Friday, June 30, 2017

LIZ SMITH: Celebrating the Great and Glorious Lena Horne

by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Celebrating the Great and Glorious Lena Horne on her One Hundredth Birthday! Also — Bryan Norcross and his Hurricane Andrew book.  

“I WANT to sing like Aretha Franklin. And I want the technical ability of Ella Fitzgerald."

I don't know when the great Lena Horne made this remark, but it must have been before she came into her own with 1981's powerhouse Broadway event, "The Lady and Her Music." For by then she was surely the equal of Franklin and Fitzgerald.

Lena was 64 when she began her concert run at the Nederlander Theater. Never had she seemed so soulful, raw, vibrant, relaxed and self-confident.

I'll never forget her opening night — a triumphant Lena, basking in the screaming, stomping and weeping from a jaded New York City audience, blown away by the lady and her music. The live LP and CD version of Lena's concert is probably, next to "Judy at Carnegie Hall," the most astonishing one-woman recorded singing event, ever.

Today would be Lena’s 100th birthday.  (She died on May 9th 2010 at 92.)

It is only fitting that we remember this great artist and the even greater woman behind the artistry.
LENA was a star of stars, a dazzling ornament to MGM studios — beautiful, unique, sensuous, talented. However,  racial prejudice prevented this goddess from rising to movie heights at MGM.

She had two more-than-promising starring roles, in all-black screen productions — Vincent Minnelli’s “Cabin in the Sky” in which her beauty and vivacity irked the perpetually irked star, Ethel Waters. And "Stormy Weather,” where she performed the title song and made it her own. 
Ethel Waters losing patience with Lena in “Cabin in the Sky.”
These films made Horne a star — and a pin-up glamour figure — among the segregated African America audience. (And no doubt, among many whites, as well.)  But genuine movie queen success was a gold ring she literally was not allowed to grasp.  Appreciating her beauty, but unwilling go much further, MGM inserted her into musicals, giving Horne one or two numbers leaning against a pillar or something — the better to cut her from prints of the films shown down in the bigoted South. (“Thousands Cheer” ... “Two Girls and a Sailor” ... “Ziegfeld Follies” ... “Words and Music” ... “Duchess of Idaho” ... “Till the Clouds Roll By” ... “Meet Me In Las Vegas.”)
She desperately wanted the role of Julie, the tragic mulatto of “Show Boat.”  But Horne, although light-complexioned, still looked "too black" to play a woman who had “one drop” of African American blood.  The role went to her good friend Ava Gardner (who it was rumored did have that one drop!) But Horne would not accept the studio’s explanation.  It gnawed at her for years, although she remained close to Ava.
Lena and Ava.
Lena, clearly seeing the handwriting on the wall, was dispirited, bitter.  Early on, after she realized the limitations of her career in movies, she wanted to leave Hollywood.  She was persuaded to persevere, no matter how frustrated and humiliated she felt.  Musician friends in New York  told her:  "They picked you!  You have to stay, sister, and be a credit to your race."

She did stay, but being a "credit to her race" was a heavy burden, she discovered. In 1947, as her MGM “career” was winding down, Lena married musician/composer/arranger Lennie Hayton. He was white. Hayton took Horne to Europe, where interracial relationships were not the subject of derision and danger.
Lena and Lennie.
There, on the continent, Lena Horne established herself as one of the most dazzling nightclub adornments.  The pent-up sexuality, unused in films, her anger, her burgeoning activism in the matter of civil rights, combined to make her an electrifying presence.  She was so sexy, so gorgeous, so fiery and yet icily untouchable. Watching men, watching her, as she dished out her songs — challenging, taunting, stylized to the max — the blazing eyes, the bared, gritted, perfect teeth, was to see  a woman declaring, “You can look, you bastards, but never touch.”
SHE returned to America where she made innumerable  appearances in nightclubs and on television, impossibly beautiful (far more so than in her dewy MGM youth), and hard to define. Her marriage to Hayton suffered, although it endured. She had not married for love, she later confessed, although “I learned to love him.” She married him for his entrée into society, to cross the color line — she knew he knew what was best for her career.  There was a 1958 Broadway musical, “Jamaica,” for which she received a Tony Award nomination.  
And there were great albums — “Lena, Soul” ... “Lena in Hollywood” ... “Lena Goes Latin” ... “Give the Lady What She Wants” ... “Lena Horne Live at the Waldorf Astoria” ... “Lena on the Blue Side” ... ”Lena and Gabor” — no, not Zsa Zsa!  The guitarist Gabor Szabo, and it was a great success. (For fans too hypnotized by her daunting physicality, these records offered her maturing vocal artistry.)

Behind the facade, there was unhappiness, as racial tensions mounted in the U.S. It affected her marriage, her relations with others, her view of the world.  For years Lena sought to find herself, her place in that world.  In 1980, she announced her retirement.  Then came "The Lady and Her Music.”  And, far past what most people considered her expiration point, she was a vibrant revelation.  This was the public confession/exaltation/resolution of her long, often painful, journey. 

Lena was raw, raucous, sexy, but real; accessible. No longer did keep her audiences at a safe distance.  Now she brought them close, shared her pain, her joys, her regrets.   When she sang “Yesterday, When I was Young,” “A Lady Must Live,” “Where or When,” “Love” or “Stormy Weather” (Now I sing it like this — like a woman!”),  audiences all but ripped out the Nederlander seats!  She won a Tony Award, of course.

Although nothing could top “The Lady.” Horne continued to record and make appearances regularly until 1995. In 1994, I traveled out to Hollywood to see Lena (and other stars) film their scenes for “That’s Entertainment III.”  She looked exquisite, and seemed mistily nostalgic, if a bit melancholy. “There were good times” Lena told me.  “But,” she paused, thoughtfully and shrugged, “They really just didn’t know what to do with me.” The red-hot bitterness seemed to have abated.

Afterward, she mostly withdrew from public life, but always sounded cheerful on the phone, and would brush off requests for dinner and visits, “Honey, I’ve been out enough, I’ve seen enough people!”  (The private woman was earthy and no-nonsense, witty, wise and wry.)

Happy birthday, you remarkable woman, great soul, great artist.  You suffered a lot to make sense of the world; to realize its potential and your own potential.  I miss you terribly, still.
Click to order “My Hurricane Andrew Story,”
LENA HORNE was a force of nature made out of flesh and blood.  But there are real forces of nature that come from the sky and sea, wreaking havoc, taking and changing lives. A fascinating new book is on the way, “My Hurricane Andrew Story,” by famed meteorologist Bryan Norcross. 

Norcross, who now serves as the Weather Channel’s Senior Hurricane Specialist, was the first to raise the alarm about the devastating 1992 storm. (His calm and compassion was credited with saving many lives.)  Andrew caused 15 direct deaths in South Florida and resulted in $26 billion in damages. 

Norcross knows how to get a story across.  He can actually make technical stuff about the ins and outs of tracking weather, rather interesting.  And the book becomes downright compelling and deeply moving as the storm comes, passes, as he observes the destruction of lives, properties.  And he witnesses, heartbreakingly, how confidence in government help is destroyed. 

There is humor (the flamingos in the bathroom!)  But this is a book that guides you, with mounting tension, through a trauma that is still being felt, 25 years past. 
Bryan Norcross forecasting the path of Andrew in 1992.
“My Hurricane Andrew” is bracingly crisp and unerringly factual.  But without sentimentality it brings home the horror of such a event — tear ducts will go into action, whether you want them to or not! — and Norcross cautions that even now, we remain unprepared in many ways.

Bryan Norcross will be doing a book signing at 7:00 PM on Thursday, July 20 at Books & Books in Coral Gables, Florida. The book is available now through Amazon here.
Norcross and his team move to a safer location inside the station.
Contact Liz here.