Digging into the archives, we unearth the original articles printed in the Playbills of yesteryear...
In 1981 Lena Horne made a triumphant return to Broadway with her one-woman show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music. Originally announced as a limited four-week engagement, Horne continued her run for more than a year, clocking in 366 performances at the Nederlander Theatre and leaving audiences in a frenzy with her deliveries of “From This Moment On,” “Stormy Weather,” “Bewitched,” and the rousing finale to The Wiz, “If You Believe.” They weren't the only ones on their feet; that year the American Theatre Wing presented Horne wth a Special Tony Award.
More than halfway through the run, Horne invited Playbill to join her in her dressing room following a performance of The Lady and Her Music—and that’s where the other show began.
The lights go down and there’s a white scrim, blank except for the bold signature “Lena Horne” scrawled across it, and the band moves from “Honeysuckle Rose” into “Bewitched,” and after that, they dance around for a few bars with “Just One of Those Things,” and you’re hooked. Even before Lena comes on, you’re nostalgic for a kind of romance that probably never existed outside of songs and stories. Rich white ladies go to Harlem in ermine and pearls, and flirt with the gangsters who run the clubs there. Cole Porter lives; so does Larry Hart.
And suddenly Lena, that “dealer in magic and spells,” appears, all tawny skin and glittering eyes, growling “From This Moment On.” She’s queen of the night, and for two hours, she proves it. Sometimes she fools around, and the sound comes out bass, sometimes it’s so full of sorrow it makes your throat ache. She whispers, she belts, she crows. She snaps her fingers, and toys with us. All of her skill as an actress is at work, the art that goes into making something look artless. A lady to her bones, Lena can swing into the accent of the streets, and sell that too.
She never cheats. Often, the show runs long, because when Lena and her audience get to exchanging energy, all the clocks stop.
If the people who come to the theatre are surprised by the way Lena makes them feel, by the pure joy of seeing genius fly, Lena is equally surprised to find herself engaged in this late love affair.
She’d thought she was tired of working. She’d been at it for more than 40 years. She’d sung in London and Paris and Toronto. She’d sung in cities all over the United States, and even though she knew that every year she was singing better (“You hone,” she says, “you get the thing smoother”), she was ready to quit because she was sick of hotel rooms. “Only this friend, Sherman Sneed, kept saying, ‘You’ve got to let yourself be heard in New York, where it means something. I know the Nederlanders, I’m going to talk to them.’”
Lena advised Sherman Sneed to forget it. Instead, he brought in two other men, Michael Frazier and Fred Walker—“They’re young and dumb,” Lena says fondly—and they all decided to produce a Lena Horne show. Jimmy Nederlander, of the theatre-owning Nederlanders, liked the idea too.
The person who needed convincing was Lena. “I was willing to do a play. I loved doing Pal Joey. I like working with other people. But these guys said, ‘We don’t have a property. Why don’t you just do a one-woman show?’
“And I said, ‘Well, you know, nothing that’s ever happened to me is interesting.’ And they laughed. And Sherman said, ‘Oh, come on.’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I went to the Cotton Club when I was 16, and we used to wear practically nothing, and we sang stupid songs like “Lady With a Fan” and I sang so bad they stopped me the second night.’
“‘And then, I said, ‘I did a soft shoe called “Long as I Live,” with Avon Long. And I couldn’t dance, either. Everybody could dance better than me. But they put me in the line because I was cute, and I was virtuous.’
“And Sherman said, ‘That’s interesting.’ “And then I told about making the movie Stormy Weather, because MGM had loaned me to 20th Century Fox for an enormous amount of money, of which I got none. And I had to sing ‘Stormy Weather.’ My grandmother had raised me never to let anyone see me cry. I had to be self-contained. And I was stifled by the fact that when I’d first heard ‘Stormy Weather,’ Ethel Waters was singing it, and she was a great singer. So I hated having to do the damn song, because I didn’t feel it belonged to me. I didn’t know then I’d get stuck with it and have to sing it everywhere I went.
“And Sherman said, ‘That’s interesting too.’”
What with Sherman Sneed being predisposed to find everything she told him interesting, Lena gave up the fight. Little by little, as Sneed helped her to structure it, a show evolved. Last February 16, rehearsals began; last April 30, the first preview took place. A limited run—four weeks—was announced. “And I’m still here,” says the lady.
She makes it look easy, whether she’s hunched over crooning “I Want to be Happy,” and flirting with the folks in the boxes—“God knows, I’d like y’all to be happy”—or recreating the Cotton Club days, standing there throwing in doo wops, and grabbing a bit of rest, while two other girls hoof their hearts out. “I told those children they can shake their bodies long as they want to,” Lena confides to the audience. “I got to sing for two hours.”
The singing is spiced with reminiscences. She shares with her listeners some memories of Hollywood, but always, she makes the tales funny. She’d longed to play Julie in Showboat; the part had gone to Ava Gardner. (Lena says she liked Ava anyway. “Neither one of us had any tact. We never said yes to the right people.”) She’d longed to play Pinky in a movie about a black girl passing for white; that part went to Jeanne Crain. “I felt bad for while, “ Lena says. “About 12 years.”
In Hollywood, they created a special makeup color for her; it was called Light Egyptian. Then she had to stand by and watch them using her Light Egyptian on Ava, and on Hedy Lamarr—“This woman with a Viennese accent”—while she was assigned to cameo roles that could be edited out when the movies played down South.
She talks about having appeared on Broadway once before, in 1957, in a show called Jamaica, which Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen had written for Harry Belafonte. Belafonte backed out, the lead was changed from male to female, and given to Lena. “I didn’t care who the hell they wrote it for”, she says, “I was glad to get it.”
Snapping her fingers, stuffing a handkerchief around the neck of her gown because she’s sweating—Lena hates air conditioning, she’s convinced it incapacitates her—she apologizes for any discomfort the audience is feeling, and pretends to blame the heat on her boss. “Mr. Nederlander ain’t got no money,” she says. “But he tole me if we break even, he gone get the system adjusted.” Her second Nederlander joke comes right after she slips a thin scarlet wrap over her snow-white dress. “Ladies like to see you change costumes,” she says, “but Mr. Nederlander didn’t buy me but two costumes.”
Once the show is over, Lena does another show. Backstage. In khaki pants and striped shirt, she stands at the door to her dressing room and signs autographs. The people who have lined up outside the stage door are ushered in, five or six at a time, and she talks to every one of them. A woman says that Lena’s given her courage, made her want to face the next day. “I was carried away,” she says. Lena grasps the woman’s hands. “I’m carried away,” she says. “I’m carried away.”
The fans adore Lena, Lena adores the fans, but what has to be most satisfying to a performer whose fame was built on her cheekbones is that, these days, the public is responding to her craft, not to her beauty.
“When I was young,” she says, “I was so busy trying to be listened to because they were always saying to me, ‘Oh, you’re so pretty, but you can’t do a damn thing.’ So I just kept on trying to learn how to do something. Even now, if I was working in Vegas, the emphasis would be on appearance. They’d say, ‘She still looks pretty good for an old broad.’ But here, they listen to you with a different attitude. I think they may like the initial appearance as I walk out, but then they begin to get into the story, and they forget about the looks.”
Lena is 64 now. She says that until 20 years ago, she was so frustrated and bitter, she kept an audience at arm’s length. But the rage burnt out; it’s been gone for a long time.
Not that she hadn’t had reasons for her anger. She was a child of divorce, she was an adolescent forced to quit high school and go to work, she was a proud woman in an age when it wasn’t entirely comfortable to be black an proud.
Early on, she learned about loss. “The only place I ever felt was home was a brownstone in Brooklyn,” she says. “My grandmother was there, and it was where my roots were. But I was taken away from there, and after a while, I knew I would never get it back.”
Later, in Pittsburgh, Lena tried again to put down roots. She married a man named Louis Jones, had two children. When the marriage failed, she came back to New York and took a job with Charlie Barnett’s band. “Sometimes the whole band would walk out of a restaurant where I wasn’t allowed in to eat with them,” she says, and suddenly starts to laugh. “One day, when we were putting this show together, I was talking about all this old sh*t with Sherman, and Jimmy Nederlander came in, I’ll never forget it, and he says, ‘Lena, no messages please, no messages.’
“I said, ‘No, Jimmy, don’t worry, no messages, we’re going to be light.’”
Again, she roars with laughter. She doesn’t want to tell the world sad stories anyway. Good things happened to her too. “I worked at Café Society Downtown at a time when there was great jazz everywhere. Billie Holiday was working at Kelly’s Stables, around the corner. And Teddy Wilson taught me how to sing. I literally had to learn how to carry a tune. My second husband, Lennie Hayton, taught me a great deal about music too. I had no musical sense at all.
Hard as this is to believe, Lena is clearly convinced that she’s speaking the truth. It was Count Basie who urged her, despite her own forebodings, to grab the MGM contract when it was offered. “They don’t take us out there,” Count Basie said. “And you’ve got the chance, and you’ve got to do it.”
The chance wasn’t quite the miracle that Count had hoped for, but Lena did make some 15 pictures, and she did meet Lennie Hayton, a gifted arranger who was also employed by MGM. The two married, and stayed together for 24 years, until Hayton’s death in 1971.
Lena had never imagined herself with a white husband—“I was raised on an old saying that goes, ‘They will bed you, but they will not wed you’”—and she wasn’t in love with Hayton or with anybody else, for that matter. “But I couldn’t operate with a black man, who wouldn’t be allowed to be a manager. And I had two babies. And Lennie was nice, and I knew he was talented. I laid a heavy burden on him, I really did. And I learned to love him because he took it. He took it, and he softened me.
“He was unique, in that he had no prejudices. He was just music. I went through a long period of trying to be as unprejudiced as he was, because I knew I was wasting a lot of emotion. And he wrote exquisitely.
“We grew to have a great relationship. We had great respect for each other. I think the only time he really got angry was when he discovered I resented it because he wasn’t as angry about Malcolm X being killed as I was. And it was silly of me to expect him to be. We hadn’t been close enough, except musically, to ever discuss what it was like to be the way I was, or what it was like to be the way he was. Which is interesting. It probably kept us married.”
Aside from Lennie Hayton, Lena says her near and dear have never been particularly impressed by her talent. “My daughter used to say, ‘ Why don’t you sing like Patti Page?’ And my granddaughters like Blondie, and they like Kiss.”
Still, she doesn’t suffer from lack of adulation. At every performance, crowds cheer her to the echo.
At one point when Lena is telling the audience about her days at Café Society Downtown, she lists some of her heroes. Nat Cole, Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson. She says the names lovingly. “I have known the best,” she says.
And been the best, too.
Flip through highlights of Horne's career below: