LENA HORNE: A TRUE LEGEND
The first time I saw Lena Horne in person I was with a quarter million other people at the March on Washington in 1963. She had come with a Hollywood contingent, which included Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Marlon Brando and others. The organizers asked her to say a few words, (one of the few women who was actually asked to speak). As she was introduced there was a cheer. She came to the microphone and shouted just one word, ”Freedom!” The crowd responded with the loudest applause of the day until that young preacher from Montgomery spoke a little while later.
Most people are aware that Lena Horne was a great singer and one of the most beautiful women of the last century but she was also a political activist. She was the first Black performer to sign a long-term contract with a major Hollywood studio. Later her progressive views got her blacklisted in the movie industry. But, it wasn’t just her political views that got her in trouble. It was her race and America’s inability to deal with the contradictions that her being presented.
There is the story of how she was going to play the role of Julie in the film of Showboat in 1951. The character was a Mulatto passing for white who had a white husband. It would have been the first inter-racial relationship seen in a studio movie. There were laws against such things in many states in the South. In the end MGM chickened out and gave the role to Lena’s friend Ava Gardner. The irony is that Ava Gardner had to use Lena’s make-up to appear to be the appropriate color.
The next time I saw Lena Horne in person was on stage at the Nederlander theatre. She was performing her Tony Award winning Broadway show. Lena, The Lady and Her Music, ran for 333 performances, still the longest running solo performance in Broadway history. They closed the show when she reached her 65th birthday, not so she could rest, but because she was taking it on the road.
The next time I saw her, Charlie Smalls introduced us. I had been working with Charlie on the book for his new musical, Miracles. She had included the title song in her one-woman show. He knew her from the time she played the good witch in the movie version of his musical, The Wiz. At the time though past 65, she was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. Her eyes sparkled with wit, wisdom and sensuality. I wanted to say something clever. I didn’t. Rather I stuttered some nonsensical thing that even I didn’t understand. It was an awkward moment.
Patting my hand she said in a voice as sweet as melted fudge flowing over chocolate cake, “That’s alright honey, we all get flustered sometimes.”
The word sultry was invented for Lena Horne’s voice. Though she was born and raised in New York, you could hear the tantalizing taste of magnolia in her mouth. Whether she was singing Cole Porter or Willie Dixon her phrasing always made you think there was definitely something going on beneath the surface. And there was, but it wasn’t just sensuality. It was the indomitable spirit of a sublime artist, an indefatigable fighter, and a sister who stood on the precipice of history and dared to say, "Nobody black or white who really believes in democracy can stand aside now; everybody's got to stand up and be counted."
LENA HORNE: A TRUE LEGEND