Monday, May 10, 2010

Softly, I Will Leave You Softly



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

24 comments:

Jo said...

That is absolutely the most perfect picture of Lena Horne. She would have loved that you had chosen that picture. What a great lady she was -- classy, beautiful, funny, brilliant, charming, and so much more.

I read something funny today. "60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley, who like many of us has not led an altogether blameless life, was asked if he thought he’d get into heaven. He responded all he needed to say to St. Peter was 'Have you seen my interview with Lena Horne?'" It made me chuckle.

giftsofthejourney said...

I am afraid I am still learning things about Lena Horne ... things I should have paid more attention to over the years. Thanks for sharing your thoughts so eloquently and for tickling my curious bone to go in search of more information on both her life, and yours.

" 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. "

I don't know how I came to believe you were a woman in your 30's before now ... I must not have been paying attention properly. I took a deeper look into your earlier posts and feel better informed, but still have more than a few unanswered questions.

One thing is constant though ... you are a gifted writer with an intriguing voice and I love how you tell a tale.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

Thank you for this wonderful tribute. I first heard her sing when I was not even ten years old. I just thought she was amazing. At that time, I also discovered Peggy Lee. To me there was no black or white, just two equally wonderful ladies who really knew how to sing jazz. In hindsight, it probably helped me not to go down the path of stereotyping people of different races.

Anyway, God bless Lena Horne for her grace in music and in life.

nick said...

I knew little about Lena Horne, so your post is eye-opening. Her determination to get the sort of roles she deserved rather than the insulting ones that used to be offered is impressive. So was her support for the civil rights movement.

“I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman. I’m me, and I’m like nobody else.” Well said.

TechnoBabe said...

A good lesson for all of us. We don't have to be an imitation of anyone else because we are special just as we are. Like Lena, I have learned that lesson, but unlike Lena, it took me so many years to learn. She was so beautiful and an inspiration to many. Thank you for writing in your special way about this legend in our time.

Anonymous said...

Oh, what a greater writer you are! I heart your blog.

furiousBall said...

couldn't agree more, what a beautiful human being

witnessing am i said...

I love that quote, “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.” I love how that last phrase seems to go further, seems to transcend all color -- that she is like nobody else, white or black.

The way it ought to be.

Thank you, good Heart, for an amazing post. Beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Aww, this makes me feel so warm and cozy.

Wanderlust Scarlett said...

Very beautifully written, Hearts, I couldn't have said or thought any of that any better. Amen.


Scarlett & Viaggiatore

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Jo,

It would have been impossible to find an unlovely picture of Lena Horne, even if I had tried.

Ed Bradley's story is hilarious, and I don't doubt that St. Peter will agree when the time comes.

Gifts,

It's so nice to "see" you again. I am an EX-30ish person. The March on Washington was electric, and I was close enough to Dr. King to hear his speech without a mic.

I enjoy your blog, too, and your glorious photographs. Your "more than a few unanswered questions" sounds intriguing. Feel free to ask and I'll try to answer.

Calvin,

I first heard her sing as a child, too, and my father was a Peggy Lee fan, especially when she sang in Spanish. I have always thought that Lena Horne set the standard for both physical and personal beauty.

Nick,

I read that when she was given a studio contract in Hollywood, her father went to Louis B. Mayer, who was formidable, and announced that he did not want to see her demeaned. I love everything about that story.

Babe,

I thought that was a great lesson, too, that we diminish ourselves when we try to be someone else.

Anonymous,

Thank you so much! Won't you tell me who you are?

Van,

She truly was. As good as she was beautiful. She had a good run and leaves a huge hole.

David,

It was impossible to do her justice without gushing. I loved her in a way that felt almost personal, maybe because she was an early influence on my tastes and desires. Her life and spirit should be an inspiration to everyone and a reminder that we are ALL like no other, white or black, that race is no more important than eye color.

Anonymous,

Hey, there is someone else here with the same name! Thanks for your visit. I'm glad you're feeling warm and cozy, and please consider leaving your "other" name next time. Thanks.

Scarlett,

She was a beautiful lady in every sense of the word. My mother tried hard to make me act like a lady, and I always told her I wanted to be a woman when I grew up, not a lady. I apparently believed that ladies wore white gloves and never laughed. If I had known Lena Horne, I would have wanted to be just like her, though. I still do.

TaraDharma said...

LOVE her! A grand life; thanks for posting this!

T O D said...

Bravura.

seventh sister said...

I'm glad we were blessed with her presence for so long.

Wanderlust Scarlett said...

She's joined that very elite group of ladies that includes Audrey Hepburn, Katherine Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy, Princess Di, Mother Teresa, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie, and Anne Frank.

Oh to be like these women in different ways... and so many more not named here, but not forgotten.


Scarlett & Viaggiatore

mrwriteon said...

Dear Lovely Lena. I was saddened to hear of her passing, despite her age and deservedly long life. And I think her 'New Fangled Tango' is one of the sexiest songs ever recorded. Sexy, but never vulgar. As it should be.

Pea said...

yeah. What a woman. Hard today to find a vocalist of her magnitude with such class....

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Tara,

And we still have her music.

OD,

She was wonderful!

Jackie,

Yes, she certainly disproves that only the good die young. (I never really bought into that one.)

Scarlett,

There have been so many glorious women who, like Lena Horne, insisted upon being themselves.

Ian,

Sexy, but never vulgar. Absolutely. I think that true sexiness is a bit mysterious, not in your face, and the sexiest women, perhaps, are those who are not trying to be sexy. 42DD implants, for example, turn a woman into a caricature of sexiness. Hmmm, another blog post, perhaps.

Sweet Pea,

She was a class act in every way, a woman to admire and probably even worship, if one knew her personally.

PeterAtLarge said...

Truly an inspiration, a woman of amazing grace and talent.

Maria said...

She was a classic. And I think that for someone to say that after you die...well..it is practically perfect. Wouldn't it be great if we could say that about more people?

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Peter,

She certainly was all those things. We were blessed to have her for so long.

Maria,

I think never dying would be even more perfect, but that's just me.

Voyager said...

Thank you for this, I didn't know much about Lena Horne before.
V.

Jocelyn said...

She DEFINED class. We are less rich for her loss.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Voyager,

Thank you for reading it!

Jocelyn,

She absolutely did, and we are richer for having had her in our midst for however long.