Hollywood could not articulate it but there was something ferocious about Lena Horne. Not fierce, that favorite adjective of drag queens, hipsters, and the publicists who love them.
I am talking ferociousness.
That is what I saw during the early 1980s when she came to the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco for the national tour of her award-winning one-woman show. The gay aesthetic that had wafted around other Hollywood grande dames who made Broadway turns late in their careers — think Marlene Dietrich — may have existed for Horne, too. But if it was present during that run at the Golden Gate, it escaped me.
As a 19 year old, what I tasted in the zeitgeist surrounding that tour of “Lena: The Lady and her Music” was a rather vanilla appreciation of a good old fashioned musical roman a clef. It was Biography, expertly Broadway-ized, which is to say that Lena Horne’s life story was recounted over two hours with a big dose of fiction stirred into the witty anecdotes and expertly-arranged American Songbook numbers.
The appeal of the production crossed race class, and gender lines.
“The Lady and Her Music” did boffo box office in the 40 cities where it played throughout 1982. My mom had been in primary school when Horne co-starred in splashy Hollywood ‘40s movie musicals, including “Panama Hattie” and “Stormy Weather.” Mom brought me, her youngest child, born in 1963, to The Golden Gate to see “The Lady and Her Music” largely because I had been a Theater Kid in high school. At that time, I had already witnessed performances of Beverly Sills in “Lucia di Lammermore” at San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, and Leontyne Price at Davies Symphony Hall, but they didn’t ignite my imagination in the same way.
Horne by the early 1980s represented glamorous, mid-20th century pop culture mixed with a low-key kind of race pride. I didn’t know if she had ever marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., or been on the Edmund G. Pettus Bridge in Alabama when John Lewis was clubbed by racist white cops. But I knew that many of her alluring performances in Golden Age Hollywood musical pictures had been edited out at the time they’d premiered back in the ‘40s
And if the Lena Horne that I watched on stage in ’82 chewed up the sparse scenery while she told those stories of Hollywood injustice, well, who could blame her?
Still, “The Lady and her Music” really wasn’t revolutionary. It was a stagey autobiography put forth by a canny senior citizen … who happened to have been the first black contract player at MGM. But Lena Horne was undeniably a great personality and performer, a trouper with flashing dark eyes, stunning cheekbones under luminous skin, and the whitest, sharpest teeth I’d ever seen.
Was it all stagecraft? Who can say? But we all sat agog as she deployed those teeth with a ferocity that cut to your core. From a clenched-jawed, Burt Lancaster-level of self-confidence, to a sublime sunburst of a smile, to a devilish grin, Horne knew how to work the physical gifts that she had been born with.
Whatever personal conflicts she may have felt around the highly charged social politics that wracked the middle years of her long life — including a verboten marriage to an A-list musical arranger, Lennie Hayton, who was white, to an ill-fated crush on Billy Strayhorn, a gay, black song-man; to flirtations with Civil Rights icons Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers –foremost, she located and plucked strong emotional wires between herself and audiences of all ethnicities.
These many years later, I better understand how Horne over the decades also used her lovely physicality to establish and protect her Brand as the First Technicolor African-American Movie Star. It is odd to me that by the time she died last weekend, at age 92, she had become for many a fond vision of bygone struggles, a somewhat mythical figure who was mostly remembered for being Not Exactly Your Grandmother’s Hollywood Survivor. Part of this may be due to the fact that she had been a star for a very, very long time, especially by today’s standards of insta-fame-and-flame-out.
“I was born in 1963, and for me, her performance in ‘The Wiz’ was a comeback,” said Valerie Boyd, the Charlayne Hunter Gault Distinguished writer in residence at University of Georgia at Athens. In the 1978 film version of the Broadway hit musical, directed by Sidney Lumet, the then-husband of Horne’s daughter Gail, Horne pulled off the first of many “comebacks,” Boyd said.
To me, “The Wiz” was a bomb … made only slightly less so by Horne’s presence. Still, I do recall the frisson of favorable coverage that Horne’s appearance had drawn. It carried through right up ‘til “The Lady and Her Music” opened in New York in 1981.
After appearing in those splashy Technicolor musicals at MGM in the ‘40s, Horne fell off Hollywood’s radar and turned to cabarets and nightclubs. She made a living, and resurfaced in mass media during the 1960s in television variety shows, including many hosted by the likes of Judy Garland, Dean Martin and other former Hollywood players who had washed up on the shores of the dying studio Star System.
When they splashed down in the new, untested waters of Television-land, Martin, Garland and scores of other former film stars suddenly found they were on the same footing with Horne, a black woman of stellar talent, a Hollywood vet who had nonetheless never quite ascended to the protective upper-reaches of film stardom.
This was where I had first encountered “Guest-Starring, Miss Lena Horne,” on my family’s television screen in late ‘60s broadcasts of “The Andy Williams Show,” “The Dean Martin Show” and “The Flip Wilson Show.” Then, she always seemed too classy for the crappy skits, her smooth skin too harshly lit. But we watched, fascinated by Horne’s ease on camera, and by her ferociously confident delivery of even the most mediocre material.
She didn’t appear to be working over-hard to win the audience’s approval: Like Nat “King” Cole, and Cassius Clay, she projected entitlement — a rare quality indeed for a black performer on a national stage during the height of the Civil Rights movement. Complex, to say the least: Horne clearly had the love of adulation that marks all successful actors and singers … but she also had what you might call a chip on her shoulder. Or at least what some white critics and recording and film studio chiefs undoubtedly viewed as an “angry black woman” posture.
As a post-WWII, late Civil Rights-era baby, I still am not sure how to position Horne on the scale of Personal is Political. She was a great performer … but is that enough? I think it is. But why have all the obituaries bent over backwards to tout “Civil Rights Activist” credentials that were thin? I researched Horne for a biographical collection that I edited in the late 1990s, “Fifty Black Women Who Change America.” I included Horne because of her artistic achievements.
Gene Seymour, former film critic at Newsday and an expert on jazz , also found Horne to be few clicks more complex than most of her press clippings — 70 years’ worth — indicated. I remembered reading something he’d written about one of Horne’s last public performances, in the early 1990s.
So yesterday, I hit Seymour up on Facebook. He wrote back right away, saying he’d first met with Lena Horne in ‘94, at a restaurant in New York. They sat for 90 minutes and had a wide-ranging conversation-slash-interview. I never met Lena Horne, but Gene Seymour did. I trust his eyes, ears, heart, and his journalism. He will have the last word in this space on Lena Horne, a great performer:
Sitting elbow-to-elbow with a 20th-century myth is intimidating enough to keep you incoherent for weeks afterwards. And yet .. .after five, 10 (at most) minutes into the conversation, she had so completely put me at ease that I felt I was talking not with someone who fueled the steamiest fantasies of my generation of African-American males … but with one of my brighter, sassier great-aunts.
Today’s New York Times obit was about as comprehensive & as unsparing against the people high & low who done her wrong, while remaining attentive to the glories of her youth and to her principled political stances. And yet … and yet … there was something missing from the piece, which managed to barely evoke the magic her image could evoke; the terror & wonder of her breakthrough appearance in "Cabin in the Sky," where she & Miss Ethel Waters fought to a fare-thee-well on and off-screen; how she was able, even through the worse times, to cultivate her innate talent for dramatic presentation and siphon a galvanizing array of emotions through her singing; most especially, her brittle, yet playful wit, which I always believed was the most undervalued weapon in her musical quiver.
Overall this masterly juggling of passion & intelligence made her one-woman Broadway shows so theatrically effective and biographically illuminating.