Monday, May 10, 2010


Lena Horne died yesterday at 92. A nightclub singer whose Hollywood career was just starting when she was blacklisted in the 1950s for her political convictions -- mainly her civil rights activism (and nothing seemed to say "communist sympathizer" more than caring about civil rights in those days) -- she returned to the clubs and the recording studio until somewhat-cooler heads prevailed in American politics.

From the Washington Post obit:

Ms. Horne, considered one of the most beautiful women in the world, came to the attention of Hollywood in 1942. She was the first black woman to sign a meaningful long-term contract with a major studio, a contract that said she would never have to play a maid.

"What people tend not to fully comprehend today is what Lena Horne did to transform the image of the African American woman in Hollywood," said Donald Bogle, a film historian.

"Movies are a powerful medium and always depicted African American women before Lena Horne as hefty, mammy-like maids who were ditzy and giggling," Bogle said. "Lena Horne becomes the first one the studios begin to look at differently. . . . Really just by being there, being composed and onscreen with her dignity intact paved the way for a new day" for black actresses.

He said Ms. Horne's influence was apparent within a few years of her leaving Hollywood, starting with actress Dorothy Dandridge's movie work in the 1950s. Later, Halle Berry, who won the 2001 best actress Oscar for "Monster's Ball," called Ms. Horne an inspiration.

She sang with Frank, Dino, Der Bingle, and many others, although younger fans could be forgiven for thinking her career was mainly about duets with Muppets.

Everyone else on the web will be playing one of her wonderful signature performances of "Stormy Weather" today, so here's something different: her 1965 performance of "Moon River:"

And here's a small measure of her triumph. Among the songs written by Tom Lehrer for the American version of the topical/satirical That Was The Week That Was in 1964-65 was "National Brotherhood Week," a sardonic celebration of the one week each year where everyone -- rich or poor, black or white, Protestant, Catholic, Hindu, Muslim, or Jew -- was expected to get along . . . until the week was over and they could all go back to hating each other for the next 51 weeks. It included these lines:

Oh, the white folks hate the black folks
And the black folks hate the white folks
To hate all but the right folks
Is an old established rule
But during National Brotherhood Week
National Brotherhood Week
Lena Horne and Sheriff Clark are dancing cheek-to-cheek*

Today, you know who Lena Horne is, but I bet most of you have no idea who Sheriff Clark was, and that's as it should be.

(If you really want to know who Clark was, you can look him up at Wikipedia. He doesn't get a link.)

*Turns out, the performance of "National Brotherhood Week" by Lehrer that's on YouTube is from 1967, and by that time Lena Horne was sufficiently mainstream that he'd re-written that last line with a more topical reference.

No comments: