Frank O'Hara's "The Day Lady Died" is an elegy to the jazz singer Billie Holiday, who passed away on July 17th, 1959 from cirrhosis of the liver. Holiday was known for her contralto voice, and for her ability to improvise a song on the spot. Her most well-known hits include "Strange Fruit" and "God Bless The Child."At the end of her life, Holiday's voice declined from years of substance abuse. She struggled for years with alcoholism and drug addiction. In the hospital where she died, she had recently been arrested for possession of heroin. Her death testifies to the toll of addiction, and the difficulty of coping with the pressure of a life in the spotlight.
"The Day Lady Died" is an example of O'Hara's self-described "I do this, I do that" poems. Much of the poem's action occurs in everyday tasks. For the most part, the reader follows O'Hara's speaker throughout his afternoon in New York City until the jarring news of Holiday's death transforms the poem from a simple series of actions to a complex meditation on loss and memory.
As far as elegies go, this poem is unusual because O'Hara writes in media res, and does not mention Holiday's death until the end. This choice is typical of O'Hara's verse: to maintain the impression of an experience just-lived, the news of Holiday's death occupies a precise temporal place in the poem. It shatters the reverie and routine of the speaker's day, and forces him to pause amidst the bustling atmosphere of the City. Her death signifies the inevitable tragedy of modern life, and the shock that results when something awful happens and stamps each detail upon one's mind.