Interviews » Biographers

James Gavin, author of Stormy Weather: the Life of Lena Horne

 

 
 Drawing on a wealth of unmined material and hundreds of interviews – one of them with Lena Horne herself – critically acclaimed author James Gavin gives us a “deftly researched” (The Boston Globe) and authoritative portrait of the American icon. Horne broke down racial barriers in the entertainment industry in the 1940s and ’50s even as she was limited mostly to guest singing appearances in splashy Hollywood musicals. Incorporating insights from the likes of Ruby Dee, Tony Bennett, Diahann Carroll, and Bobby Short, Stormy Weather reveals the many faces of this luminous, complex, strong-willed, passionate, even tragic woman – a stunning talent who inspired such giants as Barbra Streisand, Eartha Kitt, and Aretha Franklin.#

In a September 18, 2009 interview with Jerry Jazz Musician associate editor Peter Maita, Gavin discusses the challenging yet inspiring life of one of the 20th century’s most revered entertainers, Lena Horne.

 

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Lena Horne

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“The publicity extolled her as a black woman who had battled racism and crushing loss with ultimate dignity, while conquering almost every corner of white-dominated show business – Hollywood, Las Vegas, Broadway. In an age when black film actresses were confined either to low-budget “race movies” or to playing maids or whores, Horne was the screen’s first Negro goddess and bowed to no one. Regal and classy, she helped redefine white America’s image of the black female.”

– James Gavin

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Honeysuckle Rose , by Lena Horne

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PM  You conducted an interview with Lena Horne in 1994. Did you subsequently interview her specifically for this book?

JG  No. The interview you refer to was done for the New York Times. After having been in hiding, more or less, for several years, Lena had made her first album in a long time, and was on the brink of her final renaissance, which would include taping a live special for A&E. Since she’d fascinated me since I was a child, I jumped at the chance to interview her. That would be the only serious time I would ever spend with her. I spent two hours and fifteen minutes with her in a hotel room and asked her all the questions I’d always wanted to ask. No one else was there.

PM  She didn’t have a stable family life while growing up. How did this effect her view on life?

JG  Permanently and profoundly. The chaos of her early years instilled in her a feeling of being unwanted, of rejection and alienation, and it left her feeling very alone. When you trace her life and her art, you see a woman mostly isolated – either in cameo solo numbers in her M-G-M films, out on the nightclub floor doing her cabaret act, or on concert stages. The peak of her career was her one-woman show, The Lady and her Music, which ran on Broadway for over a year.

PM   Her grandmother Cora raised her to become an adult at an early age. Lena once spoke of this, saying, “She never made a child out of me. I was always an adult.” Did this upbringing shape her stoic personality?

JG  She was raised to be a warrior; her grandmother had warned her to never let anyone see her cry. There were reasons for this. Cora felt that a black person could only survive by being very strong, and never dropping one’s guard. Lena built high walls around herself to keep pain and danger from getting in. As she once admitted, this also kept out a lot of the good things; she became extremely defensive and quick to push friends away. It brought her a lot of sadness and loneliness. But it also made her a survivor. She’s still alive at age 92. While she’s extremely fragile, clearly she still has that fighting mechanism her grandmother instilled in her.

PM  Why was she was chosen, at age 16, over “an intimidating number of young black women” to be on the Cotton Club chorus line?

JG  Because she was gorgeous, fair-skinned, and could dance a little bit. The defining phrase of a Cotton Club girl at that time was “tall, tan, and terrific,” and the job depended much more on looks than on dancing ability. Being fair-skinned was definitely advantageous in the black community – at the time, the lighter you were, the more acceptable you seemed to the white majority. Soon after they hired her at the Cotton Club, they found out how charismatic she was. So, she didn’t stay in the chorus line for long.

PM What was the Cotton Club like at the time she was hired?

JG  The Cotton Club was high-level black entertainment. But these all-black shows were largely presented by white people, for white people. This was a segregated club built to invoke the atmosphere of an old southern slave mansion. Outside, the entrance looked like a log cabin. The club was very expensive, very elite, and attracted presidents, stars, and all the big celebrities of the day. But the patrons had to be white, except for a select few, like the boxer Joe Louis, who was one of the most celebrated black men of the day. Joe would be allowed to sit at a little table in the rear of the club, where celebrated blacks or family members of the cast could sit.

The shows themselves were very fast moving, and choreographed to the hilt. They were extravagant productions featuring the most talented and exciting black performers of the day. The Cotton Club was their holy grail, but Lena Horne came in and saw a disturbing picture. It offended her to look out into an all-white sea of faces. She sensed the condescension in their enticement. The backstage conditions appalled her; for instance, the customers, of course, had their own bathroom, but the chorines had to use a sort of potty. Most of them were proud to be where they were and didn’t complain, but Lena saw things through a much more enlightened lens.

PM  She trashed the Cotton Club, even though it provided her with her first exposure…

JG  Yes. She thought it was a hotbed of indignity. But without a doubt, the Cotton Club is an endlessly fascinating place. Seventy-plus years after it closed, people are still talking about it.

PM Early in her career, Lena Horne struggled with her singing and the reviewers agreed – yet she continued to become a bigger star. Why did her popularity grow without having the singing qualities of some of her contemporaries?

JG   By the time she’d reached M-G-M in 1942 she had actually grown into a fine singer. But she knew that her looks, more than anything else, had made her career possible – specifically, her Caucasian-style beauty. The phrase “Black is beautiful” didn’t exist then; it wouldn’t appear until the 1960’s. In Lena’s time, if you were black and considered beautiful, it usually meant that you reminded people of a beautiful white woman. Lena had not only the beauty but a refinement to match. And she was determined to get things right. When you listen to her very first recording from 1936 with the Noble Sissle orchestra, “I Take To You ” – a cute little novelty song – you hear what a hard worker she was. She was dead in tune all the way through, and even though she was very young, she tried so hard to sound worldly. Lena sought out teachers and musicians to help her develop. Eventually, she became a damned good singer.

PM  How important was her experience working with Noble Sissle on her career and the way she lived her life?

JG   He was one of her teachers. Lena wound up working with Sissle as a kind of escape from the Cotton Club. She was itching to get out of there, and Sissle hired her in 1935. He was unique at that time – a black bandleader whose orchestra was so mannerly and debonair that they were hired to play high-echelon society events. Lena fit Sissle’s definition of a “lady,” and he groomed her all the more in that direction. He taught her to keep her chin up and her dignity intact at all times, no matter what kind of racist abuse she encountered. So he was another person telling her to keep her guard up. It helped make her even more suspicious of people and their motives.

PM  How did her position as the first African American woman to sign a contract with a major motion picture company – M-G-M – impact the black community and black entertainers?

JG  In fascinating ways. Up until that time, black entertainers were presented almost exclusively as social stereotypes. A genre known as race movies were trying to change that. Race movies were a thriving industry at the time – all-black films that were made on a shoestring and shown in black theaters. The production values were usually squalid, but at least these movies provided work for black actors and strove to eliminate racist stereotypes. Hollywood, however, was still exploiting those clichés shamefully. Lena was singled out by the NAACP’s executive secretary, Walter White, as the best performer to revolutionize Hollywood’s attitude toward black people – to show white America another an anti-stereotype. And even though she wound up being very unhappy in her role as a “symbol,” Lena served as the bridge to a more enlightened time. White’s experiment worked.

PM  Without Walter White’s strong guidance, would Horne have been less picky about which roles to play, or to have felt less pressure to be a role model for the black community?

JG  Lena Horne was presented onscreen as a goddess, and she got a degree of respect that no black performer in Hollywood had ever received. Would M-G-M have discovered her without Walter White? I would have to say probably not. But there were many reasons why M-G-M signed her. She was beautiful, likable, professional, and damned good at what she did. There were also political reasons why Hollywood wanted her. The black consumer audience was growing, and to have Lena in M-G-M’s splashy white musicals, showcased so glowingly, was good for business.

PM You call Horne’s performance of “Stormy Weather” in the film Stormy Weather her “defining image.” Why?

JG  That scene of her standing on a nightclub set, alongside a window in a house with a storm going on outside, is the clip of hers that gets shown the most. It is also her defining image because “Stormy Weather” became her signature song. At the time, Lena was still too guarded to dig deep into those tortured lyrics. Ethel Waters, who introduced “Stormy Weather” at the Cotton Club, was a lot more dramatic. Naturally, when Lena got her song, Ethel was mad as hell, and felt resentful and threatened. Ethel was on her way down then, and Lena was the fine young thing that everyone was making a fuss over. But over time, as Lena blossomed expressively, that song would display all the pain, the rage, the struggles and turmoil that Lena felt.

PM  You said that Lena Horne’s films, Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky, would go down in history as milestones in black cinema. In the immediate wake of these two movies, were more respectable roles being offered to African Americans?

JG  Those two movies did not make Walter White happy. His goal was desegregation, and he didn’t see the value in an all-black musical. Yet the casts in those two films are fantastic, and Cabin in the Sky was directed exquisitely by Vincente Minnelli. Those movies were, in a sense, high-class race movies, and the splendor of black talent they featured drew white audiences into the theaters.

PM She always dreamed of having a lead role in a movie, but there were so few opportunities…

JG  Interestingly, part of the Lena Horne myth is that it was written into her contract that she would never play a maid. But just after she’d signed with M-G-M, she tested for the role of Jeanette MacDonald’s maid in the film Cairo. She didn’t turn the part down; she just didn’t get it. It went to Ethel Waters. In her final days at M-G-M, Lena told a reporter that she would have played a maid if the role was interesting enough. But to show her in a maid’s uniform would have defeated the purpose of Lena’s presence at M-G-M. Throughout her years there, the studio struggled to find speaking roles for her, but those were extremely racist times, and M-G-M encountered many obstacles. As it happened, the way they presented her turned out to be right on the money, because those gorgeously produced numbers showed off all of her strengths – and delivering lines was not one of them. M-G-M helped create a Lena Horne who was very mysterious, sexy, who wore fabulous clothes and said little. The experts who worked there, notably Kay Thompson and Lena’s future husband, Lennie Hayton – also taught Lena how to sing. All of these factors created the Lena Horne of legend.

PM  Did she feel like she was letting down the black community for not playing in any major roles?

JG  I don’t think that entered her mind at all. I do think she felt a strong sense of rejection in Hollywood, because she wasn’t allowed to interact with white performers onscreen. For a woman who had grown up feeling unwanted and alone, Hollywood was a bitter pill to take.

PM   In the spring of 1948, the playwright and screenwriter Arthur Laurents described a Lena Horne club performance he witnessed as “…the moment she came to life as a performer. That was a Lena Horne that no one had ever seen.” What made this era’s Lena Horne so different?

JG By that time she was really losing patience with Hollywood. Up until then, the training she’d undergone to always be a well-mannered lady and to watch her step were still in place. Prior to the 1948 film Words and Music, Lena had a certain haughty edge to her, but also a lot of sweetness. By 1948, she’d really started to bare her fangs, because she was tired of the way Hollywood was treating her. Her anger began to penetrate her singing, which created a fiery Lena Horne that was really exciting. Her rage came out as this ferocious, fiery sex appeal.

PM  During her time in the show Jamaica, she became intensely distressed, saying things like, “I hate myself” and “I’m depressed in a way I haven’t been before.” Why was she so relentlessly hard on herself during this period, or for that matter, nearly every stage of her career?

JG  Insecurity. The pressure of feeling scrutinized very closely by everyone and perhaps not measuring up. In the case of Jamaica, Lena had never carried a Broadway show before, and she was terrified. Jamaica featured many young black dancers, and Lena felt their success rested on her shoulders.