Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Discrimination thwarted famed singer s ambitions

That is not a happy lady, remarked producer Gene Davis, watching a Lena Horne performance 40 years after it was taped for TV.

Even at the height of her fame and fortune, the superstar singer found herself unhappy, discontent, and insecure. A black woman in a white world, she was lauded for her beauty and musical talents, but denied full acceptance by white and black society alike. Moreover, raised by a haughty middle-class grandmother in an upscale Brooklyn neighborhood, she was taught at an early age to hide her feelings, told You will never let anyone see you cry.

Horne sang about love with a conviction that captured her audiences, but in real life, love was not something she had received, and it was not something she was capable of giving to others.

The book I read immediately before James Gavin s biography was Gwen Ifill s The Breakthrough, a study of the new generation of African-American politicians.

I ve been startled by how much the two narratives have in common. Ifill makes the distinction between the older generation, who grew up in a world shaped by denial, and the new generation, who have known access in a way their ancestors never could have imagined.

Horne, born in Brooklyn in 1917, experienced the denial first-hand in her formative years in the deep South, where she was brought by a mother who longed for a stage career and remained jealous when her daughter achieved it instead. The horrors of poverty and abuse in her childhood were followed by years of artistic and financial success even though she was frequently banned from hotels and restaurants in cabarets where she was the star performer.

For a short time she fled to Pittsburgh, where her father had moved to pursue a lucrative career in illegal gambling.

Despite being signed by the film studio MGM, Horne never became a leading lady. Her parts were limited to cameo appearances that could be trimmed when the films played in the South. The unstated film code prohibited a white man and a black woman from touching on screen, a restriction that contributed to Horne s greatest Hollywood disappointment when she lost the role of Julie in the 1951 film of Show Boat to Ava Gardner.

These episodes, and much more, contributed to Horne s lifelong bitterness and loneliness. In 1994, assenting to a rare interview (for The New York Times) with Gavin, the reclusive diva ruminated for minutes at a time, then explained:

I never speak to people, so when I m with someone like you I talk too much.

Remarkably, Gavin establishes the star s persona clearly and indelibly at the very start, in a vivid introduction preceding Chapter 1. With his research and interviews he has put together a superb portrait that has the ring of truth on every page. While it s obvious that the biographer loves his subject, he is brutally blunt about her conflicting character.

The real Lena was the singer of the songs. To listen to her recordings or watch her videos remains an uplifting experience. To delve into her personality is a downer. Gavin manages to capture both elements with immediacy and conviction.

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