The first time I saw Lena Horne, I was an 8-year-old in a movie theater in Philadelphia watching her play Glinda, The Good Witch, in The Wiz. While I was more interested in Michael Jackson playing The Scarecrow, even I knew then that Ms. Horne was a legend with a capital L. The first thing anyone would say about her was "Don't she look good? She looks so good for her age!"
While looking good was a major part of her career, she couldn't help but resent the underlying reasons. "I was unique in that I was the kind of black that white people could accept," she once said. "I was their daydream. I had the worst kind of acceptance because it was never for how great I was or what I contributed. It was because of the way I looked."
I have always loved Lena Horne's candor. And, it never sits well with me when she is simply written off as only "gorgeous," because her beauty went far beyond the physical. It was magnified by her fearlessness, strength and grace. She could have played nice when she was asked to entertain the troops during World War II. Instead, she refused to play before audiences where black soldiers were forced to sit in the back - sometimes behind German prisoners of war. She could have shied away from her close friendship with Paul Robeson, but she elected to stand firm and her name was listed in the Red Channels in 1950. She was blacklisted from television and film for nearly a decade. She could have remained in Europe with her new husband, the white musical arranger Lennie Hayton. Instead, she did everything she could for the movement. Sadly, she was with civil rights hero Medgar Evers (see picture below) at a civil rights rally in Mississippi just days before he was assassinated. She was so moved by our civil rights struggle, she questioned her career as an entertainer.
Her battles with MGM Studios are the stuff of legend. On the first day she arrived at MGM's hair and makeup department, the hair and makeup people refused to work on her. Sydney Guilaroff, the legendary hairdresser who was then "head of hairdressing" at MGM announced to his staff that he would "personally take care of Ms. Horne." Jack Dawn, the head makeup artist, followed suit.
Her looks were seemingly a blessing and a curse, but she never seemed to be as hung up on them as everyone else. And it certainly didn't stop her from loving beauty and fashionable things.
In one of my favorite books, The Hornes: An American Family, Ms. Horne's daughter Gail Buckley (then Gail Lumet Buckley - her ex-husband was the great director Sidney Lumet, who directed Ms. Horne in The Wiz) mentions quite a few of her mother's favorite things. "My mother's bedroom and bath were awash in Chen-yu lipsticks, Guerlain perfumes, prescription pill bottles from MGM's Dr. Feelgood, and books by Agatha Christie, Edna Ferber, Pearl Buck and John O'Hara." She was also a good friend of Ginette Spanier, the director of the House of Balmain and she went to plenty of fashion shows. "Lena poured herself into Balmain's beads, Madame Grès' jerseys, Jean Dessés' chiffons and Maggy Rouff's hats - at celebrity prices," Buckley wrote.
Another great anecdote from the book involves Lena's opening night at The Savoy-Plaza Hotel in 1942. MGM was late in sending her dresses for her opening night performance, so Lena and her pal Nuffie O'Neill, a black woman who looked white, decided to go window shopping at Bergdorf Goodman. Bergdorf's happened to be across the street from the Savoy-Plaza and Lena found a gorgeous red lace dress that would have been perfect for the show. But, it was early in her career (each of her agents got 20%!) and she didn't have enough money to buy the dress. Buckley surmises that the Bergdorf saleslady had a "soft heart," because she left Lena and Nuffie in the dressing room and returned fifteen minutes later with Andrew Goodman, the owner of the store. "I understand that you're opening at the Savoy-Plaza and have nothing to wear," he said. "We wouldn't want our Savoy neighbors to be disappointed. Why don't you take the lace dress? Charge it, and pay for it a little bit at a time." Buckley said that her mother "nearly swooned with gratitude," and "would be forever devoted to Mr. Goodman's store."
Today, Lena Horne is 89 and I hope the film about her life, be it film or TV, is made soon. Alicia Keys is said to be in the running, but I can also see newcomer Paula Patton pulling it off. A real singer isn't really necessary for the role. In fact, Lena has stated throughout her career that she never had a great voice. Even amid rave reviews for her 1940s nightclub engagements, she would always stress that she was only "learning to sing."
However, I agree with the critic John McDonough, who once said, "Her voice is an aristocratic combination of mature luster and fine grain, and the phrasing is soaked in the honey-combed drawl and still crackles with open vowels that have always been her signature."
* All pictures in this post are from Corbis.