Lena Horne once declared, "They didn't make me into a maid, but they didn't make me anything else, either. I became a butterfly pinned to a column singing away in Movieland." For four decades, Lena Horne has been called a legend - the epitome of a certain irascible glamour and pained success - but she has wanted to break away from that column. Instead for years she smiled.
"I had the three faces: one for whites, one for blacks, one for Lena and a few friends," says Horne, her refined Brooklyn accent going a bit shrill, her radiant brown eyes snappy.
But now, she says, "I like the public person, because there's no difference from the private."
Lena Horne is 61. She looks 20 years younger, as is plainly obvious in her glistening performance in the new movie version of "The Wiz." Hailed in the Hollywood of the early '40s as a phenomenal beauty and demeaned as the "cafe au lait Hedy Lamarr," she still has an exquisite face only a tiny bit fleshier that it was in the pinup that drove the black GIs of World War II crazy. But the radiance still pours over the wide-set, piercing eyes, the long nose that serves as a question mark for every look, and the thin, teasing mouth.
She is a marvel of longevity. When she was 16, she joined the chorus line at the famous Cotton Club and became a cabaret and Broadway celebrity before MGM studios signed her to a contract at age 25. She was the first black to have a long-term contract at a Hollywood studio. She survived the worst days of Hollywood's treatment of blacks, survived 25 years of public scrutiny during her interracial marriage, survived blacklisting during the 1950s and found herself durng the civil rights movement of the '60s.
Now, at the end of the '70s, she finds herself "working harder than ever." In "The Wiz," the extravaganza directed by her former son-in-law, Sidney Lumet, she practically steals the show in her six minutes on screen.
"They started calling me a legend in my 30s. Then I said, 'Why, I haven't done anything.' I wasn't doing such a hot job with my family. I wasn't easily satisfied with public appluase," says Horne. "But now, I guess, a legend, yes, God knows, I've been around long enough."
Her life for the first 45 years. Lena Horne reflects, searching for the thread that ties it all together, was to live up to everyone else's idea of Lena Horne.
Horne was born in Brooklyn into an elite, activist family. "Du Bois had written about my grandmother and her sisters as teen-agers in Atlanta. My grandmother was a militant, a feminist, and every day with her was a learning experience. She took me to her meeting, both civic and religious. She was a B'hai."
When her mother was working, and not married, she placed Lena with a series of fosters parents in the South. She was exposed to the poor as well as the comfortable.
Reunited with her mother when she was 14, Horne quit school two years later and started working at the Cotton Club.
"People are always calling asking about the Cotton Club. It wasn't glamorous. I didn't want to work there but nobody had a job but me. My mother sat there every night, watched me in those scanty costumes, dancing seven nights a week, three shows a night for $25," says Horne, spilling out the memory in rapid-fire style.
After appearing on Broadway, she toured with Noble Sissle's orchestra.Anxious to break free from work and family Horne married one of the first men she dated, Louis Jones, a college-educated son of a minister. The marriage in 1937 produced two children but the attempt at housekeeping failed. "He was a black man in this society. And I wasn't strong enough to give him everything he needed. When I started to work again, he held me back," she says, her tone undecorated with any emotion.
Two years later she tried Broadway again, in Lew Leslie's "Blackbirds of 1939," and broke ground as the first black vocalist in Charlie Barnett's band.
When she was singing at a chic Hollywood club, MGM asked her to audition. She sang for Louis B. Mayer and Marion Davies. When contracts were discussed, Horne brought her father along. She still seems proud of that moment. "He looked at them and said, "The only colored movie stars I've seen so far have been waiting on some white star. I can pay for someone to wait on my daughter, if she wants that."
But Daddy wasn't around to shield her from all the slings. "Hattie McDaniel, that great, elegant, beautiful woman who played mammies, told me, 'Girl, you need two hats, one for them, one for yourself' And that became a pattern for a long time," says Horne.
In her movie roles, except for "Cabin" and "Stormy Weather," Horne was often filmed separately and then added to the film, only to be deleted for southern distribution. It was 1969 before she got a chance to appear in a dramatic role, with Richard Widmark in "Death of a Gunfighter."
Though she was a racial symbol, some blacks resented her rise. Ethel Waters, the singer she had watched from the sidelines of the Cotton Club, hurled abuse at her on the set of "Cabin." Recalls Horne sadly, "She had been told I was clawing, that I had slept with everyone to get that contract. And she believed."
Even in her most successful arena, nightclub and cabaret singing, her memories are bittersweet. "In the early years, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington . . . we were all without protection. It was a sexual whoredom, we were exploited, underpayed. An owner said to me, 'It's amusing to see someone who looks like you sing the blues.' I was depressed, so I went to see Billie at Kelly's Stable. I told her, 'They, they want me to sing that and it's your song. I don't feel good when you sing it, it's not about pleasure.'
"And she looked at me," says Horne, looking straight ahead, that night in the late 1940s still vivid, "and she said, 'Sing it honey. Don't you have two babies to feed? You don't have it in you to be a whore; you don't want to kiss a--.' Billie was very fragile, she was like an open wound."
In 1957, after a brief hiatus in Europe to escape hostility here, Horne finally became the star of a Broadway play, "Jamaica," but it turned out to be a turning point of another kind.
"It ran for two years but when it closed I was depressed. I thought it would be a breakthrough for black artists. Yet I Knew the whites would find the jobs for the next show and the blacks wouldn't. So I couldn't figure out the worth of being representational," says Horne. "When 'Roots' was on, I thought that would open up things but that was dumb. It's a hassle to go over the same thing, again and again, but it doesn't take energetic anger out of me anymore. I have another life, family, friends. But I do get angry."
Shortly after "jamaica" closed, she found peace and purpose through the civil rights movement. She sang, she marched. "I went south with people from the National Council of Negro Women and the Deltas. I was thrown into a nest, a warm nest. I started resenting being a 'first'; then I started understanding it, realizing we had reached the end of our usefulness. I'm afraid I got more from those years than I gave."
Though her mask worked, occasionally the anger surfaced. After privately enduring the "scurrilous" letters abut her second marriage, which she kept secret for three years, one night she exploded. She hurled a table lamp and three ashtrays at a bigot in a Beverly Hills restautant. "None of theat was easy," says Horne of those years. "But my temper smolders. The only time it goes wild is at some racil crap. I don't think I'm temperamental."
Her temper, she points out, discredits a story of Joe Louis' out, discredits a story of Joe Louis' that he once tried to choke her. "It's so sad that he has ot do that now. I met Joe as a child, he knew my father. An affair? If one goes around with someone I suppose that's an affair. But let me say this: Joe Louis was nicer to me than any of the bosses I had, says Horne.
She doesn't remember her life in peaks, but she does recall the lowest point. Seven years ago her father, son, and Hayton all died within a short period. She looks down at her arm of gold bracelets. "Those were the men in my life, the outside world had never satisfied that in me. They helped me understand a lot of things about myself. Suddenly they were all gone." and her sullenness signals a fresh pain. "But all three had left me strong. I didn't hold on to them."
She hesitates to say was a salve. "I guess work was an escape but now I really enjoy performing," she says. Earlier this year she did 18 weeks of "Pal Joey '78" on the West Cost, is scheduled for three weeks in Las Vegas soon, and is preparing a one-woman show for next year.
Appearing in "The Wiz" as Glinda, the good witch, was the idea of her daughter, Gail Lumet. Lumet's former husband, Sidney Lumet, the Academy Award-winning director of "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Serpico," was taking on his first movie musical.
"I really wanted to be Evillene(the wicked witch), but Mabel King is so talented. But Gail something hokey like 'your grandchildren will get to see you. They don't stay up for the late show,' says Horne, laughing.
The premiere on Tuesday night was Horne's first, and she was escorted by Lumet and her two granddaughters. "Lennie (Hayton) won two Oscars but never chose to go pick them up. So I hadn't been to a gala where there was a personal interest So I loved it," says Horne.
At the post-premiere party, Horne was approached with reverence by about three generations of fans, cheerfully signing autographs. As she left, a film crew asked her to pose. She threw her head back, her teeth refleting the gold braid of her black velvet jacket, and teased, "is that enough, fellows?%
This is a woman who has known many show-biz greats: Joe Louis, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Duke Ellington, Tony Martin, Eddie Cantor, Perry Como, Ethel Waters and Paul Robeson. What was the most exciting part of doing "The Wiz"? Meeting Richard Pryor.
"I knew everyone else but I didn't have the guts to walk up to him," says Horne. "I told my makeup man I'm dying to meet him and he told Richard's makeup man. Pryor came to the dressing room. I said, 'Your're a genius. I think you're crazy but brillant.' And maybe that's why he's crazy. All he said was 'thank you, ma'am, thank you.'"
Which is fitting response to a living legend, who now finds a bit of craziness in herself these days.
"Lately I do things for no reason: buying a house at my age. Then I planted 53 trees. Who knows if I will live to see them grow? I enjoy being some place where it's still," she says.
The person she is now, the person she likes, has no in-betweens. "I am sometimes sunshine, sometimes storm. But my highs frighten me because I know the drop will be hard. But I always can be high publicly, that's the discipline of all those years."