Monday, May 10, 2010
We have lost one of the great ladies of the world. Lena Horne has died at the age of 92, and while that is a respectable age, I really thought we'd have her forever.
Born in 1917 to a middle-class family in Brooklyn, NY, she joined the chorus line of Harlem's famous Cotton Club as a teenager. Like all the clubs of the day, the performers were black, the audiences white. In the 1940s, she was the first black performer to play the Copacabana nightclub and to sing with a major white band. She was equally at home singing blues, jazz, and Broadway standards.
She stood out from the beginning as an amazingly gifted singer with impossibly perfect features. She later went to Hollywood, but the only roles for blacks were either servants or savages. The studios, mired in racism, had no idea what to do with an elegant, classy, sophisticated and immensely talented young woman who clearly did not belong in either category. Other black performers like Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson had gone to Europe to land the movie roles and fame they were denied in Hollywood. Finally, Lena Horne got her first movie break with the all-black musical, "Stormy Weather." She appeared in several other films but only in musical numbers which could be cut without affecting the story line when screened in the South.
In the 50's, Ms. Horne starred on Broadway in "Jamaica" with songs by Harold Arlen and an ensemble which included Alvin Ailey, Ossie Davis and Adelaide Hall. In 1978, she played Glinda the Good in "The Wiz," directed by Sidney Lumet, her son-in-law, and starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. The world had finally evolved enough that Diana Ross achieved the superstardom denied Lena Horne because of widespread prejudice in the entertainment field.
In the 1960s, she was one of the most visible celebrities in the civil rights movement, joining 250,000 others in the March on Washington in 1963 when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. I was also there, and it remains one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. Ms. Horne also spoke at a rally that year with Medgar Evers, another civil rights leader who was assassinated a few weeks later.
“I wouldn’t trade my life for anything,” she said, “because being black made me understand.”
When she was in her 60's (and still radiantly beautiful,) she made several enchanting appearances on Sesame Street, followed by a one-woman Broadway show, "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music," for which she won two Tony awards. Her signature song, Stormy Weather, was the perfect analogy for her life because she weathered the brutal and soul-destroying storms of bigotry and eventually garnered the accolades she richly deserved.
Lena Horne was so unique and special that attempts to describe her become mere cliches. Perhaps she said it best herself when she remarked, “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.”
Truer words were never spoken. Lena Horne, thank you for sharing you with us for so long. We will miss you.
"After all the years
I can't bear the tears to fall
Softly as I leave you there"
from "Softly as I Leave You" by Lena Horne