Bix Beiderbecke was an alcoholic. Of all the mysteries that attend his life, of all the pesky and persistent holes in his biography, this is as close to incontrovertible as we get.
When this paper denied that fact, it got the history grievously wrong. More than that, though, it deprived Beiderbecke of his humanity and participated in a strange and longstanding ritual that places worshiping Bix above understanding him as a historical and cultural figure.
Beiderbecke's alcoholism is backed up by a million and one "Drunken Bix" stories, told by the people who worked with him and knew him best. He loses his horn, loses his job, loses his clothes even. He's almost hit by a train. Some of these tales are likely exaggerated, but they are also remarkably consistent on one point: Bix Beiderbecke was an alcoholic.
In 1922, he was expelled from boarding school for drinking, and a few years later he was expelled from the University of Iowa for engaging in a drunken fistfight.
Then in September 1929, Bix's family checked him into the Keeley Institute, in Dwight, Illinois, the nation's premier alcohol rehabilitation facility. The records of his stay make for tough reading. After Bix had arrived and been examined, the doctor wrote to inform his mother that her 26-year-old son suffered from a loss of appetite, diarrhea, heart palpitations, dizziness, neuritis in the feet, an enlarged liver, balancing problems, and a tremor in his fingers.
Less than two years later, he was dead.
Despite all of this, Bing Crosby once claimed that Bix wasn't an alcoholic; he was just exhausted. Others have followed his lead, now including columnist Bill Wundram, who wrote in the Quad-City Times that Bix "was not an alcoholic, as so many claim, or think they know. He was a class act. He loved his parents and they loved him back."
The first problem with this statement is its contempt for historical evidence. The second problem—the idea that being an alcoholic and being a good person are mutually exclusive — is no less troubling. In a better world, it would go without saying that this is bunk. In a better world, I wouldn't need to mention that some of the people I love and admire most struggle with drugs and alcohol. And in many instances it's their willingness to meet that struggle head on that makes them better people than I.
It's what makes them real class acts. It does not, however, mean they aren't addicts or alcoholics.
A third problem with Wundram's statement is the way in which it fits in the context of what a friend of mine has dubbed the Secret Society for the Protection of Bix Beiderbecke's Reputation. The existence of such a society is implied by the need to defend Bix from charges that he was an alcoholic or that the drink may have killed him.
Or the need to keep secret for more than half a century the fact that Bix had been arrested as a teenager on the charge of a "lewd & lascivious act with child." And then the need to defend him from even the possibility that the charge could have been true.
A few years ago I stopped by the Davenport Public Library looking for a display copy of the arrest report, but it had been stolen. "I think some folks around here don't like what those documents represent," a librarian told me. "They think Bix is some kind of god."
This may be why the only interview Beiderbecke ever gave in his lifetime ended up being a fraud. In February 1929, the Davenport Democrat and Leader ran a long and oft-quoted Sunday profile. My own research has discovered that nearly every word attributed to Bix, and most of the words in between, were plagiarized.
They were smart and thoughtful quotations. They just weren't from Bix.
And that's the rub, isn't it? We sincerely and passionately love Bix's music. We love the idea of Bix as a representative of our community. So we defend him against anything we think might tarnish his reputation.
But in the process we tarnish our own.
And we erase Bix Beiderbecke. He was an alcoholic who also loved his parents. He was flawed and complicated.
He was, in other words, a human being.