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Louis McKay: Who was Billie Holiday's Husband?
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Celebrities

Louis McKay: Who was Billie Holiday's Husband?

Billie Holiday was married to her third husband Louis Mckay for twelve years, but who was the man who inherited her estate?

In her brief but highly impactful time on this earth, renowned American jazz singer Billie Holiday (1915-1959) was an undeniable musical legend in spite of the trauma, racism, substance abuse, legal troubles, and violence that characterized her life. Her third and final husband, Louis McKay, was, unfortunately no different from the previous men in Billie’s life. But few people know much about who he was.

As a child, Holiday was abused, and spent time in a Catholic children’s home before cleaning and running errands for a brothel. In 1928, she moved to Harlem with her mother, where they both ended up working in a brothel themselves. The years that followed were a nightmare of chronic rape, abuse, and subsequent imprisonment by the very police who should have protected her. When she was 14, she was charged with vagrancy and sent to a workhouse—when she got out, she, miraculously, began her career as an artist, singing in nightclubs around Harlem in uptown Manhattan. 


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She went on to produce 12 studio records, three live albums, and dozens of top singles, including haunting hits like “Strange Fruit,” and “God Bless the Child,” which was named one of the Songs of the Century by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Sadly, Holiday’s struggles with her abusive husband Louis McKay would ultimately lead to her downfall. But who exactly was the man behind the scenes?

How Billie Met Louis McKay

Louis McKay and Billie Holiday on the couch holding a small dog.

Louis McKay and Billie Holiday met while she was touring Europe and working on her autobiography sometime in 1956. Some reports say he acted as her pimp, eventually graduating to being her “manager” and brutally violent husband. He would also steal most of her money.

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Louis McKay was not a musician, but he won Billie’s heart nonetheless—in spite of his bad reputation. According to NPR, McKay was a “wannabe gangster” and was, “by most accounts…a louse."

Louis McKay And Billie Holiday Were Arrested Before They Got Married

Billie Holiday in a stable with her dog.

When Billie Holiday started her new romance with McKay, she “seemed happier than she had been in years.” 

But not long after meeting, the pair were arrested for possession of narcotics. This wasn’t Holiday’s first run-in with the law—in her autobiography, she describes her first arrest, in 1947, for drug possession, saying it felt like the world was against her.

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She was charged with heroin possession at the time and received a one-year sentence. After leaving prison in 1948, she quit drugs, but it wasn’t long before the cycle of trauma and abuse caught up to her and she got back into the bad habit.

Billie Holiday’s Marriage to Louis McKay

Billie Holiday and husband Louis McKay at the dinner table.

In 1957, after their arrests, Holiday and Louis McKay got married in Mexico. She had married several times before, always to abusive men with drug problems, but McKay was the last. He worked as a mob enforcer and was naturally abusive. 

Soon, McKay was also Holiday’s acting road manager. According to biography.com, “like many other men in her life, McKay used Holiday’s name and money to advance himself.” 

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McKay was so physically abusive that Holiday often had to "tape up her ribs" before going onstage after a brutal beating. Although she didn't report the abuse to the authorities out of fear of both Mckay and the police, once she found out he had lost her money in a risky property speculation, she finally left him.

Once separated, Billie moved into an apartment in New York where she resided alone with her dog. When Holiday passed away in 1959, the two were estranged but still married, which would ultimately facilitate further theft of her funds even after her death.

Louis McKay’s Betrayal

Billie Holiday looking unimpressed during a conversation.

It’s hard to pick just one way in which Louis McKay betrayed Holiday. For starters, McKay admitted he was a part of the operation that had Holiday arrested in West Virginia in 1947, close to a decade before they met. 

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Holiday was on the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) radar since at least 1939. To make matters worse, FBN commissioner Harry Anslinger was a widely known racist and made it his mission to take Holiday down for her drug and alcohol addiction. He relentlessly pursued her all the way up until her death in 1959. 

"She's been getting away with too much s***," McKay said about setting her up, adding, "I got enough to finish her off." Continuing, he said, "I'm going to do her up so godd*** bad she going to remember as long as she live.”

Louis McKay Profited Off Of Billie Holiday Even After Death

Billie Holiday with husband Louis Mckay at a restaurant.

While living alone with her dog, Billie Holiday’s drug and alcohol abuse increased, and in 1959, she was hospitalized. She died at the age of 44 of complications from cirrhosis of the liver.

At the time of her death, Billie Holiday had $0.70 in her bank account and $750 strapped to her leg.

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Holliday died without a will, which meant, unfortunately, that because she was still legally married to McKay, under New York law, he would inherit her estate, including her royalties. It was estimated that at that time these royalty interests amounted to $15,000 to $20,000 annually. In 2014, Billy Holiday’s estate was valued at $14 million. 

In Tragedy, There Is Enduring Legacy 

Billie Holiday in red dress sitting beside husband Louis Mckay.

It’s hard not to read Billie Holiday’s story and be overwhelmed by the tragedy of it all. But there is beauty in tragedy as well, and Billie’s life, mired in struggle and sorrow as it was, is an astounding example of the human capacity to overcome all odds. Born and raised as she was in great trauma which she would never fully escape, Billie Holiday still somehow managed to rock the world with her voice and create soulful, otherworldly music. 

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Holiday won four Grammy Awards, all of them posthumously, and was also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1976 as well as the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The latter have said that, “Billie Holiday changed jazz forever.”

It’s difficult not to wonder what Louis McKay would think if he could see how highly regarded Billie's legacy is even today. One could summon countless inspired music quotes based on the way her art ultimately conquered all.

Several films about Holiday’s life have been released, most recently The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021).

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