Notorious SF: Billie Holiday

The Executive Hotel Mark Twain - Union Square, 345 Taylor Street, formerly the Ramada Inn Union Square, formerly the Mark Twain Hotel.
On January 22, 1949, jazz great Billie Holiday, who fifty years later would be recognized among artists who defined the 20th Century, was busted in a raid on Room 203 at the Mark Twain Hotel, 345 Taylor Street. Holiday had previously spent ten months in a federal slammer in West Virginia on a heroin charge in 1947. Holiday, 29 and already known around the world for her great singing talent as well as for her drug addiction, came to San Francisco with her manager-boyfriend, John Levy, 41, to perform at Cafe Society Uptown on Fillmore Street on the week of the bust at the Mark Twain. In a raid led by federal narcotics agent George H. White, the cops said they found the singer in posession of opium and a pipe. White testified that Holiday ran into the bathroom and tried to flush the evidence, which he retrieved. Fifty dollars worth of opium and part of a pipe were introduced into evidence. What's startling about the case against Billie Holiday is that she faced state prosecution rather than federal because federal courts would not permit evidence obtained without a search warrant. What's startling is that state courts would! Levy was also arrested but was later released. Only Holiday was charged in a grand jury indictment. On the weekend before jury selection, Levy beat Holiday, took her money and fur coat, and split. The greatest female jazz singer in world, who was free on bail, appeared in court with a black eye and a well worn beige suit. Her attorney was the great San Francisco legal figure Jake Ehrlich. The maverick attorney had previously defended Sally Stanford and drummer Gene Krupa. Ehrlich, whose 1955 biography was titled, "Never Plead Guilty," was the subject of an unsold 1960 TV pilot by Gene Rodenberry starring DeForest Kelly as attorney Jake Brittin in "333 Montgomery Street." Ehrlich's office was at 300 Montgomery. A second series, Sam Benedict, was also based on Ehrlich. In the trial of Billie Holiday, Ehrlich brought to light evidence that Levy and Agent White had been chummy for more than year before the raid and that Levy wanted to get rid of Billie rather than marry her. The foreman of the jury of six men and six women said they believed the defense contention that Holiday was framed. Moments after her acquittal on June 3, 1949, Holiday said that although Levy had beaten her, stolen all her money, then deserted her, she loved him and would take him back in a minute. "He's my man," she said. Holiday was the godmother of District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty. Dufty's father, William Dufty, co-wrote Holiday's autobiography, "Lady Sings the Blues." Billie's account of her arrest and trial in San Francisco jibes with the public record, except that she doesn't name the hotel and says her room was #602. "You can get in just as much trouble by being dumb and innocent as you can by breaking the law," says Holiday, "I've learned the hard way. If you're doing something wrong, you know it and you've got at least one eye peeled looking for trouble. That way, you're in some position to protect yourself. The other way, you're just a pigeon."

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