Lena Horne, sultry Cotton Club showgirl and "bronze bombshell" who ascended to grande dame of Broadway, has died. As I wrote in her obit, she made her remarkable flight while toting the expectations of two races on a thrush's fragile wings. She was Hollywood's first African-American movie star. Alas, due to the race paradox, she starred in only a handful of films, most memorably Stormy Weather , Cabin in the Sky (both 1943) and Death of a Gunfighter (1969).
Because movie moguls of the 1930s and 1940s worried that white Americans wouldn't buy tickets to movies with black Americans, Miss Horne's film career was mostly, as she memorably wrote, "as a butterfly pinned to a column, singing songs in Movieland." (Her screen time was mostly in musical numbers that could be excised when her films played the South.) In a series of MGM musicals of the '40s -- I Dood It, Ziegfeld Follies, Till the Clouds Roll By -- the jazz baby with the lilting diction elevated audiences with her voice and flawless beauty.
Horne, whose forebears included slaves and U.S. vice-president John C. Calhoun (a proponent of slavery) embodied America's contradictions of race and politics.Where in the 1940s studio heads thought she was too exotic for whites, by the 1960s Black Pride leaders thought her too assimilationist. During the 1950s, as a result of her friendship with Paul Robeson and her support of anti-Fascist causes, Miss Horne had been blacklisted as a Communist sympathizer, charges that struck her friends as improbable. Her chum Ludwig Bemelmans, creator of Madeline, cracked that the impeccably coiffed and coutured performer made her entrances as though she were the former queen of a Balkan country.) By the 1960s, after Horne kissed Hollywood goodbye and embraced theater and supperclubs, she mordantly observed "In my early days I was the sepia Hedy Lamarr. Now I'm black and a woman, singing my own way."
In the 1980s, Flickgrrl was fortunate enough to see Miss Horne in her one-woman show, A Lady and Her Music, where she reveled in those contradictions. By then well into her sixties (and resembling Halle Berry in her thirties), Horne wore a Grecian gown while dancing a field-hand shuffle. Volatile and vulnerable, onstage Horne mourned the loss of what was to be her big Hollywood role -- as Julie, the tragic mulatto of Showboat -- and then laughed that the part went to her best chum, Ava Gardner, whose skin was darker than hers. Over the course of the show, she sang "Stormy Weather," her signature song, multiple times, giving the audience the debutante version, the worldly-woman version and, finally, belted it as an anthem of sisterhood from a woman for all seasons. On stage she showed that not only could she cut to the heart of a song, but that she could also deliver its soul.
Here's hoping that she's having a swinging reunion with Duke Ellington, her co-star in Bronze Venus and Cabin in the Sky.