Lena Horne - GLAMOUR C.O.D.
Canadians of two cities have jammed night clubs to bear this coffee-colored charmer who made almost $400,000 last year. This is all because she sings her throaty songs to YOU
LESLIE F. HANNON
SHE came threading her way quickly through the overcrowded Fiesta ROOM in Toronto's Prince George Hotel, into the haze of cigarette and cigar smoke and the splutter of applause. She gave no sign of acknowledgment; just walked up to the microphone standing on the dance floor and started to sing. The orchestra lifted smootMy into “Beale Sttreet Bfeies.” Presenting Miss Lena Calibo«* Horae busy picking up $1,000.
She instantly cut the noise im the might climb by singing softly, moodily, almost to herself so that the crowd had to strain to hear. As the attention of the crowd hardened she began to sing to them. Within a lew mmosments the crowd was hers.
She stood tall at the ranilke in am orange and' black gown, low cut from bare shoaoiders, the skintight velvet skirt slit knee-high, a flaring corsage aft her waist. Her beautiful strong-coffee-eollored face, smeared1 thick with pancake make-up, was passionate with the emotions of her song.
It was the dinner show and the service im the jammed Fiesta Room had been slow. You could feel the irritability of a lot of people who thought they had been packed in far too tightly at the price of $5.5® per head dinner minimum.
But with one number Lena had challenged and beaten all this. The food waited cold, the ice melted in the highballs.
She stepped forward, straight on t®’ Duke Ellington s “tomorrow Mountain”:
Just across Tomorrow MowMain There’s a happy city, they say,
Where the people are ground and turne is planned So it’s Christmas every day.
She told stories in song, usually kwe stories, usually yearning, often tragic. The voice was throaty and intimate, but it didn’t add up to much in terms of real singing—it’s what she did with it that mattered.
She sang straight through a bracket of maybe six songs, including some that movies and records have made almost exclusively hers: “Stormy Weather,” “Can’t Help
Lovin’ That Man,” “The Lady Is a Tramp.” Then she was gone, immediately beyond the reach of encoreg.
It’s not strange perhaps that a big-name star comes to a second-string hotel in Toronto and wows the local nightfliers but when you know that that same person also wows them in London’s Palladium, Paris Champs Elysées, in Brussels and Rome, in Vancouver’s Cave, in Burlington’s Brant Inn, in New York s Copacabana, in Slapsie Maxie’s of Hollywood; that she has picked up $50,000 for two weeks at
Continued on page 32
Continued from page 17
Chicago’s Oriental Theatre; that she has appeared in a dozen or more MGM movies and recently voluntarily voided a contract worth $1,000 a week; that she was off on an all-summer tour of Europe that would take her as far as Tel Aviv, Palestine; that she made $375,000 last year (President Truman: $100,000)—when you know all this, and remember that she was just a colored kid on the back streets of Brooklyn, there’s excellent reason for wondering how Lena does it.
I went backstage to talk to her. She was still in the shower—she is always wet with sweat after a performance— when I pushed into the shabby dressing-bedroom. There was quite a crowd in there, maybe a dozen people. Ralph Harris, Lena’s manager, was busy giving Jock Carroll, of the Montreal Standard, dope for a newspaper piece, Lennie Hayton, Lena’s husband and musical director, chose food from a packed tray for two places set on a card table between the twin beds; Thelma Carpenter, on a vaudeville bill with Jerry Colonna over at the Uptown Theatre, chatted with CBC balladeer Ed McCurdy; Helen Simmons, Lena’s maid, picked up the things her boss had flung off on the way to the shower; a bus boy pushed in behind me with popping eyes and a bucket of champagne.
Lena came out of the bathroom. Gone was the orange and black gown, gone the make-up, gone the glamour, gone the remoteness. She wore a faded and rumpled blue robe; a waterproof cap hid her piled and intricate hair. A quick hello and she fell on a plate of chicken. Hayton sat opposite.
Everybody talked, Lena more than anybody. With utter disregard for the perils of indigestion she carried on six conversations at once, never ceasing her attack on the chicken.
She talked child psychology, of her love for London and the pubs of Ben Johnson, of her detective fiction heroes, of television, of the Washington spy
probes, of her deep affection for Canada—of anything but the show she had just finished. She was relaxed, yet there was still a glitter in her eyes; friendly, with a take-it-or-leave-it charm.
When she had finished the chicken and some salad and refused an éclair I got a chance to talk to her.
“Can you put your finger on the thing about your singing that’s put you in the big time?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I can’t.”
She whirled off the bed to the big mirror, lifted her long arms high, then curtsied. In a flat monotone she said to herself in the mirror, “Presenting Lena Horne, star of stage, screen and ^nuttin’.” She bit off the last word
Then she and Thelma Carpenter burst into an impromptu charade in comic blackface on the subject of whether the moon (in the U. S.) really did belong to everyone. Lena, with Aunt Jemima accent and gesture, maintained it didn’t, not while the ladies’ washroom had two doors, white and colored-
just as suddenly she was back on the bed, ready to talk.
She is easy to talk to, but hard to keep on the rails. By the time I had extracted a sketch of her crowded life we had discussed the representation of Maoris in the New Zealand House of Representatives, the relative merits of Erie Stanley Gardner and Ngaio Marsh, whether Toronto was bigger than Ottawa.
Lena is 33, mother of two children, around 130 lbs., about 5 feet 8 inches, with a 34 bust, 36 hips, a 26 waist and 7HAAA feet. She is inclined to hips, but dresses to make the most of them.
She was born in Brooklyn on June 30, 1917, the only child of Edna and Teddy Horne. Her father was a commission salesman, her mother a pretty Harlem actress who played under her maiden name of Scothran. When Lena was three her parents were divorced and she was bounced around the tank towns, living out of her mother’s suitcase or farmed out to friends and rela-
She picked up a flimsy education here
Continued on page 34
Continued from page 32
and there, getting a final polish with two years at the Girls’ High School, Brooklyn. She couldn’t sing much, but she was long, slim and good to look at. Good enough to get a start at 16 in the chorus line at the Cotton Club.
Noble Sissle spotted her there and snapped her up for his touring band show. She didn’t sing much even then, but joined in when the boys in the band harmonized. Sometimes, early in the morning she’d be allowed to try a solo chorus. Her voice was pleasant in a wayward husky fashion, but nothing more than that.
Band leader Charlie Barnet picked her up next; she was his first Negro vocalist. She began to develop her own singing style, copying no one, simply learning by crowd reaction what went over and what didn’t. Bluebird Records became interested, tried Horne on a few platters. Her “Good For Nothin’ Joe” caught on. There were definite signs of a career shaping up; nobody saw her as a world beater, but she was doing okay.
Then, at 19, she met and married Louis Jones, a Negro who worked in the county coroner’s office in Pittsburgh. They had two children swiftly, Gail and Teddy, then divorced in 1940. Lena has Gail, Teddy is with his father.
So, 10 years ago, the 22-year-old girl was making a comeback. She had learned a lot. She’d been happy, and unhappy; she’d taken her knocks, and knew that she was alone on the tough road ahead. Some part of all this went into her singing, into her presentation. The semi-tragic dreaming element of herpersonalitystarted to come through.
That fall the manager of New York’s Cafe Society needed a single entertainer and a talent scout sold him Lena on trial.
In a clinging gown she stood remote and reserved before a critical crowd.
She sang from “Tomorrow Moun-
There you will be
A lucky sinner
With no conscience for your guide.
Each horse you pick
Will be a winner
And the doors of every bank are open wide . . .
She was a hit.
Hollywood, the bright lights, the big dough—it all came in a great flood
then to the kid from Brooklyn.
It was in Hollywood about four years ago that Lena met Lennie Hayton, a short handsome composed intelligent white man, who is under contract to MGM as musical director. They married secretly in Paris in December, 1947, but refused to admit the fact until three months ago. The intolerance of mixed marriage displayed by many whites and Negroes in the States kept them silent. But it was no real secret to showfolk.
There’s no doubt that Lennie, now 42 and looking older with his goatee, is important to Lena. She sometimes calls him “Daddy,” seems more peaceful when he’s around.
On September 16 last year, when she was playing a Chicago date, Lena set off for Caruso’s restau-ant in a mixed party of four Negroes and two whites (one of them Ralph Harris, her manager). They wanted a table for six but according to Lena, Caruso told them he was very sorry—the restaurant was really a private club.
Lena departed without fuss, then filed charges of racial discrimination. Under Illinois law Caruso can be fined $500 if found guilty. But the case has gone from court to court without an actual hearing being set.
With a wry smile Lena tells of the time she turned down a spot on Edgar Bergen’s program because they insisted she address Charlie McCarthy as “Mr. McCarthy” for the benefit of listeners in the South.
Lena gives voice and money eagerly to any cause she believes progressive, any movement aimed at breaking down race or religion barriers. In Toronto she spoke to a luncheon of United Jewish Appeal executives. In the U. S. presidential race in 1948 she supported Henry Wallace. Before that she supported Franklin D. Roosevelt. She admires Paul Robeson who helped her get started in show business.
She’s sure that education of both sides is the key to the Negro problem, to any minority problem. Her daughter Gail, now 12, was with her in Europe this summer. Then she returned to the New Lincoln School, a model inter-racial school in New York City.
Lena has,a deep attachment for her children, deep for a show-business' mother, that is. Here’s one story she likes to tell:
Gail had been boasting to the other
kids at the school about her famous and glamorous mother, proudly showing publicity pictures of Mommy in a glittering white Paris model, hair lacquered and upswept. Then Lena, in typical off-stage manner, turned up at the school wearing rumpled slacks and a turban. Lena’s sorry that Gail was so bitterly disappointed but feels that the child learned something from the incident.
This is important in the story of Lena Horne. That the glittering glamour of her is something that is sold on the dotted line for as much cash as the traffic will bear. It’s no real part of her.
Jack Scott, the Vancouver columnist, got to know the off-stage Lena when she first played the Cave Cabaret there at $7,000 a week. He traveled to Seattle to meet her as a Hollywood figure, came back to write in his column about her as the most beautiful woman since Cleopatra who had, besides, warmth, dignity and a brilliant grasp of racial problems. He almost forgot to mention she was a singer.
During Lena’s second appearance in Vancouver last year, Frankie Laine was singing at the competing Palomar Club, wildly supported by the bobbysox brigade. Lena won hands down.
Why? Because of the way she does it, they said in the West.
I asked the CBC’s folk singer, Ed McCurdy—How does Lena do it?
“An incredible amount of work,” he said. “With Lena it’s always the next show that counts. She never sells short. Out there at the mike she’s working as hard as anyone ever works. Every facial movement, every lift of a hand, every change in tone is worked on and polished to perfection.”
It’s the Sincerity
It was Mistinguette, in Paris, an artist in the Horne mold, who put her finger on the core of Lena’s appeal.
Lena told it this way: “When
Mistinguette came to my dressing room in Paris she didn’t say anything about tone or stage presence or anything like that. She said she liked the sincerity of the songs. That’s as nice a thing as one gal can say to another in show business—or, I guess, in any business.”
In her eight nights in Toronto Lena jammed crowds of up to 400 into the Fiesta Room, which usually seats around 250.
Proprietor Harry Smith’s gross take was around $50,000; his net about $15,000.
Lena picked up a cheque for $7,200 plus an undisclosed cut of the gross. The night after Lena left exactly six people dined in the Fiesta Room to the antics of comic Joey Bishop.
Backstage in her dressing room Lena was getting ready for the last show. Sitting at her cluttered dressing table, after waving her visitors to their chairs, she worked on her eyes, adding inchlong lashes to the purpled lids. Helen Simmons fussed with her hair. Item by item she built up the glamorous portrait of the Lena Horne the public sees out front.
While she worked on her face Lena talked. “Every time is the first time. Always butterflies in the stomach. I can never tell till I’m standing out there what it’s going to be like this
Shestood tall and straight, inherstunning gown, sipping some brandy. She turned her face slowly in the mirror, smiled intimately with slowly curling lips. She tried it again with lifting head and half lidded eyes—perfect. She turned, still smiling, and cut at manager Harris with a sharp tongue; then she scolded the maid. They took
it meekly as a sign of the build-up for the merciless mike.
A last searching look at the strange face in the mirror then Lena led an entourage along the hall. Helen Simmons carried a spotless bed sheet; when Lena stopped down went the sheet for her to stand on, keeping the skirt edge off the floor.
There was small talk at the door of the Fiesta Room to cut the tension while waiting for her own drummer, Chico Hamilton, to roll the cue. Lena turned to me to say that show business stinks— she’d rather be hearing Gail
her lessons. But she didn’t really mean it.
Chico’s drums rolled. All animation dropped from her face, her head went up, nose tilting, eyelids drooping. Lena Horne onstage.
Lena—the cash-on-the-line Lena— stood dim in the haze of smoke and, with ease, took command of the noisy crowd.
Can’t you see Tomorrow Mountain Can’t you watch it shimmer and glow It’s a wonderful town That’s upside down
And full of easy dough.
It’s a land that’s fair to see—
Oh, won’t you travel there with me?
As she started to sing, the question I had asked her earlier in the dressing room was answered for me. She’s been a success in show business because she gets inside a song. She doesn’t sing about other people; she sings about
While she’s singing she is the girl on Tomorrow Mountain. She’s out there in the Stormy Weather.
That’s right—she’s sincere. ★