Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Stormy Weather

Lena Horne died on Sunday, May 9, 2010. The circumstances of her death were withheld by the family, but she was, after all, 94 years old.

I'm not old enough to really remember her at her peak - for me, she was always a presence on TV variety shows and a legendary name in a type of music I've only lately come to appreciate.

While the nascent civil rights movement was struggling to gain any kind of foothold, she had the advantage of being "traditionally" beautiful (that is, attractive to white people). As she put it:
"I was unique in that I was a kind of black that white people could accept. 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."
Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was born in Brooklyn on June 30, 1917. She dropped out of school at age 14, and began working as a singer and dancer at New York's legendary Cotton Club two years later.

She quickly became a featured singer, and after a series of nightclub and touring jobs (and one failed marriage), she signed on with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Her debut role with MGM was Panama Hattie (1942).

Despite the fact that the star of this unmemorable picture was Red Skelton, Ms Horne continued to have a career afterwards. (Oddly, so did Mr. Skelton.)

It wasn't until the next year, on loan to 20th Century Fox, that she would sing what became one of her signature numbers, the title song to the all-black musical Stormy Weather. Her voice, at the age of 20, had yet to gain the power or the depth she would have later in life, but the song still became a hit.

Because of the prevailing racism of the day, her film appearances most often had to be "stand-alone" scenes that could be cut out when the movie played in the South. In fact, for much of the early part of her career she couldn't even stay in the hotels where she was performing, because they wouldn't accept blacks.

She spoke briefly of her relationship with Count Basie in a 1982 tribute to the jazz legend.

She was an activist and civil rights pioneer for most of her life.
In 1941, she sang at Cafe Society and worked with Paul Robeson. During World War II, when entertaining the troops for the USO, she refused to perform "for segregated audiences or for groups in which German POWs were seated in front of African American servicemen" according to her Kennedy Center biography. She was at the March on Washington and spoke and performed on behalf of the NAACP, SNCC and the National Council of Negro Women. She also worked with Eleanor Roosevelt to pass antilynching laws.
It was, in fact, her friendship with Paul Robeson, himself an activist (he was openly pro-Soviet and fought to end the oppression of the colonized people of Africa, Asia and the Atlantic and Pacific nations, among many other politically unpopular causes) that got Ms. Horne blacklisted during the Fifties. But by then she'd given up movie work and was a nightclub performer once again, so it really didn't affect her all that much. She only had two movie roles after that, Death of a Gunfighter (1969), and, sadly, The Wiz (1978).

Although she never seemed to be truly comfortable when surrounded by a crowd of Muppets, she still appeared on Sesame Street multiple times throughout the 70s.

Lena Horne fought her entire life for acceptance and for the rights of others. Like so few others, she qualifies as an American legend.

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