US singer Lena Horne dies

Lena HorneBy John Andrews in the USA:

Singer, actress dead at 92

Lena Horne, 1917-2010

13 May 2010

Lena Horne’s death in a New York City hospital last Sunday, less than two months shy of her 93rd birthday, is an occasion not only to review her remarkable 65-year show business career, but also to consider briefly the conditions during which that career unfolded.

The span of her life is itself significant. Born June 30, 1917, two months after US entry into World War I and four months before the Russian Revolution, Horne lived through the Depression, the Second World War, the birth of the Cold War, the eruption of the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union and countless other major historical episodes.

How and to what extent these events helped shape her life and career are complex questions, but her status as a social personality—perhaps the almost inevitable fate of an outspoken African-American entertainer at the time—makes them unavoidable ones. Individuality does not consist in a human being’s independence from social processes and experiences, but in how those various processes and experiences find a unique expression.

Undoubtedly, the emergence of a mass movement for civil rights in the US in the middle of the last century, against both the Jim Crow segregation of the South and more subtle forms of anti-black racism in the North, was central to Lena Horne’s life and experience. In its best aspects, Horne’s career embodied the struggle for equality.

Due to her striking beauty—and light skin color—Horne was recruited by movie mogul Louis B. Mayer in 1942 to be the first “glamorous” African-American film star. To her credit, she never accepted the premises underlying her supposed role as a sort of Jackie Robinson of Hollywood, and, partly as a result, she died with few meaningful film credits.

Lena Horne was born into an educated, middle class Brooklyn household. Her parents separated shortly thereafter, however, and she bounced between her show-business mother and her paternal grandmother, herself a suffragette and ardent supporter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the civil rights organization founded in 1909. Horne’s childhood years coincided with the flowering of the “Harlem Renaissance,” which saw the emergence of a highly talented group of black artists, musicians and writers, centered in uptown Manhattan.

In 1933, at the age of 16, Horne became a dancer at the Cotton Club, the famous Harlem venue where black entertainers—Cab Calloway’s Brown Sugar revue was the main attraction at the time—performed for generally all-white audiences. Horne later mused that although her dancing was terrible, she was attractive and therefore a success.

Plucked out of the chorus line because of her appearance, Horne began a career as a vocalist, making her first recordings with the all-black Noble Sissle Society Orchestra in 1936. At age 19, she married a minor politician in Pittsburgh, giving birth to a daughter, Gail, in 1937 and a son, Teddy, in 1940. Her marriage soon disintegrated, however, and Horne returned to show business as a singer in the Charlie Barnet Orchestra, one of the most popular swing bands of the period.

As jazz vocalist Billie Holiday—two years Horne’s senior—had already learned during her short stint with the Artie Shaw Orchestra, touring with an all-white band was a degrading and humiliating experience for an African-American performer. Through no fault of Barnet, Horne could not eat in the same restaurants or stay in the same hotels as the other band members. When she performed, entering through back doors and kitchens, she was often subject to racial taunts from the audience.

In 1941, noted impresario and left-winger John Hammond (also an heir to the Vanderbilt fortune), arranged for Horne to become the featured singer at Café Society Downtown, a Greenwich Village nightclub renowned for its racially integrated performances and audiences.

The club was the creation of Barney Josephson, and its name was meant to be ironic, an attack on “high society” venues like the Stork Club, which excluded black patrons and were popular with the designated opinion makers of the time, such as gossip columnist Walter Winchell. Café Society proudly marketed itself as “The right place for the wrong people,” and was a magnet attracting the New York radical intelligentsia, including many members and fellow travelers of the Communist Party.

In interviews done in later years, Horne spoke somewhat wistfully about her stint at Café Society, where she came under the influence of Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois and other major black artistic and intellectual figures of the time.

It was during her stay at Café Society that Horne participated in the making of Boogie-Woogie Dream, a remarkable short subject film shot in 1941, but not released until 1944. In his recent biography of Horne, James Gavin describes the film as the product of “a group of left-wing hell-raisers,” including Austrian-born director Hans Burger, already responsible for an anti-Nazi documentary, and writer Herbert Kline, “an avowed Communist.”

In the 13-minute film, Horne falls asleep while doing dishes in a restaurant. In a dream sequence, after a performance by boogie-woogie virtuosos Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, Horne sings with an orchestra lead by the great swing-era pianist, Teddy Wilson. Horne interprets “Unlucky Woman,” a traditional blues, with plenty of heart and enthusiasm. Her performance is available here:

Gavin comments, “Unlike nearly all the black characters in white-produced films of the day, the ones in here reveal not a hint of stereotyping. Instead, the film treats jazz and the blues with reverence.”

That this brief film, written and directed by left-wingers (and which never found a distributor), was one of the few opportunities for Horne to shine unimpeded on screen is a commentary on Hollywood and the eventual consequences of the purge of socialist-minded elements in the film industry in the late 1940s.

In 1942, Horne moved to Los Angeles, entering into a seven-year commitment to MGM, making her the first black actress ever under a major studio contract, and the highest-paid black entertainer in the United States. To her credit, Horne insisted on provisions prohibiting MGM from casting her in demeaning roles. “They didn’t have me play a maid,” she would later comment, “but they didn’t let me play anything else either.”

See also here. And here.

2 thoughts on “US singer Lena Horne dies

  1. Pingback: Eslanda, Paul Robeson’s wife, new biography | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. Pingback: Classical musician Leonard Bernstein’s centenary | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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