*It figures that one of the last mentions Lena Horne received in the national media was in 2004, when the iconic singer, actress and dancer made it clear she’d have no part of Nipplegate.
Janet Jackson, then set to portray Horne in a biopic about the legendary entertainer, publicly insisted that infamous “wardrobe malfunction” during her 2004 Superbowl half-time performance with Justin Timberlake–her right breast popped out of her costume on live television–was not some ill-fated publicity stunt, but an embarrassing and unfortunate accident.
However, Horne, who’d been to the rodeo more than once, wasn’t buying it. The woman who made “Stormy Weather” an American standard decided that no, Jackson wouldn’t be playing her, after all.
Those who termed Horne’s reaction as antiquated and posturing, either didn’t know or care that she’d battled racism and sexism throughout a hard fought career that began in 1933 in the chorus line at Harlem’s fabled Cotton Club before ultimately spanning recordings, film, television, live performance and international fame. Horne wasn’t about to be connected in any way to the kind of rigmarole that mocked the very things she fought for during her life and career.
It matters not that Lena Horne, who passed away in New York on May 9th 2010 at the age of 92, was performing more than 20 years before I was born. What I learned about her over the years always reminded me of the light-skin-“good” hair boys and girls I grew up among–“high-yellow” Negroes who caught hell from both a patronizing white society that, when it mattered, still treated them like niggers; and from blacks inclined to believe that all light complexioned colored folk thought themselves better than the darker persuasion.
As a child conditioned by the insidious components of bigotry and dysfunction, I was perplexed to discover my light skinned classmates and neighbors were as “colored” as I was in their speech, deeds and their hopeful and often embittered view of the world.
Horne in fact often saw the hue of her skin as a curse. She was as much an activist as she was an entertainer, as much for the sake of her own survival as for the Cause.
Indeed, the woman who admitted after his death in 1971 that she married conductor and arranger Lennie Hayton, a Jewish American, in 1947 to advance her career, is the same woman who throughout her profession used her talent and fame to fight for civil rights and help break down racial barriers in an age when black entertainers couldn’t perform for integrated audiences or sleep in the very Las Vegas hotels where they played to sold-out audiences.
One of the greatest performances I’ve ever witnessed was Lena Horne’s 1982 Tony-winning show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. I don’t make such a declaration simply because Horne has left us; I say this because almost 30 years later, I’ve not seen anyone more entertaining, beguiling, inspiring or rousing of the spirit than a 65 year-old Ms. Horne singing and dancing at the top of her game, presenting through classic songs the story of her expansive life. You owe it to yourself to see the DVD. If you don’t shed a tear during Horne’s tour de force, “If You Believe,” you might be dehydrated.
At her quietus, the print obituaries and assorted TV news segments
don’t do justice. It wasn’t a perfect life. But Madame Horne did it her way.