA: Sure, that happened, though it’s hard to believe. Another time, I was interviewed on radio by an upper-middle-class woman who said, ‘Why do you talk about poverty all the time?’ and I said, ‘I’ve been very poor.’ The disparity between the classes is really pronounced in England, so they parade me as a freak, that’s the role I play for them. Here, it’s not as true.
EGF: What are you working on now?
KA: The book I’m working on now, a third of which is finished, is a life of Rimbaud. I chose Rimbaud because I wanted to remember who influenced me, to explore the history of the imagination, and of dreaming and of art, how art can matter politically in the society. For me, one lineage that I’ve come out of is that of Rimbaud. So to investigate Rimbaud is to go back to the beginning for me. He saw myth as a way out of the mess I was talking about to you before.” Kathy Acker, “A Conversation With Kathy Acker;” in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, by Ellen Friedman, 1989
Numero Tres—“From his first day in office in 1930, Harry Anslinger had a problem, and everybody knew it. He had just been appointed head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics—a tiny agency, buried in the gray bowels of the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C.—and it seemed to be on the brink of being abolished. This was the old Department of Prohibition, but prohibition had been abolished and his men needed a new role, fast. As he looked over his new staff—just a few years before his pursuit of Billie Holiday began—he saw a sunken army who had spent fourteen years waging war on alcohol only to see alcohol win, and win big. These men were notoriously corrupt and crooked—but now Harry was supposed to whip them into a force capable of wiping drugs from the United States forever.
Harry believed he could. He believed that the response to being dealt a weak hand should always be to dramatically raise the stakes. He pledged to eradicate all drugs, everywhere—and within thirty years, he succeeded in turning this crumbling department with these disheartened men into the headquarters for a global war that would continue for decades. He could do it because he was a bureaucratic genius—but, even more crucially, because there was a deep strain in American culture that was waiting for a man like him, with a sure and certain answer to their questions about chemicals.
Jazz was the opposite of everything Harry Anslinger believed in. It is improvised, relaxed, free-form. It follows its own rhythm. Worst of all, it is a mongrel music made up of European, Caribbean and African echoes, all mating on American shores. To Anslinger, this was musical anarchy and evidence of a recurrence of the primitive impulses that lurk in black people, waiting to emerge. ‘It sounded,’ his internal memos said, ‘like the jungles in the dead of night.’ Another memo warned that ‘unbelievably ancient indecent rites of the East Indies are resurrected’ in this black man’s music. The lives of the jazzmen, he said, ‘reek of filth.’
His agents reported back to him that “many among the jazzmen think they are playing magnificently when under the influence of marihuana but they are actually becoming hopelessly confused and playing horribly.”
The Bureau believed that marijuana slowed down your perception of time dramatically, and this was why jazz music sounded so freakish—the musicians were literally living at a different, inhuman rhythm. “Music hath charms,” their memos say, “but not this music.” Indeed, Anslinger took jazz as yet more proof that marijuana drives people insane. For example, the song “That Funny Reefer Man” contains the line “Any time he gets a notion, he can walk across the ocean.” Anslinger’s agents warned that’s exactly what drug users were like: “He does think that.”
Anslinger looked out over a scene filled with rebels like Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong and Thelonious Monk, and—as the journalist Larry Sloman recorded—he longed to see them all behind bars. He wrote to all the agents he had sent to follow them and instructed: “Please prepare all cases in your jurisdiction involving musicians in violation of the marijuana laws. We will have a great national round-up arrest of all such persons on a single day. I will let you know what day.” His advice on drug raids to his men was always simple: “Shoot first.”
He reassured congressmen that his crackdown would affect not “the good musicians, but the jazz type.” But when Harry came for them, the jazz world would have one weapon that saved them: its absolute solidarity. Anslinger’s men could find almost no one among them who was willing to snitch, and whenever one of them was busted, they all chipped in to bail him out.
In the end, the Treasury Department told Anslinger he was wasting his time taking on a community that couldn’t be fractured, so he scaled down his focus until it settled like a laser on a single target—perhaps the greatest female jazz vocalist there ever was.
He wanted to bring the full thump of the federal government down upon that scourge of modern society, his Public Enemy #1: Billie Holiday.
One night, in 1939, Billie Holiday stood on stage in New York City and sang a song that was unlike anything anyone had heard before. ‘Strange Fruit’ was a musical lament against lynching. It imagined black bodies hanging from trees as a dark fruit native to the South. Here was a black woman, before a mixed audience, grieving for the racist murders in the United States. Immediately after, Billie Holiday received her first threat from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
Harry had heard whispers that she was using heroin, and—after she flatly refused to be silent about racism—he assigned an agent named Jimmy Fletcher to track her every move. Harry hated to hire black agents, but if he sent white guys into Harlem and Baltimore, they stood out straight away. Jimmy Fletcher was the answer. His job was to bust his own people, but Anslinger was insistent that no black man in his Bureau could ever become a white man’s boss. Jimmy was allowed through the door at the Bureau, but never up the stairs. He was and would remain an “archive man”—a street agent whose job was to figure out who was selling, who was supplying and who should be busted. He would carry large amounts of drugs with him, and he was allowed to deal drugs himself so he could gain the confidence of the people he was secretly plotting to arrest.
Many agents in this position would shoot heroin with their clients, to ‘prove’ they weren’t cops. We don’t know whether Jimmy joined in, but we do know he had no pity for addicts: ‘I never knew a victim,’ he said. ‘You victimize yourself by becoming a junkie.’
He first saw Billie in her brother-in-law’s apartment, where she was drinking enough booze to stun a horse and hoovering up vast quantities of cocaine. The next time he saw her, it was in a brothel in Harlem, doing exactly the same. Billie’s greatest talent, after singing, was swearing—if she called you a ‘motherfucker,’ it was a great compliment. We don’t know the first time Billie called Jimmy a motherfucker, but she soon spotted this man who was hanging around, watching her, and she grew to like him.
When Jimmy was sent to raid her, he knocked at the door pretending he had a telegram to deliver. Her biographers Julia Blackburn and Donald Clark studied the only remaining interview with Jimmy Fletcher—now lost by the archives handling it—and they wrote about what he remembered in detail. …
‘Stick it under the door!’ she yelled. ‘It’s too big to go under the door!’ he snapped back. She let him in. She was alone. J immy felt uncomfortable. ‘Billie, why don’t you make a short case of this and, if you’ve got anything, why don’t you turn it over to us?’ he asked. ‘Then we won’t be searching around, pulling out your clothes and everything. So why don’t you do that?’ But Jimmy’s partner arrived and sent for a policewoman to conduct a body search.
‘You don’t have to do that. I’ll strip,’ Billie said. ‘All I want to say is— will you search me and let me go? All that policewoman is going to do is look up my pussy.’
She stripped and stood there, and then she pissed in front of them, defying them to watch.
The morning he first raided her, Jimmy took Billie to one side and promised to talk to Anslinger personally for her. ‘I don’t want you to lose your job,’ he said.
Not long after, he ran into her in a bar and they talked for hours, with her pet Chihuahua, Moochy, by her side. Then, one night, at Club Ebony, they ended up dancing together—Billie Holiday and Anslinger’s agent, swaying together to the music.
‘And I had so many close conversations with her, about so many things,’ he would remember years later. ‘She was the type who would make anyone sympathetic because she was the loving type.’ The man Anslinger sent to track and bust Billie Holiday had, it seems, fallen in love with her.
But Anslinger was going to be given a break on Billie, one he got nowhere else in the jazz world. Billie had got used to turning up at gigs so badly beaten by her husband, manager and sometimes pimp, Louis McKay, they had to tape up her ribs before pushing her onstage. She was too afraid to go to the police—but finally she was brave enough to cut him off.
“How come I got to take this from this bitch here? This low-class bitch?” McKay raged, according to an interviewer who spoke with him years after Billie’s death. “If I got a whore, I got some money from her or I don’t have nothing to do with the bitch.” He had heard that Harry Anslinger wanted information on her, and he was intrigued. “She’s been getting away with too much shit,” MacKay said, adding he wanted “Holiday’s ass in the gutter in the East River.” That, it seems, was the clincher. “I got enough to finish her off,” he had pledged. “I’m going to do her up so goddam bad she going to remember as long as she live.” He travelled to D.C. to see Harry, and he agreed to set her up.
When Billie was busted again, she was put on trial. She stood before the court looking pale and stunned. “It was called ‘The United States of America versus Billie Holiday,’” she wrote in her memoir, “and that’s just the way it felt.” She refused to weep on the stand. She told the judge she didn’t want any sympathy. She just wanted to be sent to a hospital so she could kick the drugs and get well. Please, she said to the judge, “I want the cure.”
She was sentenced instead to a year in a West Virginia prison, where she was forced to go cold turkey and work during the days in a pigsty, among other places. In all her time behind bars, she did not sing a note. Years later, when her autobiography was published, Billie tracked Jimmy Fletcher down and sent him a signed copy. She had written inside it: “Most federal agents are nice people. They’ve got a dirty job to do and they have to do it. Some of the nicer ones have feelings enough to hate themselves sometime for what they have to do . . . Maybe they would have been kinder to me if they’d been nasty; then I wouldn’t have trusted them enough to believe what they told me.” She was right: Jimmy told the writer Linda Kuehl that he never stopped feeling guilty for what he’d done to Lady Day. “Billie ‘paid her debt’ to society,” one of her friends wrote, “but society never paid its debt to her.”
Now, as a former convict, she was stripped of her cabaret performer’s license, on the grounds that listening to her might harm the morals of the public. This meant she wasn’t allowed to sing anywhere that alcohol was served—which included all the jazz clubs in the United States.
One day, Harry Anslinger was told that there were also white women, just as famous as Billie, who had drug problems—but he responded to them rather differently. He called Judy Garland, another heroin addict, in to see him. They had a friendly chat, in which he advised her to take longer vacations between pictures, and he wrote to her studio, assuring them she didn’t have a drug problem at all. When he discovered that a Washington society hostess he knew—’a beautiful, gracious lady,’ he noted—had an illegal drug addiction, he explained he couldn’t possibly arrest her because ‘it would destroy… the unblemished reputation of one of the nation’s most honored families.’ He helped her to wean herself off her addiction slowly, without the law becoming involved.
Harry told the public that ‘the increase [in drug addiction] is practically 100 percent among Negro people,’ which he stressed was terrifying because already ‘the Negro population . . . accounts for 10 percent of the total population, but 60 percent of the addicts.’ He could wage the drug war—he could do what he did—only because he was responding to a fear in the American people. You can be a great surfer, but you still need a great wave. Harry’s wave came in the form of a race panic. …
In the run-up to the passing of the Harrison Act in 1914—the law that first criminalized drugs in the United States—the New York Times ran a story typical of the time. The headline was: ‘Negro cocaine ‘fiends’ new southern menace.’ It described a North Carolina police chief who ‘was informed that a hitherto inoffensive negro, with whom he was well-acquainted, was ‘running amuck’ in a cocaine frenzy [and] had attempted to stab a storekeeper . . . Knowing he must kill this man or be killed himself, the Chief drew his revolver, placed the muzzle over the negro’s heart, and fired—‘intending to kill him right quick,’ as the officer tells it, but the shot did not even stagger the man.’ Cocaine was, it was widely claimed in the press at this time, turning blacks into superhuman hulks who could take bullets to the heart without flinching. It was the official reason why some police in the South increased the caliber of their guns. One medical expert put it bluntly: ‘The cocaine nigger,’ he warned, ‘sure is hard to kill.’
Harry Anslinger did not create these underlying trends. His genius wasn’t for invention: it was for presenting his agents as the hand that would steady all these cultural tremblings. He knew that to secure his bureau’s future, he needed a high-profile victory, over intoxication and over black people, and so he turned back to Billie Holiday.
To finish her off, he called for his toughest agent—a man who was at no risk of falling in love with her, or anyone else.
The Japanese man couldn’t breathe. Colonel George White—a vastly obese white slab of a man—had his hands tightened around his throat, and he was not letting go. It was the last thing the Japanese man ever saw. Once it was all over, White told the authorities he strangled this “Jap” because he believed he was a spy. But privately, he told his friends he didn’t really know if his victim was a spy at all, and he didn’t care. “I have a lot of friends who are murderers,” he bragged years later, and “I had very good times in their company.” He boasted to his friends that he kept a photo of the man he had throttled hanging on the wall of his apartment, always watching him. So as he got to work on Billie, Colonel White was watched by his last victim, and this made him happy.
White was Harry Anslinger’s favorite agent, and when he looked over Holiday’s files, he declared her to be “a very attractive customer,” because the Bureau was “at a loose end” and could do with the opportunity “to kick her over.”
White had been a journalist in San Francisco in the 1930s until he applied to join the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. The personality test given to all applicants on Anslinger’s orders found that he was a sadist. He quickly rose through the bureau’s ranks. He became a sensation as the first and only white man ever to infiltrate a Chinese drug gang, and he even learned to speak in Mandarin so he could chant their oaths with them. In his downtime, he would go swimming in the filthy waters of New York City’s Hudson River, as if daring it to poison him.
He was especially angered that this black woman didn’t know her place. “She flaunted her way of living, with her fancy coats and fancy automobiles and her jewelry and her gowns,” he complained. “She was the big lady wherever she went.”
When he came for her on a rainy day at the Mark Twain Hotel in San Francisco without a search warrant, Billie was sitting in white silk pajamas in her room. This was one of the few places she could still perform, and she badly needed the money. She insisted to the police that she had been clean for over a year. White’s men declared they had found opium stashed in a wastepaper basket next to a side room and the kit for shooting heroin in the room, and they charged her with possession. But when the details were looked at later, there seemed to be something odd: a wastepaper basket seems an improbable place to keep a stash, and the kit for shooting heroin was never entered into evidence by the cops—they said they left it at the scene. When journalists asked White about this, he blustered; his reply, they noted, “appeared a little defensive.”
That night, White came to Billie’s show at the Café Society Uptown, and he requested his favorite songs. She never lost faith in her music’s ability to capture and persuade. ‘They’ll remember me,’ she told a friend, ‘when all this is gone, and they’ve finished badgering me.’ George White did not agree. ‘I did not think much of Ms. Holiday’s performance,’ he told her manager sternly.
Billie insisted the junk had been planted in her room by White, and she immediately offered to go into a clinic to be monitored: she would experience no withdrawal symptoms, she said, and that would prove she was clean and being framed. She checked herself in at a cost of one thousand dollars, and according to Ken Vail’s book Lady Day’s Diary, she didn’t so much as shiver.
We do know that George White had a long history of planting drugs on women. He was fond of pretending to be an artist and luring women to an apartment in Greenwich Village where he would spike their drinks with LSD to see what would happen. One of his victims was a young actress who happened to live in his building, while another was a pretty blond waitress in a bar. After she failed to show any sexual interest in him, he drugged her to see if that would change. ‘I toiled whole-heartedly in the vineyards because it was fun, fun, fun,’ White boasted after he had retired from the Bureau. ‘Where else [but in the Bureau of Narcotics] could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill, cheat, steal, rape and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the All-Highest?’ He may well have been high when he busted Billie for getting high. …
The prosecution of Billie went ahead. ‘The hounding and the pressure drove me,’ she wrote, ‘to think of trying the final solution, death.’ Her best friend said it caused Billie ‘enough anxieties to kill a horse.’ At the trial, a jury of twelve ordinary citizens heard all the evidence. They sided with Billie against Anslinger and White, and found her not guilty. Nonetheless, ‘she had slipped from the peak of her fame,’ Harry Anslinger wrote. ‘Her voice was cracking.’
In the years after Billie’s trial, many other singers were too afraid of being harassed by the authorities to perform ‘Strange Fruit.’ But Billie Holiday refused to stop. No matter what they did to her, she sang her song.
‘She was,’ her friend Annie Ross told me, ‘as strong as she could be.’
When Billie was forty-four years old, a young musician named Frankie Freedom was serving her a bowl of oatmeal and custard in his apartment when she suddenly collapsed. She was taken to the Knickerbocker Hospital in Manhattan and made to wait for an hour and a half on a stretcher, and they said she was a drug addict and turned her away. One of the ambulance drivers recognized her, so she ended up in a public ward of New York City’s Metropolitan Hospital. As soon as they took her off oxygen, she lit a cigarette.
“Some damnbody is always trying to embalm me,” she said, but the doctors came back and explained she had an array of very serious illnesses: she was emaciated because she had not been eating; she had cirrhosis of the liver because of chronic drinking; she had cardiac and respiratory problems due to chronic smoking; and she had several leg ulcers caused by starting to inject street heroin once again. They said she was unlikely to survive for long—but Harry wasn’t done with her yet. “You watch, baby,” Billie warned from her tiny gray hospital room. “They are going to arrest me in this damn bed.”
Narcotics agents were sent to her hospital bed and said they had found less than one-eighth of an ounce of heroin in a tinfoil envelope. They claimed it was hanging on a nail on the wall, six feet from the bottom of her bed—a spot Billie was incapable of reaching. They summoned a grand jury to indict her, telling her that unless she disclosed her dealer, they would take her straight to prison. They confiscated her comic books, radio, record player, flowers, chocolates and magazines, handcuffed her to the bed and stationed two policemen at the door. They had orders to forbid any visitors from coming in without a written permit, and her friends were told there was no way to see her. Her friend Maely Dufty screamed at them that it was against the law to arrest somebody who was on the critical list. They explained that the problem had been solved: they had taken her off the critical list.
So now, on top of the cirrhosis of the liver, Billie went into heroin withdrawal, alone. A doctor was brought into the hospital at the insistence of her friends to prescribe methadone. She was given it for ten days and began to recover: she put on weight and looked better. But then the methadone was suddenly stopped, and she began to sicken again. When finally a friend was allowed in to see her, Billie told her in a panic: “They’re going to kill me. They’re going to kill me in there. Don’t let them.” The police threw the friend out. “I had very high hopes that she would be able to come out of it alive,” another friend, Alice Vrbsky, told the BBC, until all this happened. “It was the last straw.”
On the street outside the hospital, protesters gathered, led by a Harlem pastor named the Reverend Eugene Callender. They held up signs reading “Let Lady Live.” Callender had built a clinic for heroin addicts in his church, and he pleaded for Billie to be allowed to go there to be nursed back to health. His reasoning was simple, he told me in 2013: addicts, he said, “are human beings, just like you and me.” Punishment makes them sicker; compassion can make them well. Harry and his men refused. They fingerprinted Billie on her hospital bed. They took a mug shot of her on her hospital bed. They grilled her on her hospital bed without letting her talk to a lawyer.
Billie didn’t blame Anslinger’s agents as individuals; she blamed the drug war itself—because it forced the police to treat ill people like criminals. ‘Imagine if the government chased sick people with diabetes, put a tax on insulin and drove it into the black market, told doctors they couldn’t treat them,’ she wrote in her memoir, ‘then sent them to jail. If we did that, everyone would know we were crazy. Yet we do practically the same thing every day in the week to sick people hooked on drugs.’
Still, some part of Billie Holiday believed she had done something evil, with her drug use, and with her life. She told people she would rather die than go back to prison, but she was terrified that she would burn in hell— just as her mother had said she would all those years before, when she was a little girl lying on the brothel floor, listening to Louis Armstrong’s music and letting it carry her out of Baltimore. ‘She was exhausted,’ one of her friends told me. ‘She didn’t want to go through it no more.’
And so, when she died on this bed, with police officers at the door to protect the public from her, she looked—as another of her friends told the BBC—’as if she had been torn from life violently.’ She had fifteen fifty-dollar bills strapped to her leg. It was all she had left. She was intending to give it to the nurses who had looked after her, to thank them.
Her best friend, Maely Dufty, insisted to anyone who would listen that Billie had been effectively murdered by a conspiracy to break her, orchestrated by the narcotics police—but what could she do? At Billie’s funeral, there were swarms of police cars, because they feared their actions against her would trigger a riot. In his eulogy for her, the Reverend Eugene Callender told me he had said: ‘We should not be here. This young lady was gifted by her creator with tremendous talent . . . She should have lived to be at least eighty years old.’
The Federal Bureau of Narcotics saw it differently. ‘For her,’ Harry wrote with satisfaction, ‘there would be no more Good Morning Heartache.’” Johann Hari, “The Hunting of Billie Holiday–How Lady Day Was in the Middle of a Federal Bureau of Narcotics Fight for Survival;” Politico Magazine, 2015