Study Guide

The Day Lady Died

The Day Lady Died Summary

The poem begins with a glance at the speaker's watch. What time is it? 12:20. Where are he? New York. What day is it? Three days after Bastille Day, so July 17. What year is it? 1959. What should he do now? Get a shoeshine. After that? Take the train out of the city to meet friends for dinner in East Hampton. Which friends? (He has a lot of friends in East Hampton). He'll worry about that later.

Having recounted his general plan for the day, the speaker starts walking up the street. He eats lunch and buys a literary journal. He goes to the bank and is surprised when the teller does not look up his balance. He goes to a bookstore to buy gifts for some friends. He goes to the liquor store to buy a bottle of fancy booze for another friend. He retraces his steps and goes to buy cigarettes at a tobacco shop. While in the tobacco shop, he sees a copy of a newspaper with Billie Holiday's face on the cover. He's a big fan, and – no! What? Billie Holiday has died. The speaker buys the newspaper along with his cigarettes.

As he tries to process the news, he starts sweating with grief. Or maybe just from the heat. He remembers the time he heard Holiday sing at a club called the "5 Spot." He was leaning against the bathroom door as she "whispered a song along the keyboard." All the people in the club, including the speaker and Holiday's pianist, held their breaths.

  • Stanza I

    Lines 1-2

    It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
    three days after Bastille day, yes

    • The poem begins like a police report, with the time and date.
    • The speaker drops the setting in our lap and says, "Here's the setting. This is when and where the poem is set." Thanks, Frank.
    • O'Hara wrote this poem on his lunch break, and it's already 12:20pm, so the speaker is narrating the time literally right before the poem was written. It's Friday, so he might be looking forward to the weekend and not too worried about getting back to work immediately.
    • The speaker provides the date in an off-hand manner: it's three days after Bastille Day.
    • Being total Francophiles, we know that Bastille Day is like the French version of Independence Day. It celebrates the liberation of the Bastille prison in Paris in 1789, a pivotal event at the beginning of the French Revolution.
    • We learn two things from the casual mention of Bastille Day. First, it must be July 17, because Bastille Day is always July 14. Second, our speaker seems to be a hip intellectual type, since he's keeping track of French holidays.
    • The last word of line two is "yes." It's as if the speaker is thinking fast and going back to review what he just said. "Is that right? Three days? Yes."
    • It also sounds like a flashy celebrity news reporter trying to drum up excitement. "We're here outside Mann's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, and, yes, the stars have come out tonight!"

    Lines 3-5

    it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
    because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
    at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner

    • Line 3 has something resembling traditional poetry, an internal rhyme.
    • Nonetheless, everything else about these lines is completely unconventional. Why? Because it's so darned conventional.
    • The speaker says he's going to get a shoeshine because he wants to look good when he meets his swanky friends in "Easthampton," by which he means "East Hampton," but he's talking so fast he crunches the name into one word.
    • As a favor to potential O'Hara stalkers across the world, he even provides the train schedule. Departure from New York City: 4:19pm Arrival in East Hampton: 7:15pm.
    • East Hampton is a very wealthy area of Long Island. Currently, a lot of celebrities have houses there, including Jerry Seinfeld and Martha Stewart. Even back in the late 50s, it was the kind of place where you'd better show up with your shoes polished to avoid having people look at you funny.
    • Biographical side note: Not only did O'Hara take the 4:19 train after writing this poem, but when he arrived in East Hampton, his friend was waiting for him with "a thermos of martinis" (source)!
    • Martinis from a thermos? Wow. The speaker's super-cool social status is an important part of this poem.

    Lines 5-6

    at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
    and I don't know the people who will feed me

    • The speaker continues to plot out the rest of his day.
    • Remember that, except for the shoeshine, none of this has happened yet.
    • When he gets off the train, it's straight to dinner, except he doesn't know where yet.
    • The speaker sounds like a highly sought after person, maybe because he's an artist; so he gets free meals and housing pretty much whenever he wants.
  • Stanza II

    Lines 7-10

    I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
    and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
    an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
    in Ghana are doing these days

    • New stanza. The speaker has been thinking about the rest of the day, but now he returns to the present moment. Presumably, after the shoeshine.
    • He walks up the street, eats a hamburger and a "malted" milk shake, and buys a literary journal called "NEW WORLD WRITING." We're not sure why he puts the title in caps.
    • It's July, remember, so no surprise that the street would be "muggy." The speaker is even "beginning to sun" – he's got a little tan going.
    • New World Writing was a literary magazine published during the 1950s. It was an "anthology," meaning it contained samples of work by many different writers. Many of the "big names" in Western literature published their work in it, including Joseph Heller, Jack Keruoac, and Samuel Beckett.
    • Notice, though, how our speaker seems distinctly unimpressed by the magazine. He makes fun of its "ugly" color and cracks a joke about seeing "what the poets in Ghana are doing these days." In addition to big-name Americans and Europeans, New World Writing published authors from around the world, and the 1950s were the time when African writers became popular in progressive intellectual circles.
    • You could interpret the speaker's attitude as skeptical ("Why is everybody suddenly so interested in these poets from Ghana when nobody cared before?") or as merely curious ("Ghana, huh? Small world").
    • Either way, he's not amazed. This is a guy who has seen literary fads come and go.
  • Stanza III

    Lines 11-13

    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

    • There's a weird break between stanzas II and III. The last line of stanza II ends in the middle, and the first line of stanza III begins in the middle.
    • There's no clear reason why O'Hara chooses to divide things in this way, except that he seems to be breaking off in the middle of one thought (about New World Writing) and returning to the middle of another (what he is doing at the moment).
    • The speaker goes to the bank and interacts with a teller named "Miss Stillwagon."
    • Now, come on, that name has to be made up. Well, maybe. You could certainly come up with all kinds of fancy-pants "symbolic" interpretations of this name ("The 'wagon' of life has been halted and now lies 'still'!"), or you could just go with it.
    • We know that the speaker goes to this bank regularly, because he knows that the teller's first name is Linda from a separate trip.
    • Linda doesn't look up his balance, "for once in her life." Holy smokes, Batman!
    • Notice the conversational tone, which doesn't make perfect grammatical sense. Is he suggesting that she has spent her entire life looking up his balance? Obviously not. He is saying that she usually looks up her balance but doesn't this time. You might even think he sounds annoyed at how often she looks up his balance.
    • This tiny, insignificant little detail about the Case of the Missing Bank Balance is the first sign that perhaps this day is different from other days. Is Linda absent-minded for a particular reason? Perhaps she has heard some distressing news? Now we're getting way ahead of ourselves, though.

    Line 14-15

    and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
    for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do

    • The speaker goes into someplace called the "GOLDEN GRIFFIN" and buys some books. We're going to go out on a limb here and say that the Golden Griffin is a bookstore. Once again, O'Hara capitalizes the name, which is curious.
    • The first purchase he makes is a "little" book of poems by Paul Verlaine, a 19th century French Symbolist poet. Does it matter that Verlaine suffered from drug and alcohol addiction, like a certain 20th century female jazz singer? You didn't hear it from us.
    • Verlaine isn't exactly a household name, so our speaker clearly knows something about poetry. He has taste.
    • He's also a thoughtful friend. He buys the book for "Patsy." Now if he could only find a greeting card store with a section for "Happy Belated Bastille Day." The illustrations in the book are done by Pierre Bonnard, a French artist who liked to paint domestic scenes of women going about their daily lives.
    • In fact, O'Hara knew a lot about art because he worked at the Museum of Modern Art, which happens to own several paintings by Bonnard. The plot thickens!

    Lines 16-19

    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

    • Our speaker is really starting to drag his feet here at the bookstore; he mentions all the books he was planning to buy, but didn't.
    • He first rejects a book by the Greek writer Hesiod, whose principle works are The Works and Days, Theogony, and The Shield of Herakles. The Theogony, in case you're interested, is a mythical creation story that features a scene in which the Greek god of time, Kronos, cuts off his father's testicles and throws them into the ocean. Sorry to gross you out.
    • And, yes, Richard Lattimore really was a translator of Hesiod.
    • The speaker also considers the "new play" by the Irish playwright Brendan Behan, and two plays by the French playwright Jean Genet, Le Balcon (The Balcony) and Les Nègres (The Blacks).
    • Our speaker eventually decides to buy the Verlaine. He says that it was such a tough decision – such a "quandary" – that he almost put himself to sleep.
    • The takeaway message is that our speaker follows that art scene in America and Europe very closely, not just literature, but painting and theater as well. He has a particular fondness for French literature. You'll have to trust us on this one: for a guy living in the 1950s, our speaker is unbearably hip.
    • Also, he seems to have liberal political views, or else he probably wouldn't be interested in difficult works about race relations like Genet's Les Nègres. Billie Holiday, we hasten to mention, was an African-American vocalist in the pre-dawn of the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Stanza IV

    Lines 20-21

    and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
    Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and

    • Patsy got a gift, why shouldn't Mike get one, too? Patsy gets a book, Mike gets a bottle of Italian liquor called "Strega."
    • In contrast to the bookstore quandary, the speaker knows right from the start that he's going to buy Mike alcohol. He doesn't have to put himself to sleep debating whether to get Jack Daniels or Grey Goose. He "strolls" into the Park Lane liquor store, buys the booze, and leaves. Easy.
    • Who are Patsy and Mike? Do they know each other? We'd guess they are a couple, maybe the couple that the speaker is going to see in East Hampton.

    Lines 22-25

    then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
    and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
    casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
    of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

    • Reading this poem is like watching a game of PAC-MAN. The speaker is popping in and out of stores, picking up and putting down books, and retracing his steps.
    • He walks back where he came from and goes into a tobacco shop inside a Broadway theater called the Ziegfeld. He "casually" buys not one, but two different kinds of cigarettes, as well as a New York Post newspaper.
    • Oh, and by the way, the newspaper has "her face on it."
    • Whose face? "Lady's." That is, Billie Holiday's. The newspaper, evidently, is reporting the news of her death.
    • This is the moment when the speaker learns that, in fact, Lady Day has died, and his reaction is…nothing. Zilch.
    • In fact, the speaker does everything he can to sound cool and nonchalant, down to "casually" asking for the cigarettes. He slips her death into the poem like a minor detail, just another part of the day. This is ironic, because it's clearly not just another day. One of his artistic heroes has just died.
    • Can we just note that the speaker must be a big smoker – he buys cigarettes by the carton and not by the pack. He also buys Gauloises, an extremely potent cigarette brand associated with French intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre, who made them into one of his trademarks.
    • Finally, why isn't the name of the theater capitalized, like all the other places in the poem? Curious.
  • Stanza V

    Lines 26-27

    and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
    leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT

    • The speaker is sweating and thinking about the time he was leaning against the bathroom door in a nightclub called the 5 Spot.
    • The poem leads us to believe that his sweating is related to learning of Holiday's death, but you could read it another way: it's July, summer in New York City. Couldn't he just be sweating from the heat? In this poem, any hints of grief are masked in uncertainty.
    • The sweating detail is also significant because it makes the image of the nightclub more powerful. We don't know about you, but most of the music clubs we have been to have been hot, sweaty affairs.
    • The 5 Spot was a real club, and O'Hara saw Holiday perform there. He was sitting by the bathroom.

    Lines 28-29

    while she whispered a song along the keyboard
    to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

    • The poem has been very noisy so far, filled with the bustle and commotion of New York. But at the end things get quiet, as we strain to hear how Billie Holiday "whispered a song along the keyboard" to her pianist, Mal Waldron.
    • The performance is so subtle and mesmerizing that everyone in the club holds his breath, afraid to miss a single note. Or as the speaker dramatically puts it, "everyone and I stopped breathing."
    • The poem ends on this phrase, as if it, too, has "stopped breathing."
    • After hearing all about the trivialities of the speaker's day, we're left with a breathless memory of a great performer holding her audience captive.