- The Washington Times - Friday, July 10, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE LIFE OF LENA HORNE

By James Gavin

Atria, $27, 486 pages

Reviewed by Sandra McElwaine

“Stormy Weather” is a lengthy biography that relates the dramatic ups and downs in the long and tumultuous life of the incomparable Lena Horne. It is a tormented tale, crammed with anecdotes about the legendary beauty who became an iconic showbiz figure synonymous with New York’s cosmopolitan cafe society. In her sensuous, sophisticated manner she created its image and allure.

Although she personified the glamour of the golden years of Hollywood and became the first black singer to sign a long-term contract with a major studio, she battled racism and discrimination and endured withering public humiliation throughout her entire career. Although a megastar during the 1960s, no network would cast her as the host of a regular TV show. She felt constantly put down, unappreciated and shunted aside because of the color of her skin.

“It’s pretty clear why I’ve never had my own show, so I won’t go into it,” she said. To survive, and hide her rage, she acquired a glacial veneer and defensive attitude, an attack mode persona onstage and in public that carried over into her private life.

Although she helped break down the color barrier in the entertainment world and fought segregation wherever she found it, Miss Horne felt isolated even within her own race.

In reality, she lived in two worlds. Her second husband, Lennie Hayton, was a white musician. They married secretly in Paris in 1947 when miscegenation was still a crime in many parts of the United States. She was a black singer swathed in white glamour who performed in many places where blacks were eventually allowed to attend, but could ill afford to do so and rarely felt welcome.

Miss Horne’s rise is a compelling story, filled with theatrical lore and star-studded names: Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Ava Gardner, Orson Welles, Joe Louis (the latter two were among her lovers). The book should have been an absorbing read. Unfortunately, it is not.

Author James Gavin is on information overload. He has disgorged so many descriptions, quotes and details — sometimes repeating them in a variety of chapters — that even the dazzling diva becomes dull. Thus, the reader wishes an editor had gotten out the proverbial blue pencil and slashed the 486 pages in half.

The elegant performer was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., into an upper-class, well-educated black family with a determined stage mother who pushed her shy, 16-year-old daughter into the chorus line of the famous Cotton Club of Harlem.

There, she met the elite jazz performers of the day, the stars of the big-band era and the songwriter Harold Arlen, who would go on to create many of her greatest hits, including “Stormy Weather,” which she sang in the movie of the same name. It became her signature piece. Time magazine dubbed her “the chocolate cream chanteuse.”

Even though she appeared in a number of MGM’s glitziest musicals and was the highest paid black actor of the mid-1940s, she rarely shined in a major role. Films that featured Miss Horne were chopped up or re-edited for theaters in the South that would not show black actors mixing with whites. As a result, there were often big gaps in the story and her songs tended to be odd, stand-alone numbers with no real connection to the basic plot.

Previously, when she toured with Charlie Barnet’s all-male, white swing band in the South, she was forced to eat and sleep in the tour bus because no restaurant or hotel would allow her to cross its threshold. Between musical sets, she was made to wait in a specially constructed structure in the ladies room to avoid any contact with the all-white audience.

Her celebrity could not protect her from the witch hunts of the McCarthy era, either. Her political and civil rights activities plus a longtime friendship with singer Paul Robeson targeted her as a communist sympathizer, and she was blacklisted and prohibited from performing in movies or on TV for seven years. (Eleanor Roosevelt, her heroine and mentor, consoled her with, “Don’t worry darling, I’ve been blacklisted too.”)

During this period, Miss Horne sang her way through Europe to great acclaim and, in 1957, went back to nightclubs and the recording studio to make “Lena Horne at the Waldorf.” It is still considered one her greatest albums.

Probably the most traumatic period of her troubled life was 1970, when her father, son and husband all died in the same year. By then, her stardom had waned. Diana Ross, Roberta Flack and Gladys Knight were the new black idols, and Miss Horne did not make a real comeback until 1981, when she triumphed on Broadway with “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music.” It covered her early life and 50 years in show business. A sensation, it was standing room only for 14 months before going on tour.

In 2003, Janet Jackson, with little acting experience and a reedy voice, was chosen to make a biopic of Miss Horne’s life for ABC. Both Miss Horne and her daughter Gail Lumet Buckley had misgivings from the start. The project disintegrated after Justin Timberlake ripped off part of Miss Jackson’s bodice revealing her right breast during the Super Bowl, igniting a nasty scandal.

A month later, just as Vanity Fair published a picture of Miss Jackson in a replica of Miss Horne’s “Stormy Weather” gown, the aging star and her daughter announced that no contract would be signed unless Miss Jackson withdrew. She agreed, and ABC lost interest in the project.

Miss Horne’s final role is one of a recluse. Suffering from arthritis and losing her vision, at 92, she has disappeared into her Manhattan apartment. In 2008, many expected her to publicly support Barack Obama, but she stopped speaking out years ago. “I’ve seen it all,” she said, “from the stage and the bandstand.”

This disappearance did not surprise her longtime friend, dancer Geoffrey Holder. “The key to Lena is that she is a Cancer, a crab. If you understand Cancers, they are wonderful shining lights, but when they feel enough is enough, they crawl into their shells.”

Sandra McElwaine is a contributor to the Daily Beast.

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