I had no idea what I was going to write about today. Whatever it was it got shelved as soon as I heard the news that Lena Horne died. So as my former pastor used to say “let me pause parenthetically,” to honor a classy lady.
Born to an upper crust family in the days when Brooklyn meant Black Elite, Lena Horne seemed destined for greatness in show biz. The daughter of a famous African-American actress and notorious gambling gangster, Lena was raised by her grandparents a prominent African-American couple in New York. Like many stars of the day Lena started her career in her teens, singing at the Cotton Club at age 16.
I first heard Lena’s voice on a record in my parent’s basement. I can’t remember the song she sang but I’ll never forget how she made me feel when she sang it. Lena’s voice was smooth and silky, eloquent and divine, a different style than the rough and pain-filled styling of say Billie or the invigoratingly chaotic zoom of Ella. (Incredibly, these women were all contemporaries often performing in the same place such as the Cafe Society in Greenwich Village.) Oh to have seen her live, in that time of Ella, Billie and Lena, the trio tower of blues and jazz, singing in a smoky New York club. But Lena did what many African-American singers at that time couldn’t – she broke through the barriers of Tinseltown, becoming the epitome of Hollywood stardom before Hollywood even knew what a movie star was. Years before Dorothy Dandridge blazed the screen with her searing performance of Carmen Jones, Lena was already a movie star, known everywhere for her onscreen abilities – everywhere perhaps except for the south where her scenes were edited out to appease archaic Jim Crow laws.
Being, as the folk say, “high yella’,” Lena looked more white than black and was a likely pioneer on the big screen. She was beautiful, classy and demur and though she was political she was not Black Panther. But in those days just saying you were black was enough to get blacklisted and Lena eventually was for what was called communists views then but is now pretty much accepted political policy. But like many stars, she weathered the storm and saw a resurgence in her career when she returned to her first love singing.
Lena will always be to me the epitome of class. She was soft-spoken but not to be ignored. She always looked impeccable and had a smile that even warmed the sun. I
confess I wanted to be Lena, to have her soft curls, her light-skinned and her beauty. But as I grew older I learned from her that to make it in this world you had to be your own woman. Imitation wasn’t flattery, it was a cop-out and that was the beauty of Lena. She sang her own style and did her own thing and preserved her classiness to the very end. She avoided much of the self-destructive behavior the claimed her contemporaries and she remained vital in the industry throughout her career. Lena Horne, a class act all the way.