The Ancestors Claim Lena Horne, 92
(She’s singing “Stormy Weather,” her standard, to the work of another master, the late dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham, who also appears in this segment with the lilies in her hair who turns into an Indian dancer.)
I thought Lena Horne would never die. Her vitality seemed limitless. This woman had seen and had been with everything and everybody, from Billy Strayhorn to Humphrey Bogart. I brought my mother to see her one-woman show in the Eighties, when it toured and stopped in San Francisco. My mother remarked that it was a bigger and better venue than the one in which she had seen her previously in a smoky and crowded Fillmore District boite almost twenty years before for a quarter of what the tickets cost. However, she wasn’t as close in proximity to the singer as she was then. And now, The Horn, as Redd Foxx once humorously called her, is stilled.
(Lena over the years, from The Guardian.co.uk.)
From the New York Times:
Lena Horne, who was the first black performer to be signed to a long-term contract by a major Hollywood studio and who went on to achieve international fame as a singer, died on Sunday night at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. She was 92 and lived in Manhattan.
Her death was announced by her son-in-law, Kevin Buckley.
Ms. Horne might have become a major movie star, but she was born 50 years too early, and languished at MGM in the 1940s because of the color of her skin, although she was so light-skinned that, when she was a child, other black children had taunted her, accusing her of having a “white daddy.”
Ms. Horne was stuffed into one “all-star” musical after another — “Thousands Cheer” (1943), “Broadway Rhythm” (1944), “Two Girls and a Sailor” (1944), “Ziegfeld Follies” (1946), “Words and Music” (1948) — to sing a song or two that could easily be snipped from the movie when it played in the South, where the idea of an African-American performer in anything but a subservient role in a movie with an otherwise all-white cast was unthinkable.
“The only time I ever said a word to another actor who was white was Kathryn Grayson in a little segment of ‘Show Boat’ ” included in “Till the Clouds Roll By” (1946), a movie about the life of Jerome Kern, Ms. Horne said in an interview in 1990. In that sequence she played Julie, a mulatto forced to flee the showboat because she has married a white man.
But when MGM made “Show Boat” into a movie for the second time, in 1951, the role of Julie was given to a white actress, Ava Gardner, who did not do her own singing. (Ms. Horne was no longer under contract to MGM at the time, and according to James Gavin’s Horne biography, “Stormy Weather,” published last year, she was never seriously considered for the part.) And in 1947, when Ms. Horne herself married a white man — the prominent arranger, conductor and pianist Lennie Hayton, who was for many years both her musical director and MGM’s — the marriage took place in France and was kept secret for three years.
(Thanks to Zennie Abraham for this link; at 80, she talks briefly about a benefit dinner she is giving for older black musicians and singers getting benefits and legal help that they need.)
Ms. Horne, considered one of the most beautiful women in the world, came to the attention of Hollywood in 1942. She was the first black woman to sign a meaningful long-term contract with a major studio, a contract that said she would never have to play a maid.
“What people tend not to fully comprehend today is what Lena Horne did to transform the image of the African American woman in Hollywood,” said Donald Bogle, a film historian.
“Movies are a powerful medium and always depicted African American women before Lena Horne as hefty, mammy-like maids who were ditzy and giggling,” Bogle said. “Lena Horne becomes the first one the studios begin to look at differently. . . . Really just by being there, being composed and onscreen with her dignity intact paved the way for a new day” for black actresses.
He said Ms. Horne’s influence was apparent within a few years of her leaving Hollywood, starting with actress Dorothy Dandridge’s movie work in the 1950s. Later, Halle Berry, who won the 2001 best actress Oscar for “Monster’s Ball,” called Ms. Horne an inspiration.
Ms. Horne’s reputation in Hollywood rested on a handful of musical films. Among the best were two all-black musicals from 1943: “Cabin in the Sky,” as a small-town temptress who pursues Eddie “Rochester” Anderson; and “Stormy Weather,” in which she played a career-obsessed singer opposite Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
In other films, she shared billing with white entertainers such as Gene Kelly, Lucille Ball, Mickey Rooney and Red Skelton but was segregated onscreen so producers could clip out her singing when the movies ran in the South.
“Mississippi wanted its movies without me,” she told the New York Times in 1957. “So no one bothered to put me in a movie where I talked to anybody, where some thread of the story might be broken if I were cut.”
In Hollywood, she received previously unheard-of star treatment for a black actor. Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios featured Ms. Horne in movies and advertisements as glamorously as white beauties including Hedy Lamarr, Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable.
The media sometimes described Ms. Horne in terms that upset her.
“I hated those awful phrases they used to trot out to describe me!” she once said. “Who the hell wants to be a ‘chocolate chanteuse’ ?”
Ms. Horne was also frustrated by infrequent movie work and feeling limited in her development as an actress. She confronted studio officials about roles she thought demeaning, a decision that eventually hurt her.
Horne was long involved with the Civil Rights movement. In 1941, she sang at Cafe Society and worked with Paul Robeson, a singer who also combated American racial discrimination. During World War II, when entertaining the troops for the USO, she refused to perform “for segregated audiences or for groups in which German POWs were seated in front of African American servicemen”, according to her Kennedy Center biography. Since the US Army refused to allow integrated audiences, she wound up putting on a show for a mixed audience of black US soldiers and white German POWs. She was at an NAACP rally with Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, the weekend before Evers was assassinated. She also met President John F. Kennedy at the White House two days before he was assassinated. She was at the March on Washington and spoke and performed on behalf of the NAACP, SNCC and the National Council of Negro Women. She also worked with Eleanor Roosevelt to pass anti-lynching laws. She was a member of the prominent organization Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated.
Horne’s long-suppressed anger over the treatment of blacks in white society erupted in 1960 when she overheard a drunk white man at the Luau restaurant in Beverly Hills refer to her using a racial epithet.
Jumping up, she threw an ashtray, a table lamp and several glasses at him, cutting the man’s forehead.
When reports of her outburst appeared in newspapers across the country, Horne was surprised at the positive response, mostly from African Americans.
“Phone calls and telegrams came in from all over,” she told the Christian Science Monitor in 1984. “It was the first time it struck me that black people related to each other in bigger ways than I realized.”
Surprisingly, the black nationalist politics of Malcolm X seemed to appeal to her as well, according to biographer James Gavin, author of Stormy Weather.
There was another side to Horne that the public did not know. She was never a victim. She got up and kept on fighting. Eventually, though, Horne seemed to lose the courage and the inclination to take full advantage of the opportunities–and the acclaim–that came to her in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, and most importantly, to reap satisfaction from them. She recorded, she did cabaret, she did two films, but that was enough. “Too little, too late,” she would say. And she became a recluse. A rich one, but a recluse nonetheless. And recluses push people away.
Finally, she banished even her husband, in whose honor she had once worn a Star of David, coming to see him as a “whitey” who “didn’t know the point of the conflict” over civil rights. Claude Thompson, her main choreographer; Jeanne Noble, her mentor in activism; Richard Schickel, co-author of her second memoir; the singer Bobby Short; and many others were all “pushed away.”
Of her various regrets, having been an unloving mother seems to have been the chief one. Ted, who showed great promise, died young. Gail, despite marrying Sidney Lumet, of whom Horne at first disapproved, was treated rather better, as were, especially, Horne’s grandchildren. Characteristically, whenever a friend, particularly a male one, died, she appears to have viewed it as abandonment and betrayal.
That early abandonment by her father when she was 3, reinforced by her mother and grandmother, was something that she did not get over.
Horne had numerous short- and long-term affairs: with Joe Louis, the heavyweight boxer; Orson Welles, the mercurial genius director of Citizen Kane; and with the bandleader Artie Shaw, for starters. While it took years for Horne to admit to her love and respect for Lennie Hayton, who died in 1971 after they had been separated for several years (along with her father and her son, Teddy that year), the only man she admitted to really loving was a diminutive man who was linked to Duke Ellington.
Ms. Horne’s voice was not particularly powerful, but it was extremely expressive. She reached her listeners emotionally by acting as well as singing the romantic standards like “The Man I Love” and “Moon River” that dominated her repertory. The person she always credited as her main influence was not another singer but a pianist and composer, Duke Ellington’s longtime associate Billy Strayhorn.
“I wasn’t born a singer,” she told Strayhorn’s biographer, David Hajdu. “I had to learn a lot. Billy rehearsed me. He stretched me vocally.” Strayhorn occasionally worked as her accompanist and, she said, “taught me the basics of music, because I didn’t know anything.”
Strayhorn was also, she said, “the only man I ever loved,” but Strayhorn was openly gay, and their close friendship never became a romance. “He was just everything that I wanted in a man,” she told Mr. Hajdu, “except he wasn’t interested in me sexually.”
Ain’t that always the case.
Janet Jackson had wanted to do a film bio of Lena Horne, but her “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl a few years back made The Horn snatch that back. Horne may have been a bit interesting behind the scenes and out of the public eye, but she was the grandchild of a prim and proper black woman who taught her how to be a lady for good or for bad, and you didn’t do that kind of thing in public, whether it was an accident or not. Now that Horne is dead, perhaps there will be renewed interest in a film, taking in the biographies that have been done in the last decade to explain her life. A documentary isn’t enough.
Goodbye, Lena. Blessings.