Lena Horne, who died ten years ago this month, was one of the most sophisticated song stylists of her generation. In this appreciation ANTHONY FIELD recalls his association with her and her history, living as she did through times which were not as enlightened as our current society’s. But most of all, it celebrates her triumphs as an artist – no one was going to silence this lady and her music!
This tribute dates from May 2010
One of the first decisions I had to make when I took up the post as Finance Director at Theatre Projects was whether to extend the season of Lena Horne’s THE LADY AND HER MUSIC which we presented at the Adelphi Theatre in London in August 1984. Faced with the age-old show business dilemma I had to decide whether the first sell-out month should be extended for a second month. We had pioneered opening the show on Sundays and closing on Mondays which had proved successful but we still had to decide whether to extend the season (and risk losing an extra month of business) or to risk finding that would-be ticket buyers who had initially failed to obtain tickets would not come back. This was the dilemma I recorded in The Stage newspaper of 9 August 1984.
The show was an absolute sell-out and proved that Lena Horne was right to postpone her retirement planned for 1980. This last appearance of Lena in London is recalled by many of us who are sad to hear of her death this month (May 2010) at the age of 92.
I first saw her live at her London Palladium debut in August 1950 when she played to enraptured audiences for two sold-out weeks. Her husband, Lennie Hayton, MGM’s Musical Director, conducted his own exciting arrangements opening with “You Do Something To Me” which raised the roof. The variety bill supporting her included Bernard Miles and Billy Cotton and his band. I never asked her what she thought of them! (She returned for another successful season at the Palladium in June 1952).
Born in Brooklyn on 30 June 1917 she was the daughter of an actress and a hotel operator. Her early life was unsettled as her parents divorced when she was three and she spent her childhood living with various relatives. As a young girl she planned to be a teacher but the Depression came and she left the Brooklyn High School For Girls and went to a dancers’ audition at the Cotton Club. She was hired and spent three years learning all about show business from some of the greats including Billie Holliday, Cab Calloway, Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
She married Louis Jones and had two children, Ted and Gail, but the marriage failed and Lena divorced him after four years. She then joined Charlie Barnett’s band as their singer and was spotted by MGM’s music supervisor Roger Edens, after which MGM producer Arthur Freed offered her a contract.
Her first film was “Panama Hattie” and the studio created special make-up for her called “Light Egyptian”. Her next film was “Cabin in the Sky” when she played opposite Ethel Waters but MGM did not offer her another assignment, loaning her out to 20th Century-Fox for “Stormy Weather” where she played opposite Bill Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers. She then appeared in “As Thousands Cheer”, “Swing Fever”, “Broadway Rhythm”, “Two Girls and a Sailor”, “Ziegfeld Follies” and “Till the Clouds Roll By” but she was always limited to a guest spot number which could be cut out when the film was shown in southern US states’ theatres without affecting the plot. Her last film at MGM was “Duchess of Idaho” in 1950.
During World War Two Lena became the pin-up for hundreds of thousands of black GIs and was firm in her refusal to appear on any tours unless black soldiers were admitted as part of the audience.
In 1950, Lena announced her three-year secret marriage to Lennie Hayton. Their marriage of 24 years ended with his sudden death in 1971 which ended what was a real love match.
Being black in Hollywood’s white society was not easy and for a long time her only real friend there was Orson Welles. Living in a wealthy neighbourhood, the residents there were convinced that she “lowered the tone of the place”. But Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre constantly came to her defence.
Surprisingly, her only big success in a Broadway musical was “Jamaica” with music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Yip Harburg. It opened in October 1957 with a cast including Ricardo Montalban and Adelaide Hall and ran for 555 performances.
After Lennie Hayton’s death she lived a quiet life in Santa Barbara. Her son Ted also died in 1971 of a kidney ailment and her daughter Gail had married Sidney Lumet, giving Lena her beloved two grandsons and three granddaughters.
In 1980 she was persuaded to spend a year of planning, writing, honing and rehearsing “The Lady And Her Music” which opened at the Nederlander Theatre on 12 May 1981. The reviews were unanimously sensational and it became the hottest ticket in New York, receiving a special Tony Award, the Drama Desk Award and the New York Drama Critics’ Award. Its 14-month run made it the longest running one-woman show in Broadway history.
Lena finally brought the show to London when Michael Billington wrote that “her timing, phrasing and emotional voltage remain as powerful as ever. In “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” she takes a line like “I’m a real, ripe, juicy plum again” and delivers every syllable into your lap with onomatopoeic suggestiveness. And she can even take the ride in “Surrey With the Fringe On Top” and, through fierce, whispered enunciation of every particle of every word, turn it into something full of moonlit eroticism.”
Opening the evening with Rodgers and Hart’s “A Lady Must Live”, she ended the evening of 22 songs with “Stormy Weather”.
She told me at dinner after that first night that “After this Adelphi engagement I’m going to call it a day. It’s time to concentrate on my five grandchildren. Enough is enough!”
With thanks to the Estate of Anthony Field for permission to publish this article.
ADDITION You will be pleased to hear that a recording of the entire Broadway show has turned up on my favourite archive, YouTube. You can find it here