Stormy Weather

The Life of Lena Horne

By James Gavin
Atria. 608 pp. $27
August 9, 2009

Chapter One

LORRAINE GERARD, the wife of a bebop pianist named Vinnie Gerard, was nearing eighty in 2005, but time had not dimmed a particular memory from her Depression-era childhood. She grew up in Canarsie, a bayside neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. Her family took her for weekend fun to the shore, where buskers entertained for coins on a well-known pier.

In 1933, Lorraine got her first glimpse of a lovely, waiflike teenager whose name, she heard, was Lena Horne. "Every Saturday and Sunday she used to sing and dance on the beach for pennies," Lorraine recalled. "She appeared to be extremely poor. I thought she had the ugliest legs, and I wasn't the only one that thought that. Scrawny, you know? Her dresses were skimpy-looking; you could tell that she was in need." Lorraine's family never spoke to the girl, but she earned their sympathy, and they tossed some change her way.

Her household needed all the help it could get. Lena's mother was a jobless and sickly actress; her Cuban stepfather was unemployed, too. They could barely pay the rent on their small Brooklyn apartment and lived on groceries from relief organizations. For Lena - who'd been born into the well-heeled respectability of the black middle class - life now held considerable shame.

A decade later she had good reason to obscure her past. M-G-M had signed her to a long-term contract, the likes of which no one of color in Hollywood had ever known. In the black community, all eyes were on her. As a sex symbol of uncommon refinement, Horne would have to revolutionize the Negro persona in Hollywood. Among the reams of press she received was a profile in PM, a Manhattan leftist newspaper. For an article called "The Real Story of Lena Horne," she told reporter Robert Rice about her distinguished family, which included schoolteachers, activists, and a Harlem Renaissance poet. Apropos of nothing, Horne mentioned that an interviewer had asked her if she'd ever "danced for pennies on the street" as a youngster.

"I told him no," she said.

KEEPING up appearances would always be crucial to Horne, as it was for so many black people throughout her lifetime. They had to take great pains to counter the stereotypes that the white community associated with them. A veneer as painstakingly wrought as Horne's wasn't easily dropped; it was the armor she needed to survive, and it hid lots of secrets. Only in 1963, when the civil rights movement had forced much of America to take an honest look at what it meant to be black, did Horne start delving behind her own mask. She did so for an autobiographical article in Show magazine, "I Just Want to Be Myself."

"I came from what was called one of the First Families of Brooklyn," Horne explained. They shunned discussing the slave ancestry that had spawned them all - "yet it was the rape of slave women by their masters which accounted for our white blood, which, in turn, made us Negro 'society.'" Home was an immaculate four-story brownstone in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant section. An iron fence with sharp black spikes protected 189 Chauncey Street on three sides. That barrier told passersby to keep their distance; and for Lena's grandmother Cora, the lady of the house, it shut out the neighborhood's seamier elements -the poor Irish in tenements across the street, the Swedes who ran a garage a few doors down.

Cora and her husband, Edwin, had lived on Chauncey Street since 1896. That year they joined a northward migration of approximately forty thousand blacks who fled the growing horrors of southern life. Post-Civil War Reconstruction had collapsed, toppled by white supremacists. Negroes had lost most of the rights they'd gained, and segregation was flaring. Hundreds of lynchings had occurred - each a symbolic warning of what might happen to Negroes who stepped out of line, or even to those who didn't. In contrast, the northern cities -New York, Chicago, Detroit - seemed like oases of safety and opportunity.

A small percentage of the newly settled black families were considered special. This was the "black bourgeoisie," a prosperous middle class of teachers, doctors, businessmen, and others of education and grooming. They or their elders had descended from "favored slaves" - privileged blacks who, by virtue of their brains or their sexual allure to their masters, had worked in the house, not in the field. During the decadelong heyday of Reconstruction, they'd used their cachet to start businesses and gain social standing. Now, in the North, they were helping pave the way for a new Negro image - one that challenged every cliché of black women as household help, black men as shiftless loafers. The Negro aristocracy tended to shun anyone who embodied a past they wanted to bury. "Uppity" became a popular word to describe ambitious blacks.

Respectability was their gospel, and they upheld it at all costs. Actress Jane White, whose father, Walter White, became the executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1931, recalled the code of behavior dictated by the black bourgeoisie. "You didn't laugh too loud," she said. "You didn't go out in messy clothes, you were always polished and ironed; you learned how to speak well, and with a modulated voice. It was a tight cage you were in."

The Whites lived at 409 Edgecombe Avenue, the most prestigious address in Harlem. At fourteen stories, it towered above the rest of Sugar Hill, a gold-ring neighborhood for the Negro elite. Residents through the years included NAACP cofounder and preeminent activist W.E.B. Du Bois; Jimmie Lunceford, one of Harlem's star bandleaders; and Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer who worked for the NAACP before becoming the Supreme Court's first black justice. In the 1940s, Marshall often dropped by the White apartment for poker nights. "There would be hootin' and hollerin' and drinkin'," said Jane, "and they would let their hair down, and Thurgood talked one way amongst them. When he argued in court he talked another way. One may laugh, but it's rather sad." In public, she said, "you couldn't be what you were."

Many in the black bourgeoisie wound up emulating the values and even the looks of middle-class whites. From the 1920s through the 1960s, magazines for black readers advertised lye-based skin-lightening creams and hair-straightening treatments. "'Lighter is brighter' - that was an actual expression then," said Gene Davis, who produced dozens of black cultural documentaries before his death in 2007. "The social structure in the black community until recently was based on how light you were. And the lighter you were, the more acceptable you were." The notion that "black is beautiful" did not appear until the civil rights movement, when African roots were flaunted, not hidden, and the Negro slave ancestry celebrated for its strength.

In his 1957 book Black Bourgeoisie, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier defined that group in terms that could have applied to Lena Horne. In Frazier's view, it lacked "cultural roots in either the Negro world with which it refuses to identify or the white world which refuses to accept it." By struggling so hard for the respect of both, he wrote, members of the black bourgeoisie suffered from a constant identity crisis.

But a more enlightened age could never have come without bridges, and the black bourgeoisie was uniquely equipped to fight for change. Its members had education, social access, and manners a white society might come to heed. If they had to deny their history in order to find a foothold in the white man's world, they didn't hesitate.

So it was at the Horne residence, the hub of a family with a sprawling history explored by Gail Lumet Buckley in her book The Hornes: An American Family. Before Lena's birth in 1917, six people lived in the house. Reigning over them was Cora Calhoun Horne, her dictatorial grandmother. Fifty-two when Lena arrived, Cora was a community activist of warrior determination. She looked the part, with her austerely pulled-back salt-and-pepper hair, steel-rimmed glasses, and near inability to smile.

Cora battled for so many Negro civic groups that her gentler husband seemed to wilt by comparison. Back in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he was born, Edwin had published and edited Justice, a prominent black newspaper; later he worked as a schoolteacher and politician. In Brooklyn he became secretary-general of the United Colored Democracy of Greater New York.

Astonishingly, Edwin wasn't even a Negro, but the son of a white Englishman and a Native American mother. During Reconstruction, Native Americans had suffered worse discrimination than blacks. For his children's sake, he'd decided to "pass" as Negro. Apparently that went undiscussed among the Hornes - no surprise, given their disdain for whites.

Edwin and Cora had four sons. Edwin Frank Horne, Jr., the handsomest of the boys, lived on the top floor with Edna, his wife. Errol had served as a sergeant in an all-black army troop until influenza killed him. Burke and Frank were teenagers when Lena was born.

The Hornes seemed like a model family. Outsiders didn't know that Edwin and Cora slept in separate rooms and barely spoke. One of the rumored causes was a past affair between Edwin and a white editor of Vogue. But in a Catholic household like theirs, divorce was as verboten as philandering; best to avoid discussing either. "As a family," said Lena, "we were very reticent, hiding feelings."

Certain parts of their lineage went unmentioned, too - especially by Cora, whose café au lait skin, thin lips, and delicate nose betrayed generations of intermingling with whites. Her maiden name, Calhoun, came from her father's and grandmother's slave master in Georgia, Dr. Andrew Bonaparte Calhoun. His uncle, Senator John C. Calhoun, had championed slavery as God's will - another unvoiced source of shame among the Hornes.

But Cora had revered Moses, her mulatto father. After decades as a house slave, he'd become a top Atlanta business owner and had married a white woman. Cora and her sister, Lena, had more white blood than black; this along with their father's means brought them great privilege. As young women they lived like debutantes, earning university degrees at a time when few women of any race did. In 1887, when she was twentytwo, Cora took her own white husband, Edwin Horn (he added the e later). Lena married Frank Smith, a mixed-blood, light-skinned doctor.

Once settled in Brooklyn, Edwin and Cora focused on raising their sons. But according to Gail Lumet Buckley, child rearing bored Cora. Once the boys were old enough to fend for themselves, she began working for a dizzying array of community causes. They included the Urban League, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), and the NAACP, formed in 1909 in response to the growing scourge of anti-Negro brutality. Cora lectured hookie-playing black youths on how they were jeopardizing their futures and shaming their race. She led demonstrations to demand voting rights for black women. She aided unwed Negro mothers, and fought to get scholarships for worthy young blacks - one of whom, Paul Robeson, entered Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, due partly to Cora's efforts.

Her bedrock strength left little room for warmth. Lena Horne recalled her as a "violent, militant little lady" who never caressed her or uttered a loving word. To Cora, sentimentality meant weakness. Having come from a line of women who cooked the white man's meals and washed his clothes, she wouldn't stoop to anything that evoked servitude. She left such tasks to her husband. The ironies were many: A white man (albeit one in hiding) did housework for his (partly) Negro wife, who wore the pants in the family - and who detested whites.

Edwin had already fallen a rung in society. He'd lost his job as a teacher to a less experienced white man; now he worked as an inspector for the fire department. He sought comfort in life's finer things. At home in his parlor, he relished his sweet-smelling Havana cigars while listening to Caruso on the Victrola. He applauded the great tenor at the Metropolitan Opera. Edwin's looks held their own distinction; Lena would recall his gray mustache and hair and his "beautiful, sad blue eyes." Even as a child, she understood her grandfather's loneliness.

Edwin, Jr. - better known as Teddy - spat in the face of the family high-mindedness. Teddy had proudly skipped college, knowing his charm and pretty-boy looks would get him further. He smirked behind the back of any "sucker" - usually white - whom he could coax into doing his bidding. By the time he'd grown, the illegal gambling business had found a master hustler in Teddy Horne.

In 1916, he wed a girl from an even cushier Brooklyn background. Edna Scottron was the fair-skinned, green-eyed daughter of a Native American mother and a successful Portuguese Negro inventor. Like Teddy, Edna lived for her whims. She dreamed of stardom in the theater; meanwhile she'd landed a lady-killer for a husband.

She and Teddy moved into the top floor of the Horne brownstone, where Edna became pregnant quickly. She hoped for a son. Instead, on June 30, 1917, she bore a brown-eyed, freckled, copper-skinned girl. Edna and Teddy named her Lena Mary Calhoun Horne. Lena would report later that her father wasn't at the hospital when she was born; he'd gone to play cards, ostensibly to earn money to pay the hospital bill. As she saw it, her father was "pursuing his own interests"; to Lena, this constituted rejection at birth. Not surprisingly, she remained an only child.

If Teddy and Edna were embarrassments to the family, grandmother Cora took steps to ensure that Lena set forth on the right track. In October 1919, the NAACP newsletter, the Branch Bulletin, welcomed one of the organization's "youngest members." Lena was just two and barely walking when Cora signed her up. "She paid the office a visit last month and seemed delighted with everything she saw," explained the Branch Bulletin.

Above that caption was a photo of a joyless toddler wearing a white lacy dress and a frown; the rose placed in her hands did nothing to brighten the scene. Her face mirrored the mood at home. By that time, Teddy wanted out of family life and had devised a ruse for escape. He was sick, he said, perhaps with tuberculosis, and had to head west for health reasons. Edna knew he was lying, but she was powerless to keep him. Later she told Lena that her father "was too young, too handsome, and too spoiled by the ladies to be ready for marriage."

Teddy had an action-packed new job in store. He became a numbers runner - "a pimp and a hustler," as Horne further explained. Illegal gambling was a popular profession among Negro men of his day. Whatever their education, only menial jobs - or none at all - tended to await them. Many Negro men thumbed their noses at the system and took to the streets. "You worked with criminal attitudes," said Lena. "It took a lot of guts. You chose that rather than have the man make a slave of you."

But no danger befell Teddy Horne, who gave off an invincible air. Photos of him from the twenties show a slick, grinning operator with pomaded hair, three-piece suits, and Stetson hats. By then he had a new woman on his arm, Irene, whom he'd married as soon as he was free. From Seattle, where they lived, he sent his daughter gifts and an allowance. She opened each package with glee, but then came a stab of longing: Why had her father deserted her?

Edna had her own concerns - namely, her dreams of acting. She moved to Harlem, where the action was, and left Lena behind. Now both parents had abandoned the child. Before going to sleep each night, Lena said her prayers, then kissed the bedside photos of her mother and father.

Cora would have none of her granddaughter's tears. As soon as Lena was old enough to understand, she told the child that she must never be like her mother, with all her silly ambitions. Relentlessly she drilled Lena on how to be a proper Horne: "Think for yourself. Don't make excuses. Don't lie. Never say 'ain't.' Learn how to read. Learn how to listen. Hold your head straight, look people in the eye, talk to them distinctly." Most important: "You will never let anyone see you cry."

Lena obediently followed her to meetings. As Cora's women friends held grave discussions, Lena got a lesson in manners: It was her job to serve the ladies tea and cake, then to sit silently in the corner. "She never made a child of me," said Lena. "I was always an adult." Once home, Cora would drill her as to what she'd learned.

In The Hornes, Gail Lumet Buckley described Cora as "a very neurotic woman," obsessed with what others thought of her and her family. Carmen de Lavallade, an influential black modern dancer whose career burgeoned in the fifties, knew the stifling effects of such an upbringing. "At that time if you came from certain families, you had to grow up to be a lady!" she said. "I grew up that way. It doesn't give you allowance for anything - for temper, for sorrow. You can't be yourself."


Excerpted from Stormy Weather by James Gavin Copyright © 2009 by James Gavin. Excerpted by permission.
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