Interviews » Biographers

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

 

PM Did she want the responsibility of being a symbol for the black community?

JG  She may not have wanted it, but she certainly accepted it. Lena was tremendously ambitious. In later years, after her disappointments had piled up, she tried, in effect, to disown her career by saying that she had never really wanted to be in show business – that she had only entered the Cotton Club because it was the Depression, and her mother was sick and her father couldn’t get a job, so she had to be the breadwinner. But I don’t believe it.

PM  What made Horne an accessible African American performer to the white audience at a time when racism and discrimination were abundant?

JG  Number one, her beauty, which, in the eyes of that audience, fit a Caucasian mold. The same could be said of her refinement, her grace, her diction, her repertoire. A “blacker” personality would not have had her particular opportunities in the show-business world of the time; certainly not in Hollywood.

PM She was criticized for lacking any “black musical influence,” yet her lighter skin color made her a more accessible crossover success. How did these mixed signals affect her ability to find her own identity?

JG  She never really knew who she was, or what she was supposed to be, and she felt resentment from both sides. Lena was a fair-skinned black woman born of the so-called black bourgeoisie – a class that did a lot to help Negroes to assimilate into white society and to function professionally. But Lena’s family, like much of the black bourgeoisie, harbored great hatred of whites – even while priding themselves on their fair skin, which was a great symbol of class distinction. What confusion! Lena, of course, became a darling of the white show-business world; that was the world she pursued, and it created an emotional tug-of-war for her throughout her life. At times she felt like a traitor to her own people – this in spite of all the stands she took on their behalf, all the inspiration she provided them.

PM  Although she rarely ever saw her father as a child, she calls him “the love of my life” as an adult. Can you describe their adult relationship?

DR  Their adult relationship was the same as it was when she was a child; he wasn’t around much. At the end of his life, when he was ailing and needed her help, Lena finally got to spend some serious time with him. Teddy Horne had deserted the family when Lena was still a child. He would reappear now and then and shower her with gifts, but he was a distant and mysterious figure to Lena. Certainly her mother Edna didn’t encourage his presence in the young girl’s life. They spent some time during Lena’s early days in Hollywood, but his apparent rejection of her proved tremendously painful to Lena.

PM She referred to another man she loved deeply, Billy Strayhorn, as her “soulmate”…

JG  Yes, he became a sort of father figure to her. She adored his refined tastes, his soft-spoken manner, his worldliness, his intellect, and of course his talent. She felt safe with him, and felt she could let her hair down in his company and hot have to “be” any particular way.

PM  Would you consider Horne’s specific demands in her professional career as selfish or as revolutionary?

JG  Both. Lena was driven by a sense of great personal rejection – from her family, from society – and her struggles to find a place for herself and to maintain her dignity resonated with a huge number of people. I think that something similar can be said of most of the great civil rights leaders. Like them, Lena was so determined that she fought her way past tremendous obstacles and placed herself in a position where she could effect change.

PM In the early sixties, Horne becomes an active participant in the civil rights movement. Was this a way to improve her image or did she really want to make a difference?

JG  She wanted to make a difference, but she also wanted to make good with her own people, to finally feel as though she were one of them. She yearned for their acceptance. When I interviewed her in 1994, Lena recalled her late-’50’s and early-’60’s lifestyle as a “black ivory tower.” She was working in upscale white venues – the Coconut Grove, the Empire Room of the Waldorf-Astoria, and so on, entertaining mostly well-to-do white audiences. Then the civil rights movement exploded, and black entertainers from a younger generation were joining a big cause. Lena felt left out. She saw the movement as her chance to prove that she really cared.

PM  What was the public’s perception of her during the civil rights movement?

JG  I don’t think she was seen as a mover-and-shaker, even though she really worked hard for the movement. I don’t know how aware the public was of most of her activity. She did go to the March on Washington in 1963, but made only a momentary appearance before the public, shouting “Freedom!” into the microphone. Still, she made the trip.

PM As the civil rights movement wore on through the mid-1960’s, she became a major supporter of Malcolm X, even calling him her “idol.” Why did Horne relate more to his militant activism than with the nonviolent activism of Martin Luther King Jr.?

JG  Because she was angry, and what angrier black man was there at that time than Malcolm X? Martin Luther King was looking for peaceful change, and the idea of peaceful change did not appeal to Lena Horne. She loved the fact that Malcolm X was out for blood, and it really spoke to the rage in her.

PM  What was her most important contribution to the civil rights movement?

JG  The obvious answer is that she opened so many doors for black actresses in Hollywood. But beyond that, she seldom tolerated racism. In the 1940’s – before the term “civil rights movement” had ever been coined – if a hotel denied her musicians a room and sent them across town, if she was turned away at a restaurant or denied a cup of coffee, it made her mad as hell, and she raised a fuss. These incidents made the papers, and helped open people’s eyes to the fact that no black person was immune to racism; even Lena Horne of M-G-M could be treated like dirt. All the while, she was an image of ultimate class and dignity at a time when the prevailing black image was quite demeaning.

PM  Having such a complex career must have taken its toll on her relationship with her children. Was this a lifetime challenge or did she learn to be a good mother as time went on?

JG   It was a lifelong challenge, and although she apparently tried to become a better mother as time went on, her son died when he was thirty, and by that time her daughter was a married woman with children of her own. Lena’s career was all-consuming, and it got the bulk of her attention. The children of career-obsessed parents have a tough time.

PM  She felt a great sense of accomplishment with her 1981 Broadway production, Lena Horne: The Lady and her Music…

JG  The Lady and her Music remains the most successful one-woman show ever to appear on Broadway. A lot of veteran show-business ladies thought that they could do what Lena had done, but of course they couldn’t. Barbara Cook couldn’t pull it off; Peggy Lee did even worse. The year before that show opened, Lena had announced her retirement, as she so often had before. Then came this triumph of a lifetime. Once more, Lena was out there alone, but this time she was free to call all the shots, to depict herself just as she wanted to be perceived. The public saw a long-suffering but emancipated black woman who had triumphed over every societal demon and had finally found peace. She hadn’t. The truth was more between the lines than it was in the script. But that show electrified and inspired a lot of people.

PM  In his August 9th 2009 review of your book, the Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley wrote: “In his introduction he portrays himself as in awe of Horne when he interviewed her for The New York Times in 1994. But you don’t have to read much more to conclude that, to put it as charitably as possible, he doesn’t really like her that much.” Would you agree with that statement?

JG  Absolutely not. I haven’t read that review, but of course I heard about it. I encountered the same perception with my Chet Baker book. If you portray an iconic figure honestly, as a warts-and-all human being, as I do in my books, then some readers will think you have it out for your subjects. When I hear Lena’s recordings now, I am more moved by her than ever, because I really understand what lay behind that formidable façade that intimidated a lot of people. Now I know so much about her struggles, about all she had to do to survive, and I respect and admire and enjoy her more than I ever have before. I am very interested in human psychology and the darkest corners of human psychology. A lot of people are afraid of it. But I was utterly fascinated by Lena’s behavior. There were a lot of people she didn’t treat well, including her husband, Lennie Hayton. But she’s an extremely complex personality, and a woman who harbored enormous conflict. And of course, who could reasonably expect such a fiery stage persona to be a nice, normal, easy person offstage? Lena’s performing style grew out of personal turmoil.

PM  Have you spoken to Lena Horne since your book was published?

JG  I haven’t exchanged a word with her since 1994. She became reclusive in 2000, so as I said, I never had access to her over the course of this book.

I would like to share a personal story with your readers. In 1991, I sent her a copy of my first book, Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret, along with an invitation to the book’s release party, which took place at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. Wasn’t I a dreamer? One day I went out to buy milk, and when I came back there was a message on my machine from Lena. I still have it. It was lovely and gracious. She congratulated me and said she would not be able to come to the party but wished me the very best. Oh God, imagine how I felt, realizing I had just missed that telephone call! I still have the message. How could I not like that person?

PM What do you think was more important to Lena Horne, her self-image or her own abilities as an entertainer?

JG   I couldn’t answer that, because she devoted so much time to both. She wasn’t prententious about her art, but she took it very seriously. She worked so hard to perfect what she did; she wanted to be taken seriously and to earn that attention. But her image was all-important. Walter White, Noble Sissle, and her other early mentors had reminded her that people were watching her very closely, and she couldn’t let them down.

PM  What will Lena Horne be most remembered for?

JG   She will probably be best remembered for her beauty – it was that overwhelming. When you hear the name Lena Horne, if you have ever seen her at all, her face flashes into your mind. That aside, I think she will be remembered as ultimate class. That’s what she’s been from the time she stepped onto the Cotton Club stage until today.

 

 

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“The woman is so stunningly gowned to accent a beautiful figure that this, in itself, would catch an audience’s attention. But the ultimate hypnotic effect is the music, the arrangements and an intensity of delivery that finds its essence in eyes that seem to bore into you.”

– Robert Dana in the New York World-Telegram & Sun, January, 1956

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Old Devil Moon, by Lena Horne

“Lena Horne Sings Love Me or Leave Me and The Eagle and Me 1965”

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Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne

by

James Gavin

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 About James Gavin

James Gavin has written about some of the most significant black musical figures of our time, including Nina Simone, Harry Belafonte, and Miriam Makeba. His 300+ CD liner note essays include Grammy-nominated article for the box set Ella Fitzgerald – The Legendary Decca Recordings. He is the author of Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker and Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret.  

 

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Critical Acclaim for Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne

” … James Gavin offers a fascinating study of a complicated woman and the complicated times that shaped her…he delivers a portrait of a very human artist who is as compelling for her foibles as her accomplishments…By crafting a dense, moving tribute that never dissolves into hagiography, Gavin has proven her point.”

— USA Today

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“So full of insight into Lena, and the author knows his subject’s work. The critiques of her film appearances and her recordings are dazzling passages of insight all on their own…. Talk about something that keeps you turning pages to the very last – and wishing there was more.”

— Liz Smith

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“There is good reason for James Gavin’s Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne to take up – when you count the notes, bibliography, discography, filmography and index – nearly 600 pages. This Lena … has had a life so rich in ups and downs as to make page after page eventful and suspenseful. This all the more so since the book is also two books in one: a thorough and fluent biography and a history of the slow social rise of black people despite crippling discrimination and stinging humiliations a history in which Horne’s story is embedded, notwithstanding some personal jumps ahead.”

— The New York Times

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“For most of her life, Lena Horne has been a very angry woman. She may have given as good as she got for many of her 92 years, but as related in James Gavin’s definitive new biography, she had reason enough….The power of Gavin’s biography is that he has clearly labored to separate fact from fiction…Beyond that, she was a complicated woman whose personal struggles with identity were inextricably intertwined with those of African Americans throughout the 20th century. In Gavin’s capable hands, Lena Horne’s story is both uniquely her own and an integral part of a larger cultural journey.”

— San Francisco Chronicle

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Lena Horne products at Amazon.com

James Gavin products at Amazon.com

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This interview took place on September 18th, 2009

 

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If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Gavin on Chet Baker.

 

 

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# Text from publisher.

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This interview was conducted by Peter Maita on September 18, 2009, and published on March 24, 2010. Portland, Oregon.