Saturday, May 15, 2010

Sleep Well, Miss Lena Horne ...

"It's So Hard to 
Say Goodbye to Yesterday..."

I can't get that song from the "Cooley High"  1975 movie out of my head when I think about Lena Horne's home-going on Monday, May 10.  It's sad to face the painful fact that this era has gone, but certainly not forgotten.  

(portrait depicting Harlem Renaissance - 1904-1935)

I'll never forget this Harlem Renaissance Baby, Hollywood Glamour Girl, Night Club Gem and Broadway Darling who strutted the entire entertainment package.

Wrap it up with a social conscious bow, and you've got a wonderful gift for the world to enjoy for years to come.  Lena Horne had beauty, brains and a social conscious.  She knew who she was and where she came from, but more importantly wanted all people regardless of the color of their skin to have access to the same opportunities in life. 

One would think that the title: civil rights activist would not be in the same bio of a Hollywood icon, but she was both.  Her distinctive singing style captivated many, even those who didn't enjoy contemporary standards.  Stormy Weather was the only popular song my mother hummed, when she wasn't humming her favorite spiritual.

Growing up, I remembered how the older African American women, the elders in my life -- always referred to her as Miss Lena Horne.  They saw her as an elegant, talented lady who could have passed for a white actress in the 1930s and 1940s to win coveted roles.  But she did not and would not.  

Max Factor even developed an Egyptian makeup shade exclusively for her, but she refused to go along with the studio's efforts to portray her as an exotic Latina.  

She once said, I don't have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I'd become, I'm me and I'm like nobody else.

When Horne was only two her grandmother, a prominent member of the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) enrolled her in the NAACP.   Activism didn't become a part of her life until 1945 when she was performing at an army base and saw German soldiers sitting up front while black soldiers were confined to the rear. 

Eighteen years later, she joined the Hollywood stars who Marched on Washington in 1963 for Jobs and Freedom when Martin Luther King gave his "I have a Dream" speech. 

Lena Horne was a star from the time she emerged out of her mother's womb.  Born in 1917 in Brooklyn, her mother left her in the care of her grandmother to find work in show business.  

By age 16, Horne danced in the Cotton Club's chorus line where the entertainers were black and the clientele white.  She became a nightclub performer before moving to Hollywood.  

She left the Cotton club in 1935 to tour with Noble Sissle's orchestra billed as Helena Horne, the name she continued using when she joined the Charlie Barnet's white orchestra in 1940.  A movie offer from MGM came when she headlined at the Little Troc nightclub with the Katherine Dunham dancers.

(Cabin in the Sky)

She had roles in numerous movies and more substantial parts in the all black productions:  Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather in 1943.  Because of the communist scare and her progressive political views, she was blacklisted and unable to find work in Hollywood.

Some of the legendary performances shown in the movie, Stormy Weather include:  (From Black Classic
•  Bill “Bojangles” Robinson showing his fancy footwork in multiple tap dance routines.  He was 65 years old when the movie was made and had been in show business for over 50 years.
•  Fats Waller performing Ain’t Misbehavin’, which was the song that made him famousHe also performs a standout duet with Ada Brown singing the bluesy song “That Ain’t Right.”
•  Lena Horne singing the title tune “Stormy Weather,” which would become one of her signature songs.  She also dances with Bill Robinson and sings other memorable songs like “Diga Diga Doo.”
•  Katherine Dunham and her dance troupe performing memorable, Caribbean-inspired dance numbers.         
•  Cab Calloway in his trademark zoot suit leading his orchestra in the hip musical compositions “Jumpin’ Jive” and “Geechy Joe.”
•  The Nicholas Brothers performing a breathtaking dance number is one of the best dance routines ever captured on film.

(Lena Horne)

Returning to her roots as a nightclub performer, Horne performed in nightclubs, television and released well-received albums. 

She announced her retirement in March 1980, but starred in a one woman show in 1981 -- Lena Horne:  The Lady and Her Music that with more than three-hundred performances earning her a special Tony Award and won two Grammy Awards for the accompanying album and a third in 1995 for An Evening With Lena Horne.

Her distinctive jazz and blues style earned her critical acclaim for the songs:  Stormy Weather, The Lady is a Tramp and Cole Porter's Just One of Those Things, just to name a few.

(The Wiz)

Her last movie role was in 1978 as Glinda the Good in the movie, Wiz.  She also won two stars on the  Hollywood Walk of Fame – one for motion pictures and one for her work in the recording industry.

Sleep Well, Lena ... We'll miss you.  


  1. A lovely memorial to a beautiful woman! Thank you!

  2. Thanks for your kind words, Anna. We'll all miss her talent and beautiful smile.