Thursday, February 24, 2011

HORNE, LENA Elegant Chanteuse (c) By Polly Guerin

Dear Lena Horne: I never dreamt that I would meet you, the elegant chanteuse-entertainer, on the stage of Paramount Studios in Hollywood. But there I was a fledgling journalist invited to watch a rehearsal dance routine as Ms. Horne glided across the limelight like a glorious bird in flight, a backup team of men following in formation. Her vitality and star presence dominated the scene as it did in so many of her performances. I especially treasure this encounter and remember that her signature song was Stormy Weather and indeed she did weather many stormy race-related situations but remains one of the most respected, talented and celebrated performers of all time. A woman of great beauty and commanding stage presence, she performed in nightclubs, concert halls, movies and on radio and television. In the hallowed halls of celebrity Lena Horne is known as one of the most popular African American entertainers of the twentieth century.
It is fitting to write about Ms. Horne during Black History Month and to remember that there were prevailing racial attitudes during the time when Lena was just starting her career yet she was a woman determined to succeed and forged ahead holding her head up high not only for herself but for her race. In Brian Lanker’s book, “I Dream A World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed the World” she is quoted, “My own people didn’t’ see me as a performer because they were busy trying to make a living and feed themselves Until I got to cafe society in the ‘40s, I didn’t even have a black audience and then it was mixed. I was always battling the system to try to get to be with my people. Finally, I wouldn’t work for places that kept us out…it was a damn fight everywhere I was, every place I worked, in New York, in Hollywood, all over the World.”
Ms. Horne, in her own refined way, was a staunch fighter in making great changes in society that paved the way for anti-segregation. In WWII Italy, for example, she was scheduled to make an appearance before the troops, but she refused to appear before a racially segregated US Army audience. The plan was to have one show for the white troops and another show solely for black troops. Nothing doing for Ms. Horne, this African American woman, determined to succeed, stood her ground and insisted on performing for mixed audiences. She won the argument and put on a show for a mixed audience consisting of black US soldiers and white German POWs.
While at MGM, Ms. Horne’s roles were shot so that they could be cut easily from the film. That was because MGM feared audiences of the day, especially in the South, would not accept a beautiful black woman in romantic, non-menial roles. Many in the show business believed that this was the main reason that she lost out on playing the mulatto “Julie” in MGMs remake of Show Boat in 1951. However, she had already appeared in the Show Boat segment of Till the Clouds Roll By (1946) in which she appeared as “Julie” singing “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” again shot in such a way so that it could easily be edited out of the film. Because of her association with Paul Robeson and her progressive political beliefs Lena was branded a “Communist sympathizer,” which led to her to being blacklisted in the 1950s. Robeson had made her realize that African American people were going to unify and she felt that she needed to be part of that movement. From that point onward, Lena Horne became a significant voice in the struggle for equality and justice for African Americans in the United States.
The seeds of entertainment were inbred in Lena Mary Calhoun Horne’s genes. She was born on June 30, 1917 in Brooklyn New York. Her mother, Edna, was an actress with an African American theater troupe and traveled extensively. Lena was born on June 30, 1917 and when her parent divorced she was raised mainly by her grandparents. Later when her mother took her on the road she experienced the first pangs of segregation when she attended various small-town segregated schools in the South. From an early age Lena dreamed of becoming a performer, much against her educated, middle class family. Lena, however, was a young woman determined to succeed against all odds and at age sixteen she was hired in the chorus at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club.
Lena took voice lessons and landed in an all-black Broadway show, Dance With Your God. From then on she was jet propelled ahead and in 1936 she performed as a ‘single’ in a variety of New York City nightclubs. Romance tickled the ivories and the beautiful and talented songstress married Louis Jones, a minor politician, by whom she had a daughter, Gail, and a son, Edwin. They divorced and she pressed on to join the great white swing band, Charlie Barnet Orchestra. However, as the group’s only black member she suffered many humiliations of racial prejudice, especially from hotels and restaurants that catered exclusively to whites.
Despite all the early prejudice and race segregation during the 1940s Lena Horne rose to heights of celebrity few African American women at the time could claim. Her singing roles in movies established her as the highest-paid African American entertainer in the United States. In 1981, Lena had her greatest triumph, a Broadway show called Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music and in 1991 she was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame.
Lena Horne was an amazing woman determined to succeed. With pride of her heritage, and her innate elegance, grace and dignity she helped to improve the status of African Americans in the United States and particularly in the performing arts. She died May 9, 2010 leaving a profound legacy that has enriched the lives of her vast audience of admirers.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for a wonderful portrait of Lena Horne..She was an angel in disguise.
    Anyone Fortunate enough to hear her and see her perform..was blessed..and The film Stormy weather; what a cast what a classic..Lena at her best, cab calloway, Bill robinson...thanks for keeping her spirit your blogs..Read your blog about Millicent Rogers..
    My parents were friends of Millicent Rogers. She attended their wedding in Virginia..She gave my Mom some of the most beautiful Navajo jewelry, from her favorite (and i still have it) is an old Conche Belt, with at least a 100 year old turquoise buckle..that was in 1942..
    my Mom was a lot like her..a firecracker...