I feel 100 today," drawls Lena Horne. "Hell, I'm livin' in a flashback, dressing out of a suitcase. Everything's a mess at the hotel. Nothing's pressed. It's drivin' me up a pole. But I suppose with all the bitchin' I do, I'm cut out to be a nomad. The only business that really makes me work is this one. Otherwise, I'm rather indolent and I can go to pot in about six minutes."
Outside the Fox Theatre, a great turreted monument to the heyday of Hollywood dreams, the climate is foul--stormy weather. The wind whips around corners, driving sheets of cold afternoon rain before it and dispersing the rare pedestrians. Inside, tucked away in a dressing room, where a vaporizer is feeding a thin jet of warm mist into the air, Lena Horne--the indestructibly languorous Lena--is just beginning her day.
At 16, she was one of the chocolate cuties at the Cotton Club in Harlem. In the 1930s, she was the lady with the traveling bands--Noble Sissle's Society Orchestra, Charlie Barnet and his swing band--warbling such numbers as "You're My Thrill" and "Good for Nothin' Joe." By the end of the 1940s, she'd been to Hollywood and put a permanent imprint on "Stormy Weather." The following decade, she salvaged the Broadway musical "Jamaica" by taking on 11 of the show's 21 numbers. In the late 1970s, there she was on the screen again, this time as Glinda the Good Witch in "The Wiz," telling Dorothy she can get back home, "If You Believe."
Now, two months shy of her 66th birthday, Horne is back on the road, singing nightly for her supper, singing her way from city to city. Only this time she's at the crest of her popularity, crowned with awards for her Broadway show, "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music," which opens a 4 1/2-week run tonight at the Warner Theatre in Washington.
Despite the sudden Atlanta squall, there's a line at the Fox box office, and all but a handful of the theater's 3,933 seats have been sold for the evening's performance. Horne can't figure it out.
"This is a very weird time of my life for all this to be happenin'," she says. "I don't like to put it on a racial basis, but this is the first time a lot of black people have felt close to me for some reason. In the years I was singing in those lush cafe's, many of them couldn't afford it. And I was performing there so early--before blacks were allowed in. But I guess there's also this whole new generation that went to 'The Wiz,' which wasn't a great picture, but they saw this strange character named Lena Horne they'd heard their mothers and grandmothers talk about. Now all these young people wait outside the theater at night. I don't know if everybody's just starstruck--because I'm supposed to be an old movie star or somethin'. But I never thought I'd have this kind of attention. And why now?"
Like idle summertime musings in a shady hammock, her thoughts seem to be drifting off. "What am I?" she wonders, lids lowering slowly over fabulous brown eyes. There's a moment of silence. "A cult figure?" she suddenly asks, detonating the consonants and letting out a whoop of delight.
It is the voice that gets you first. One of those great, seductive honey-colored voices that can make "orange" sound like the longest, sexiest word in Webster's. "Letom," she used to say in her nightclub act, is "motel backwards," and the way she said it--ever so sinuously, but with just an edge of moral defiance--even the prigs knew what she was talking about. It's the voice of "The Laziest Girl in Town" and the rich, dank southern earth, with a hard, high gloss of Continental sophistication. Noel Coward was nuts for it.
The second thing you notice is the beauty, which Horne dismisses with a deprecating "Awwww-pooosh! It's all gonna flop one of these days, but I hope I ain't around then to push my mug in other people's faces. It's just bones. I don't do anything about it. You should hear the gossip we get from the ladies' room. 'She's had her face lifted so many times!' Well, I haven't. So what I do in the show now is say, 'A lot of you come pay a lot of money to sit right up front and see if the old broad's had a facelift. Well, look.' And then I poke my head right out over the footlights. The women laugh so sheepishly."
Maybe it is the cheekbones. Or the perfect teeth. Or the doe eyes, accented with a subtle trace of liner. For a generation of GIs in World War II, Horne was the ubiquitous pinup on the underside of trunk lids, black America's response to Betty Grable in a swimsuit. But time, which passed Betty Grable by, seems to have looked the other way in Horne's case.
"Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music" was scheduled for a modest four-week run when it opened in New York two years ago. Then the reviewers unfurled their critical banners. Eighteen months later, Horne was still playing to capacity crowds. But it was no nostalgia trip. What audiences discovered was a new Lena Horne. She still radiated elegance to her tapered fingertips. ("Sable Silk," she says, flashing her painted nails. "They're all stuck together with Krazy Glue. I get carried away and chip them on the mike.")
But there was a gutsiness, as well. Horne could get down and dirty with the best of them, poke fun at her image as a silken star of the supper clubs, welcome the audience into the ironies of her life. The remote beauty who leaned up against a pillar in a series of mostly forgettable 1940s Hollywood musicals, appearing usually for no longer than the duration of a song or two, was laying it on the line. "A revelation of black grit and black desire that nails you in your seat," gushed Newsweek.
"I suppose there was an isolation before," Horne says, leaning back and resting her head on a thick monogrammed towel. "It was a mechanical one. Being in the movies separated me from people. And when I married Lennie her white manager Lennie Hayton, now deceased , that didn't help too much, except that it was entirely private business and we were good for each other. He taught me everything I know musically. We only had a few friends--musicians, artists, painters. It seems society has been old-fashioned for so long. I guess I wasn't very accessible then."
Still, it made for an image, a kind of hands-off aloofness that, coupled with her beauty and that come-hither-but-not-too-hither voice, won her movie stardom--sort of. She still looks back fondly on "Cabin in the Sky," but most of the time she didn't get parts, she merely got songs. And her "guest appearances" were generally self-contained numbers that easily could be scissored out of the films when they were unspooled in the Deep South.
"I don't think I was treated to racism in the movies," she reflects now. "It wasn't a case of them bein' mean or anything. I was a new phenomenon and they didn't know how to use me. I ran into Kathryn Grayson recently and we both started crying. We used to talk to each other, while they were shooting scenes from the life of Jerome Kern "Till the Clouds Roll By" . I don't remember who played Jerome Kern--Mickey Rooney, probably. Anyway, she had just as many frustrating stories to tell as I did. So it wasn't all color. Just stupidity.
"Where I got racism was in the clubs and cabarets. I just finished playing St. Louis, and I lived at the Chase Hotel. The first time I worked at the Chase, I couldn't come in through the front door. There was the Clover Club in Miami. Sweet job, but no blacks were allowed in the audience. And the Savoy Plaza in New York. Sometimes the hotels would take me, but not the guys in the band. It wasn't until the late '50s that things began to change, because we did business. Vegas started to swing open. But we couldn't have changed nothin' if we hadn't made money.
"I could always go off and play Europe. But who needs that? They got a whole other thing over there. They don't understand American blacks. So whatever clout I had, I used to pry a door open, pay the bills and just live. I was being politically active all by myself. I guess it came naturally to me. My grandmother was a social worker. She knew Paul Robeson when he was 16 and helped get him a scholarship at Rutgers. I adored him. He was a brain and I'm crazy about brainy people."
Horne paid for that friendship, too.
"Yeah, I was blacklisted by Red Channels a bulletin of alleged subversives . I sang on the radio for Roosevelt's funeral and then I didn't sing again on the radio for seven years. Steve Allen was the first one to put me back on. Nice guy. I do know some nice whites. But that happened to a lotta people. I remember gettin' pretty teed off 'bout the whole thing. I was livin' at the Park Sheraton then, one of the few places that would have us, and so was Mrs. Roosevelt. I went up to have tea with her one day and bitch about the blacklisting. 'Oh, darling,' she said, 'You've got to remember that we're on that list with a lot of very fine people.' "
Horne laughs and the laughter occasions a dazzling show of teeth. She's not parading her credentials in the halting march for civil rights, although she was visible in protests of the 1960s. She's merely explaining the late-blooming delight she's taking in her career. "It's funny," she muses. "I was so busy with all that crap in the clubs I never enjoyed myself in the business for years."
Many, including Horne herself, believe that it was the 1960s that heated her up, melted the ice and stoked the fires that are now lending passion to her singing. Early in that decade, she seized an ashtray, two glasses and a lamp off the table of a posh Beverly Hills restaurant and hurled them at the customer who'd called her "just another nigger." By the end of the decade, she was singing at rallies, marching, speaking out.
Now she's at the pinnacle, an improbably alluring grandmother who is reinventing her past with sass and heart and is getting richly rewarded for it. If she wanted to, she could play "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music" for the next five years. As it is, she'll tour through the summer, then take the show to London, a city she's always liked.
Long-lost relatives who've stayed away all these years, intimidated by the cool fac,ade, are suddenly coming out of the woodwork. In Atlanta, she turned up four cousins and uncovered a significant portion of her family heritage. "I can tell you that I'm really Mrs. Alex Haley this month," she jokes. "I just learned about one relative, who sounds fascinating. He was the principal of a black high school here. On Jefferson Davis Day, all the schools were supposed to have the children out on the streets with flags. But he refused. So they fired him. I guess we've been a family of big mouths from way back."
On her dressing room table is a scroll from Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, a close friend from SNCC days, proclaiming her an honorary citizen of the city. And that's rewarding. But it's also "weird." She senses a paradox in her current triumph, and mulling it over accentuates what few lines there are in Lena's Horne's face.
"A whole other thing is happenin' to me now," she says, her voice going soft as a hush puppy. "I'm not that big a star, but people make you only just so big and then they expect certain things from you. Even my own people. If they found out there were a great many negative things in my life, they would act as if they had the right to dethrone me. I don't mean that the way it sounds. But everything's got a kicker. You get to a certain point and you become a possession of people. You gotta toe the line. I don't know why. That's what I haven't been able to figure out. After the show, they come up to me and they kiss me and they put their arms around me and I don't even know them. And I say to myself, 'What is this?,' because I'm a person who doesn't like to be touched.
"They want you to be some kind of an icon. They want you to be glamorous and, God, I'm just not like that. But I have to give. I'm supposed to be openin' doors all over again. I went through that a long time ago, behaving this way or behaving that way, so other people coming after me could get the job. I must have given up half my life to that. And nothin' happened. I've agreed to do three benefits in D.C. for certain organizations. I know my name is useful. But if something besmirches those organizations, then it's shame on me, you know?
"Maybe it was the ego in me believin' that the world would be more intelligent in my grandchildren's time. Well, my oldest grandchildren are 18, and things are pretty much about where they always were. I don't know if it's so much racism now as it is competition. I am inclined to be pessimistic by nature. Anyway, here I am, enjoying this success I sure as hell didn't expect. And they're puttin' that whole number back on me. What are those people thinkin' who are sittin' out front? I'm scared. I ain't gonna be in this business that much longer. Uh-uh. Too scary. And hell, I ain't even Sinatra."
The dressing room door opens silently and Horne's manager pads in, carrying a styrofoam cup of vegetable soup, her only nourishment of the afternoon. Next door, a wardrobe assistant is pressing the two gowns by Giorgio Sant'Angelo she will wear in the evening's performance. One of her musicians has checked into the bar and restaurant carved out of one corner of the Fox and ordered himself a warm-up drink.
"Sure, the me people see out there is a different me from the one they used to see," admits Horne. "I am different inside. But the real me? The real me is probably sittin' out there in my house in Santa Barbara. You know, quiet, slightly evil, very possessive of what little family I have. I hang onto people like a barnacle on a ship, because there haven't been that many in my life. I crush 'em, won't let 'em loose. And that's bad.
"I'm out there in my kitchen and in my bedroom. It's beautiful and quiet, which I need and love. I don't have a lot of friends. Sometimes the school the University of California at Santa Barbara calls me. They'd like me to come out and lecture to the students. But I can't get my head together. I stick behind those walls and think. And the nights are very soothing. One side of my bed is full of crossword puzzles, my dictionary, old recipes that I'll never cook, needlepoint I'll never do. No fuzzy animals. Well, just one. I got a great big teddy bear. I finally sent for him two weeks ago, which did something funny to me psychologically. I clutch him at night now. Do you think I can go out on a stage and show all that?"
She shrugs eloquently.
"Sometimes I don't think I was meant to be in this business. My grandmother put a hex on me. She really did. You're talkin' to the black sheep of the whole to-do. In a manner of speaking."
In a couple of hours, however, the black sheep will be back in the spotlight, looking lustrous, "feelin' good, actin' like an idiot" and bringing the fans to their feet. At the performance the night before, she got so caught up in the excitement, she pulled a tendon and never noticed until she got back to the hotel that her thigh had swollen up like a balloon. Now, like the storm outside her dressing room, her energy's gathering all over again.
"I ain't no child. Can't seem to remember that," she clucks. "Hell, I ain't no Marlene Dietrich, either. I've probably got a few more years in me. But my grandmother died when she was 68 and I got it figured that when I hit 68, Grandma's gonna look down and beckon with her finger."
Then, bringing out her best enunciation, as if company were calling, she says, "That's okay. I've seen Buckingham Palace and Versailles. What else is there?"
Somehow, the reverse seems more apt: Buckingham Palace and Versailles have seen Lena Horne. What else is there?