“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.” — Lena Horne

It’s her birthday today.

Mitchell and I – in yet another of our series of conversations – discuss Lena Horne. Weirdly, we had an enormous discussion about her one night when I was staying with him in Chicago. We watched endless clips of her singing and talked about her with enthusiasm and love. We woke up to the news she had died. Mitchell looked at me and said, “We didn’t even know it, but last night we gave her a sendoff.”

Part of this “series” was me asking Mitchell to describe whoever it was in “one word” as a launching point.

On Lena Horne

SOM: One word.

MF: Angry.

SOM: Talk about that.

MF: It’s almost like she was the Mike Tyson of singers. There was always this idea that she might bite. She bit her words, and she bit her phrasing.

I read that beautiful biography about her, Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne. It talked a lot about how she would stand in these clubs as a black woman who was considered pretty. How generous of the white audience to consider her pretty, right? And she wouldn’t be able to go in the front door, but she’d sing for these rich white people, and her friends and family couldn’t come in, and she was so furious that it kind of created her style.

She was angry about a lot of things. She was angry about the fact that she was never really given a role at MGM. All of her roles were AS Lena Horne. Well, not all of them – there were two exceptions and they were primarily black movies. But most of her movies, she was basically Lena Horne singing a song, which they would then take out when the movie played in the South. She was the link between Ethel Waters and Hattie McDaniel and the next generation, with Diahann Carroll.

MF: And she was pissed about it. She didn’t want to be anyone’s link. She wanted to be a movie star, and she wanted to be a top-rated concert singer, and she got stuck in the middle. She was very angry politically, when she got older. Totally justified. She was labeled as a female Uncle Tom, in a way, because her career was based on a white world. Her credibility as a black woman, or a civil rights activist, was called into question and that made her mad.

MF: I think a lot of people get disappointed when they hear Lena Horne for the first time. They think she’s going to be a soul singer. And of course she had a soulful voice because she sang from the heart, but she was like Sinatra and Dean Martin and Judy Garland and Peggy Lee and Rosemary Clooney.

MF: Lena Horne sang standards. She sang on the jazz edge of standards, but really, she was more of a pop singer. Not a blues singer, not a soul singer, not an R&B singer. She was a black woman who sang the standards. She was famous for singing Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Harold Arlen. She was also stunningly beautiful. It was interesting because she married a white man, and then seemed to regret it. She regretted that she had done that because she felt like it took her credibility away. She seemed to die fairly bitter. If you want to get a real sense of her, watch her in Cabin in the Sky (1943).

MF: Then watch some of her TV appearances in the 60s. Watch her sing with Judy Garland on the Judy Garland Show. They do two duets. They do “Day In Day Out”, and then they sing each other’s songs, which is really brilliant.

MF: I think my favorite recording of hers, for some reason, is from her Broadway show The Lady and Her Music that she won a Tony for. She does “Surrey With the Fringe On Top”, and it’s kind of a throwaway but I think it’s genius. She starts it off by saying, “I’m gonna sing this one …….. cause I like it.” And then she sings “Surrey With the Fringe On Top”, and it’s so good and jazzy and informed and sexy. To me, that’s a real mark of her artistry, that she could take a lyric and make it very much about whatever her story is, and it didn’t have to do with the context, it had to do with whatever she was thinking about. That’s the mark of a great singer.

MF: I love Christina Aguilera, and I know it’s a different tradition of singing, but she’s so busy acting like she’s singing, which she doesn’t have to do because she is in fact singing better than 90% of the planet. But she’s always showing us that she’s singing, and it’s like “Why don’t you talk to us about the story that you’re telling, and we’ll understand that you’re singing”.

SOM: One last thing about Lena: Could you talk to me about her gestures?

MF: Her gestures really are so unique, so connected to whatever she’s going through, but also really out there. Her gestures are less striking to me, though, than her facial expressions. She would do this wide-mouth to get the sound out, and her weird vowels. Like she wouldn’t say “there”, she’d say “thay-ah”. So if you say that, you can feel your mouth open – and it’s this open-mouthed A, even though that’s not really the vowel sound of the actual word. Her gestures were a lot of clenched fists, but her face – she sort of made her eyes huge, and she would scrunch up her eyes and growl. In a weird way, she had a tightness to her gestures, whereas Judy’s gestures flowed out, or Ethel Merman‘s gestures flowed out. Lena Horne’s was more of a clenched-fist gesture. In comparison to Shirley Bassey, who has the other extreme: the weirdest gestures ever.

MF: I mean, really. And Bassey got validated for it pretty early in her career so they kept getting more outrageous. She stopped judging herself. She knew she would get great reviews if she did the wildest gestures that anyone had ever seen. I feel like Lena’s gestures were born out of anger. According to a lot of reports, Lena Horne could carry a tune but wasn’t necessarily considered a great singer at the beginning, and she developed her style while doing those club dates that she hated. A lot of her style, which became famous and sexy, was based on her fury.

The biography of her is really good, because it’s about her but it’s also about that time, and what a lot of performers of her time went through. She had a lot of support in Hollywood, except she felt very very lonely, because as much as they supported her they still didn’t have much to say to her. She wasn’t working with everybody like everybody else was. They supported her, they went to see her shows and concerts, but they weren’t on set together. That kind of camaraderie, she didn’t have it. There’s that famous black and white clip showing all the MGM stars having lunch. Watch it again and see that she’s not talking to anyone, and no one’s talking to her. She looks lonely, and beautiful, and stuck there around people she doesn’t know. That’s Lena Horne in Hollywood.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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6 Responses to “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.” — Lena Horne

  1. Carolyn Clarke says:

    I saw her once in a one of those outdoor shopping malls in upstate New York. She was sitting on a stool, back straight, thin and regal. The sales lady was showing her some items and she looked and commented but didn’t buy anything. Like most New Yorkers, I didn’t gush or run over to ask for her autograph. Maybe I should have, but everyone in the store acted the same way. We knew who she was and she knew that we knew, but we respected her privacy, I think. I don’t remember anyone bothering her. We just gave her her space and tried to look at her without staring. I remember feeling like I was in the presence of a queen.

    • sheila says:

      Wow, what an incredible chance encounter! Lena Horne out in the world in a shopping mall – amazing!

      “tried to look at her without staring” – that’s exactly what I would have done!

      I was at the annual book show at the Armory here in New York and it became clear that a woman browsing through books at the next stall was freakin’ Yoko Ono. She was looking through medieval Bibles – she was wearing a huge sun hat and she was with two younger men. I lingered, “browsing” myself, but kept sneaking peeks at her.

  2. I’m sure you know this, but anyway. When Ethel Waters was treating her poorly on the movie set, someone asked Lena why she didn’t defend herself, and she said simply, “She came up hard.”

  3. Bill Wolfe says:

    My mom loves Lena Horne and something about the way she loved Lena impressed upon me as a little boy that this was an important person, someone special. So when I was going to CCNY in 1980-81, I went to one of the old TCKTS booths one morning and got a single fifth row ticket (half-price!) for Lena’s Broadway show that night. It was tremendous. It’s hard to describe, except I had the constant feeling of “How did we all get so lucky to be in this room while this person tells us her life story?”

    Of all the clips, I think her version of “Meet Me in St. Louis” is my favorite. I love Judy’s reaction: “I didn’t know it was sexy!”

    • sheila says:

      // It was tremendous. It’s hard to describe, except I had the constant feeling of “How did we all get so lucky to be in this room while this person tells us her life story?” //

      WOW. What an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience. I am openly envious!!

      and yeah – that clip of her and Judy is just aces. Judy’s TV show was short-lived but it was full of miracles like that.

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