Legendary singer and actress Lena Horne died late Sunday night, Mother's Day 2010, at age 92 in New York. The New York Times says her son-in-law Kevin Buckley, the husband of her daughter, Gail, announced her passing, and then the piece continues with a recounting of her life as the first African-American to land a long-term contract with a big Hollywood studio, MGM.
A running theme in that obituary and other overviews is that Ms. Horne, despite her beauty and singing talent, despite her fair skin that could have allowed her to pass for white or Latina had she chosen to do so, faced a segregated world that stifled her, hindering what could have been an even more brilliant career.
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. (NYT)
The article makes clear that by that time, Ms. Horne was no longer under contract.
Her success led some blacks to accuse Horne of trying to "pass" in a white world with her light complexion. Max Factor even developed an "Egyptian" makeup shade especially for the budding actress while she was at MGM.
But in his book "Gotta Sing Gotta Dance: A Pictorial History of Film Musicals," Kobal wrote that she refused to go along with the studio's efforts to portray her as an exotic Latin American.
"I don't have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I'd become," Horne once said. "I'm me, and I'm like nobody else." (AP)
Ms. Horne was born June 30, 1917, and I watched two of her movies that featured an all-black cast on television growing up, the musicals Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky. To this day, for sentimental reasons, I still prefer her rendition of the song "Stormy Weather."
BlogHer Contributing Editor Professor Kim Pearson shared on Twitter that the introduction Ms. Horne gives on the performance in the video below captures for her the woman and her attitude. "This here .. is what Miss Lena means to me. Thank you, Miss Horne," she twittered.
I concede that may be one of the best Lena Horne videos I've seen today among people recognizing her passing.
Apparently younger than Prof. Kim and I, Melissa at Shakesville recalls the first time she saw Ms. Horne:
I know the exact moment I saw Lena Horne for the first time. I was 11, and she made a guest appearance on "The Cosby Show," as herself, in an episode where Claire (Phylicia Rashad) took Cliff (Bill Cosby) to see her perform for his birthday. I remember thinking how beautiful and glamorous she was, and falling utterly in love with her voice, which has remained to this day one of my absolute favorites—totally recognizable, totally unmistakable, totally butter. (Shakesville)
You can view that Cosby appearance at YouTube. Melissa ends her post saying she knows nothing negative about the star. I didn't either until I wrote about two books on her life. One is positive, The Hornes: An American Family, and that is to be expected since it was written by her daughter Gail Lumet Buckley. The other, however, is a less flattering portrait, Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne by James Gavin. This biographer paints Ms. Horne as a bitter woman.
While I haven't read Gavin's book about Horne, I get the feeling, based on more than one review of the book, that he paints Ms. Horne as one more angry black woman who perhaps is not grateful enough to the Cosmos that she was spared hardships faced by darker, poorer black people. The final analysis seems to be that she did not appreciate nor did she enjoy her privlege and fame.
I can't help but wonder is it possible this Horne biography perpetuates the stereotype of the "tragic mulatto" or is it an accurate picture of her unique life?
According to Jonathan Yardley's review of Gavin's book at the Washington Post in August 2009, "in her own words" Ms. Horne said she was "evil and angry and jealous and possessive." However, he too seems to have some reservations about how Gavin presents the legend.
Again I admit I have not read this book. Nevertheless, my first instinct is to question how James Gavin, a young male writing about a black woman's life lived during segregation, during the era of one-drop laws, could have the gall to judge her so severely. He seems to suggest she lacked the graciousness he feels she should have had in the face of racism, and to even say, according to Yardley, that she was "more beautiful than talented."
Gavin probably thinks he was only being honest, but I would ask, "Where was his graciousness?" Was it the force of Ms. Horne's personality in telling her own tale that caused him to label her "bitter" or is it just one more case of a white male believing a black person should address racial injustice meekly and a woman should be demure? When we don't fit these expectations are we automatically set aside and refused work because we're too damned angry and not grateful enough to be lovable?
No answer here, really. All I know is that growing up, I never heard such harsh criticism of Ms. Horne. Maybe I wasn't paying attention. And what do I know anyway? I'm just a another black woman who's observed first hand the effects of colorism on members of the black community of all shades. Perhaps that means I am ill-equipped to judge the motivations of a young white male writing about a black woman from my mother's generation. Also, by nature I have an aversion to admonitions that we must all be good and consistenly project grace and gratitude in the face of trials. So, maybe Ms. Horne didn't drip enough honey. Maybe she was too fiery. Or maybe, she was just born too soon to be both a Prima Donna and black, no matter how light her skin.
Still, she's gone, and it's not about me, right? It's about Lena Horne and her legacy. Maybe I'll read the book and call Gavin one day. Right now, as I write this, I think of my maternal grandmother who used to tease her five children when one of them left the room by saying, "Ya'll, so-and-so's gone. Let's talk about her." I feel like we're talking about Ms. Horne after she's left the room.
Gavin's book came out in paperback last month. In this PBS video interview below, he doesn't sound as hard on her as Yardley's review says he is, nor does he paint her as a Publisher's Weekly review says he does, as a person of mediocre acting ability who "grows from 'joyless toddler' to chilly, bitter diva."
Concluding his review of Gavin's book at the Post, Yardley writes:
So I suppose Horne's bitterness has been earned, or earned for her by all those movie producers who "would never award her a serious part," those Southern theater owners who cut her scenes out of movies they showed, those whites who told her, as one Texan did, that "all colored people should be kept in their place." In this sense, her life is America's shameful racial history in miniature, and as she languishes in seclusion in Southern California, now in her 93rd year, she's entitled to feel any old way she wants. It's a pity, though, that she doesn't seem to have been able to enjoy the great success she earned or the genuine gratitude and admiration that millions of people, white and black alike, still feel for her. (Yardley)
One observation appearing in most overviews of Ms. Horne's life and choices, aside from the fact that she eventually married a white man, is the criticism that she didn't speak up about racial injustice early enough. Is that a fair assessment? I don't know what I would have done in her shoes back then. It seems part of human nature to try to protect one's life, limb, and career, and surely she's not the first famous person to acknowledge African descent who may have considered safety and future before stirring protests. It's true that she was raised by a mother with an activist spirit, but sometimes we have to personally evolve to a place of demanding righteousness in the world beyond ourselves.
According to Ms. Horne, as a result of her cries, however late, as well as her friendship with Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Dubois, she was blacklisted from film. Her Times obitutary, however, cites Gavin's book and says it's most likely untrue that she was ever blacklisted, and that others have indicated "that there were other factors in addition to politics or race involved in her lack of film work."
HipHop Wired is acknowledging her life with a collection of less-common photos. Jack and Jill Politics has a long excerpt from the Times obituary followed by a stream of photos and video clips of the singer.
Here is video of Ms. Horne on Rosie O'Donnell's show in 1997 speaking of her 80th birthday party that was an all-star benefit to help singers. She also talks about Ella Fitzgerald.
In addition, CNN, the network that once reported Ms. Horne's death prematurely, according to Regret the Error, has posted this video retrospective of her life.
She says in that video that in her later years she learned to not fly of the handle so easily when voicing her opinions, and the Times piece echoes that lesson learned with this ending quote:
Looking back at the age of 80, Ms. Horne said: “My identity is very clear to me now. I am a black woman. I'm free. I no longer have to be a 'credit.' I don't have to be a symbol to anybody; I don't have to be a first to anybody. I don't have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I'd become. I'm me, and I'm like nobody else."
Indeed, Lena Horne was like no one else in her era, living a life of which others only dreamed. As Halle Berry suggested while accepting the Best Leading Actress Oscar in 2002, Ms. Horne was one of the African-American entertainers who paved the way for black actresses and stars we see today. May she rest in peace.
Update: Thank you Candelaria Silva for reminding me at Examiner of this 1981 CBS 60 Minutes interview of Lena Horne by Ed Bradley. I think this is where I first heard the Max Factor story. She was in her 60s then.
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