The stormy life of Lena Horne

By Renee Graham
July 6, 2009
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Mike Douglas, the genial daytime talk show host, once cooed to Lena Horne about her legendary beauty, a look that epitomized - and helped diversify - golden-era Hollywood glamour. Always quick with a quip, Horne drawled, “I’m like that portrait of Dorian Gray. You know how lovely it was outside? You should see what’s goin’ on in here!’’ Like a swan that mesmerizes onlookers with its serene glide across a lake, only Horne understood just how much upheaval thrashed beneath the surface.

In fact, Horne’s troubled life gives new pathos to her signature song, “Stormy Weather,’’ which is also the name of James Gavin’s deftly researched biography of the enigmatic entertainer. He reveals a woman who, despite her successes in films, nightclubs, and recordings, found happiness alien and love suspect. She wore her iconic status as the “Negro Cinderella’’ like a crown of thorns, and never forgave those whose racism barred her from greater professional heights.

Horne’s personal life was just as sour. As Gavin tells it, she could not claim among her parents, two husbands, or children, a genuinely close relationship. Many of her friends didn’t fare much better. In the book’s index, there’s even a notation for “friends discarded by’’ Horne, with 10 pages listed.

In many ways, Horne, born in Brooklyn in 1917, earned her attitude. She spent much of her childhood bouncing between her stern, unloving grandmother and her selfishly ambitious mother, who would forever resent her daughter for achieving the fame she herself craved. (Her father left early, drifting in and out of her life.)

Starting her career at 16 as one of the “tall, tan, and terrific’’ dancers at Harlem’s Cotton Club, Horne was noticed by Hollywood, but it came at a cost. Horne’s first marriage, which produced two children from whom she was often estranged, ended in a bitter divorce.

Though Horne starred in such all-black musicals as “Cabin in the Sky’’ and “Stormy Weather,’’ she wasn’t allowed to do much more than look beautiful and sing in other films. And her appearances were restricted to isolated scenes that could be snipped before they reached Southern theaters. Still, her elegant presence in any film was a welcome respite for black audiences more accustomed to seeing themselves portrayed as compliant mammies or slack-jawed simpletons.

Gavin maintains acting wasn’t Horne’s strength, but allows that she was never given the opportunity to be more than an ornament. That sting remained for Horne and fueled her mistrust of people and their motives. Still, she could be just as calculating. She admitted to marrying her second husband, musical director Lennie Hayton, because, as a white man, “he could get me into places a black man couldn’t.’’

At times, “Stormy Weather’’ recalls what a critic said of Horne’s 1950 memoir: “It is natural that she should be bitter, but a whole book of bitterness makes sad and frustrating reading.’’ Gavin, who also wrote “Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker,’’ knows his way around a damaged artist, and Horne may be the unhappiest performer this side of Judy Garland.

Still, while this is no hagiography, neither is it a hatchet job. Gavin, who once interviewed Horne, though not for this book, sands away Horne’s public veneer, and if the woman who emerges isn’t necessarily likable, she’s certainly more human - which is how Horne wanted to be regarded and treated. And that’s no small feat for a woman who, now 92 and out of the public eye for a decade, remains for many a totem of grace, beauty, and pride.

Renée Graham is a freelance writer.

STORMY WEATHER: The Life of Lena Horne
By James Gavin
Atria, 608 pp., illustrated, $27

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