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Cabaret Queen

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, August 9, 2009

STORMY WEATHER

The Life of Lena Horne

By James Gavin

Atria. 598 pp. $27

There's plenty to argue about with regard to James Gavin's biography of Lena Horne -- it's much too long, not very well written, repetitious -- but not with the title he chose. "Stormy Weather" may have been written in 1933 by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler for Ethel Waters. Within a decade, however, Horne took it as her own, making it her "lifelong theme song." She sang and recorded it so often that she grew sick of it, but by 1980, when she built her smash one-woman Broadway show, "Lena: The Lady and Her Music," around it, she had to acknowledge: "I've had stormy weather all my life, and if anybody can sing about the trouble they've seen, it's this old broad."

Well, there are plenty of Americans who would gladly settle for her brand of "trouble" -- international celebrity as perhaps the most accomplished and beautiful African American woman of her generation, not to mention considerable wealth -- but by any fair measure she's also had plenty of the real thing. Her father, whom she adored, deserted the family a few years after her birth in Brooklyn in 1917, and her mother pushed her mercilessly while at the same time resenting her success. From the day in 1933 when she joined the chorus line at the Cotton Club in Harlem to the end of her performing career seven decades later, she was the victim of mean, petty, degrading racism. Hollywood lured her with sweet words and big contracts but never allowed her to do anything except sing, out of fear that white audiences would refuse to patronize films in which a black actress was a featured player. Her two marriages ultimately were failures, her relationships with her two children were uneasy at best, and she was haunted by guilt over the death of her son, Teddy, in 1970 at the age of 30, of kidney failure and other ailments caused by drug abuse. True happiness seems to have eluded her. She once described her philosophy of life as: "Never hope too hard -- never pans out."

Gavin, the author of two first-rate books about music and show business -- "Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret" (1991) and "Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker" (2002) -- obviously was drawn to Horne because of her long involvement in cabaret and her association with many prominent jazz musicians, though she has never really been one herself. But readers able to make it all the way through the nearly 500 pages of text he has accumulated may wonder why he stuck with it to the end. 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 really doesn't like her very much.

With, alas, more than a little reason. The Horne he portrays is more beautiful than talented. She's also vain, vindictive, self-pitying, spoiled, willful and, in her own words, "evil and angry and jealous and possessive." Reading about her lifelong battle against racism is dispiriting and certainly leaves one with deep sympathy for her, yet her concern for less fortunate African Americans who endured far worse treatment seems more pro forma than deeply felt. It is probably significant that when she belatedly began to speak out on matters of civil rights in the late 1960s, she rejected Martin Luther King Jr. and "identified passionately with Malcolm X, the radical Black Muslim minister who defined militancy." As it happens, Malcolm X was considerably more complicated than that, but Horne was probably drawn to him out of her own anger over what had happened to her.

The central truth about Horne is that she grew up as a member in good standing of what E. Franklin Frazier defined as the "black bourgeoisie" and was neither black nor white, but in an uneasy middle place. Especially as she grew older, she tried hard (and no doubt sincerely) to connect more intimately with fellow African Americans, but her core audience has always been the wealthy whites who flock to the Empire Room and the Cocoanut Club, making her "the queen of the supper clubs," and the singing style she so carefully developed owes much more to Judy Garland than to Billie Holiday. That her first husband was black and her second white probably is of less moment than that she subjected them to equal-opportunity neglect, but it does underscore her ties to both races and the ambiguous connections she has to both of them. Gavin writes:

"Racial identity had long been a tangled issue among the Hornes. For all of [Lena's grandmother's] committed work for Negro causes, she and her family lived lives that were patterned upon the white middle class. Fair skin was synonymous with upward mobility. Among women, said the actress Ruby Dee, 'the impression was that if you were almost white, somebody fine would come along and take care of you and sweep you off to Germany, or wherever.' "

Small wonder, then, that Horne has been afflicted with "raging conflict over whites," or that she has borne the burdens of mixed racial identity with deep resentment. Many of her comments about race have been vindictive and inflammatory, but in the late 1940s, as Jackie Robinson was desegregating major-league baseball, she spoke to an important truth: "Being a successful Negro artist is an unenviable position to be in. I'll never forget how frightened I was for Jackie Robinson -- because we knew that if he made the normal mistakes that any ballplayer made it would be a reflection on his race. We felt, oh God, he must perform magnificently or those white people will scorn him. Well, I'm in the same sort of position. You can never forget you're a Negro. You're reminded of it at every turn."

So I suppose Horne's bitterness has been earned, or earned for her by all those movie producers who "would never award her a serious part," those Southern theater owners who cut her scenes out of movies they showed, those whites who told her, as one Texan did, that "all colored people should be kept in their place." In this sense, her life is America's shameful racial history in miniature, and as she languishes in seclusion in Southern California, now in her 93rd year, she's entitled to feel any old way she wants. It's a pity, though, that she doesn't seem to have been able to enjoy the great success she earned or the genuine gratitude and admiration that millions of people, white and black alike, still feel for her.

yardleyj@washpost.com

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