Study Guide

The Day Lady Died Quotes

  • Mortality

    The Day Lady Died (title)

    The title leads us to believe the poem will be about the death of "Lady," or Billie Holiday. But most of the poem is just a narration of the "day," as in, the completely normal things the narrator has done. In that regard, the poem isn't technically misleading, but it tricks us nonetheless. It would be like giving a poem the title of "My Breakfast on the Morning of 9-11" and then preceding to write about your breakfast cereal. Awkward. Obviously there's something else going on here, but we'll leave it to you to figure out why O'Hara makes this interesting choice.

    I go on to the bank
    and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
    doesn't even look up my balance for once in her life (lines 11-13)

    In these lines, the speaker suggests that this day is somehow "different" from other days. Maybe Miss Stillwagon doesn't look up the balance because she is so grief-stricken about Billie Holiday. Or maybe it's just a total coincidence.

    and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it (line 25)

    This poem is an elegy, but the speaker never refers to the deceased person by name. Billie Holiday is just simply "her."

    and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
    leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
    while she whispered a song along the keyboard
    to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing (lines 26-29)

    Again, we don't know what role Holiday's death plays in the speaker's intense "sweating." Remember: it's a hot day in July, so he's probably sweating anyway. The poem plays with our expectation that it will be "about" death.

  • Memory and the Past

    It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
    three days after Bastille day, yes
    it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine (lines 1-3)

    This poem is all over the place with respect to time. Most of the poem is narrated in the present, but there are odd references to the past, like the remark that it's "three days after Bastille Day."

    because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
    at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
    and I don't know the people who will feed me (lines 4-6)

    The poem looks into the future. Still no mention of memory or the deep past. Think about how strange these lines are: this poem is about the death of an artistic hero, and yet the speaker is worried about what he's going to eat.

    (first name Linda I once heard) (line 12)

    Another stray and seemingly irrelevant reference to the past, which serves to dampen our expectation that we're going to hear anything meaningful about Billie Holiday.

    and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it (line 25)

    Then it happens: the speaker sees the newspaper, which triggers what the French writer Marcel Proust called "involuntary memory." (Judging by the speaker's love of all things French, you'd better believe he has read Proust's massive novel Remembrance of Things Past.) The newspaper sends the speaker plunging back into a memory of a concert.

    And I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
    leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT (lines 26-27)

    Now the speaker goes down the rabbit hole, and the setting of the poem suddenly shifts from present to past.

  • Society and Class

    three days after Bastille Day (line 2)

    You have to be a certain kind of person to casually drop a line about Bastille Day, a key date in the French revolution. Most Americans probably have never even heard of Bastille Day. The fact that the speaker's sense of time revolves around the French calendar tells us something very specific about him – he seems to be an "intellectual."

    because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
    at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
    and I don't know the people who will feed me (lines 4-6)

    East Hampton is an extremely wealthy enclave on Long Island. The speaker isn't rich enough to have a house in East Hampton, but he's cool enough to get invited to stay there.

    an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
    in Ghana are doing these days (lines 9-10)

    The speaker adopts a tired, jaded tone toward the 1950s fad of Western literary journals claiming to "discover" African literature.

    and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
    Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and (lines 20-21)

    Wow, this guy is confident. He just "strolls into" the liquor store, like he owns the place, and is like, "I need some Strega," which is a fancy Italian liquor you've probably never heard of. (We certainly hadn't.) He oozes nonchalance and casual good taste.

    while she whispered a song along the keyboard
    to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing (lines 28-29)

    For most of the poem, the speaker seems hip and self-confident. But here at the end, he's suddenly completely powerless, and even his ability to breath is at the mercy of Billie Holiday's incredible performance.

  • Art and Culture

    three days after Bastille day, yes (line 2)

    This off-handed remark about Bastille Day is the first indication that our speaker is a serious Francophile (he likes the French).

    an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
    in Ghana are doing these days (lines 9-10)

    Post-colonial literature, particularly African literature, was all the rage in European intellectuals circles in the 1950s. French writers like Jean-Paul Sartre were instrumental in bringing African writers to the attention of the world. The speaker feels confident (arrogant?) enough about his tastes that he can mock one of the most respected literary journals as "ugly."

    and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
    for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
    think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
    Brendan Behan's new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
    of Genet, but I don't, I stick with Verlaine
    after practically going to sleep with quandariness (lines 13-19)

    Notice how the speaker never really sounds too excited about art, even though he knows a ton about it? He's always slightly jaded, and in these lines he almost puts himself to sleep. For the average reader, these lines probably sound like a blizzard of unfamiliar names, but they reveal the speaker's deep knowledge of 1950s cultural life.

    casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
    of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it (lines 24-25)

    Even the speaker's cigarettes are French! Gauloises are a brand of French cigarettes associated with French café culture and artists like Jean-Paul Sartre.

    while she whispered a song along the keyboard
    to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing (lines 28-29)

    For all his knowledge of high culture – especially literature, theater, and painting – the narrator's most intense artistic experience in the poem comes from a "popular" art form – jazz. Holiday's singing leaves everyone in the room breathless.