When a person has lived as long as Lena Horne (92 years) and been as famous as she was, it’s hard to imagine there’s much more to add to the volumes of words that have already been written about her. Iconic — absolutely.
Stormy Weather, the unauthorized biography by James Gavin, filled in a lot of detail on Horne’s long career — spanning the 1940s and 1950s and into the civil rights era, stage, film, and records — and her tumultuous personal life. She’d been a recluse since 1998 and it can’t have been easy to get a perspective of her life without her help. Her daughter, Gail Buckley Lumet, wrote The Hornes: An American Family in 1986, providing a broader perspective on the complex life of a family that benefited and suffered from its legacy of fair skin during a very racist era.
I mostly remember Lena Horne from old movies seen very sparingly. I’d always assumed I’d seen Cabin in the Sky, that included a very young Lena Horne cast as a temptress, until my husband rented the video from the local public library and I finally did see it and realized that I was seeing it for the first time. With someone as legendary as Lena Horne, you often think you know more about them and their body of work than is actually the case.
I did see her in the Good Witch cameo in The Wiz, not her most representative performance. But my most vivid recollection is seeing her live some time in the 1980s in her stage performance of The Lady and Her Music. My husband (then boyfriend) took our mothers along to see the performer who was their comtemporary. As it happens, both our mothers were — like Horne — very fair-skinned black women who’d grown up at a time when their skin tones opened up more opportunities for them than were available for darker skinned women, but came with its own world of complications.
According to Gavin, The Lady and Her Music was a particularly invigorating and liberating show for Horne, a triumph after years of not getting nearly the kind of opportunities she might have had she been white. And she did indeed look joyously happy and liberated to tell all about the hardships when she could laugh at them with the hindsight of a career that was still going strong. Like all of us, she certainly had her demons, but she wore them better than most.