All right Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up

11 May 2010

Ain't No Sun Up in the Sky-The Lady was an Original-In Appreciation, Lena Horne

Before Lena Horne "Black women were only allowed to play maids in the movies, and all of a sudden, the black community had this goddess." Leslie Uggams

I don't remember the first time I heard Lena Horne sing, I have always had her music in my life and her unmistakable voice could make me cheer or reach for a Kleenex. Yet,I am not even sure if it was her singing that I remember as much as her image as she carried herself with such style, intelligence and sheer purpose and no one else sounded like Lena Horne-a mix of cashmere and heart open emotion.

Lena Horne was every inch an original. A glorious presence whose life and career reflected the tumultuous and triumphant times she lived through. She was an icon of style, grace and elegance...her breathtaking beauty and talent gave her a career but Lena Horne knew that career had limitations, limitations that she would spend her life breaking through. Truly a  trailblazer, never afraid to go where she was told she could not-and though her fair skin allowed her to walk through many doors she was not welcome to stay in the room...Lena Horne battled with grace throughout her 92 years the injustices that kept her from those rooms. 

She would not be typecast in traditional stereotypical roles that were all that really existed in those years for black actresses- refusing to play the traditional role of the maid on film  she was relegated primarily to  a torch singer role in musicals, a role  that could be edited in or out depending upon the audience. Seen most often in a sultry evening gown leaning against a post as she sang her film presence appealed to many as she was never portrayed as white or black."They didn't make me into a maid, but they didn't make me anything else, either," Horne wrote in her autobiography. "I became a butterfly pinned to a column, singing away in Movieland." Jerome Kern wanted her to play the mulatto Julie in Showboat but Broadway wasn't willing and Ava Gardner played the role on screen--ironically wearing the makeup that Max Factor developed for Lena to make her skin appear darker on film than it was...again she didn't fit the mold. Not quite black enough...yet not white either but always stunning. Hollywood never totally recognized the potential of Lena Horne and never had the guts to cast her in anything but mainly non speaking roles except in all black cast productions-such as Cabin in the Sky where she debuted what became her signature song Stormy Weather- but she would take her rejection and anger and turn it into activism that would help to pave the way for black actresses and entertainers.

Lena began her career in the 1930s in the chorus line of Harlem's Cotton Club at the age of 16. Within a year she was plucked from the line to appear in a musical review on Broadway. She soon headed for Hollywood where she became the first black actress to secure a long term contract with MGM, and even though Hollywood didn't know what to do with her audiences were brought in by her beauty.  “I was unique in that I was a 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.’’ During the war,however, those appearances brought her some fame as she became a pin up girl-The whole thing that made me a star was the war,” Ms. Horne said. “Of course the black guys couldn’t put Betty Grable’s picture in their footlockers. But they could put mine.” While touring for those troops in USO shows Lena Horne refused to appear before audiences that were segregated

In the late 40s she married white bandleader/arranger Lennie Hayton who she said could gain her access and open doors that a black man could not. She was the first Black singer to tour with an all white band refusing to perform for segregated audiences when she appeared in USO tours. Because of her work in Civil Rights and her associations with other "activists" such as Paul Robeson she was blacklisted in the 50s. She would become a cabaret fixture and recording artist-her album  Lena Horne At The Waldorf Astoriawas RCA's best selling album by a female recording artist in 1957. Success would follow through the cabaret and club appearances and her role that she carried so well as a black woman who could speak out as she sang to all audiences helped her find her place. She would return triumphantly to Broadway in her one woman autobiographical show Lena Horne: The Lady And Her Music (Original Cast) running over 14 months and winning a Tony and a Grammy.

Lena Horne was not a natural singer nor a powerful one but a voice that spoke to the soul-mentored by pianist/composer Billy Strayhorn Lena Horne's voice spoke the emotions of the lyrics. She was one of a kind, captivating and able to bridge the gap, blur the lines, between black and white thus allowing a new integration in entertainment.She could have had an easier road pretending to be something other than she was, but Lena Horne chose to be herself- an American original.

“My identity is very clear to me now. I am a black woman. I’m free. I no longer have to be a ‘credit.’ I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody; I don’t have to be a first to anybody. 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."

Read and Listen-Lena Horne
The Hornes: An American Family (Applause Books)
Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne
Seasons of a Life
An Evening With Lena Horne: Live At The Supper Club
Stormy Weather: The Legendary Lena (1941-1958)
We'll Be Together Again
Lena: A New Album