Liz Smith: Remembering Lena Horne

And more from our Liz on her dear friend, “the first grand and true celebrity”

LENA HORNE used to call me and Liz Smith her two white children,” wrote Rex Reed recently.

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I WAS flattered to be asked by the Doyle New York auction gallery to write a remembrance of Lena for their sale of her effects, happening Feb. 23rd at 2 p.m. at 175 East 87th Street in New York City. Here’s what I wrote:

SHE WAS the incomparable one – the grand first real and true celebrity, enduring icon and legend, but also a magnificent exemplar of my own neverending search to meet and appreciate great talent. I was lucky to come to know her in the mid-fifties, when I lucked into a Broadway theater-loving group headed by press agent Betty Lee Hunt and stage manager Ruth Mitchell.

Lena had already been through plenty of her struggles from the Cotton Club days on, for being too beautiful, too sexy and not quite “black enough!” She had two terrific children and a host of friends and admirers. But she experienced worldwide racism when she wed the MGM musician Lennie Hayton.

Although Lena made two marvelous movies with all-black casts – “Cabin in the Sky” and “Stormy Weather” — Hollywood never knew what to do with her. MGM would pose her by a fake tree or column in a white satin gown and she’d sing something sultry about love and sex, as long as nobody white came near her. The shot would be cut from the movie in the South.

And, Lena didn’t make it into Hollywood’s version of “Showboat” when the role of Julie, rightfully hers, went to her friend Ava Gardner because MGM lacked guts. Lena was ever sardonic and funny about her tormented movie history.

She and Lennie gave wonderful parties in their Manhattan penthouse where you’d eat deep-fried delicacies and caviar … experiment with a sip of bootleg “White Lightnin’” from a jelly jar … rub elbows with the likes of geniuses (say, Billy “Swee’pea” Strayhorn or Duke Ellington) … trade inside show biz jokes with Noel Coward or Rock Hudson … pet Lena’s pug dogs … and discuss how the “race records” of the Twenties had merged into rock’n’roll.

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LEN HAD lived in the South long enough to appreciate or excoriate all aspects of the culture. She referred to herself as “Lena Mary Calhoun” – saying, sarcastically, that she was descended from the white Senator John Calhoun who’d reigned in South Carolina before the Civil War.

Demons always pursued Lena. Once the Civil Rights movement of the Sixties raged into heroism and murder, Lena entered the fray. She was with Medgar Evers only hours before he was assassinated. Lena lived through a period where I think she blamed herself for “high living” and not having been black enough! But, finally, she forgave herself and all the rest of us who had admired her sex appeal and glamour without stopping to honor her as a black woman.

Lena continued as an international star. She knew everyone who mattered and they knew her. But, privately, she was just Mary Lena – gossiping, laughing, complaining and being her “down home” self.

Then, in 1981, Lena opened on Broadway in a show titled “The Lady and Her Music.” I sat in the audience many times, writing as an honest critic:

“Few things in life are perfection but Lena Horne onstage at the Nederlander has reached it. Her gestures are spare and telling, as in a Japanese Noh play; her movements are lithe, sinuous, youthful, exuberant and sometimes funny. Her flawless Southern dialect is as precise as the greatest Oxford English, as deliberately chosen as a glittering French phrase. A performance of fire and dynamite.”

PBS asked me to speak in its “American Masters” documentary on Lena. Then in 1999, Lena made just about the last of her public appearances with a four-generation all-star salute. Onstage, I praised one of the greatest stars of our time and looking toward her box overhanging Lincoln Center’s stage, I paid her a backwards compliment. “Thank goodness for the white honky in Lena’s woodpile,” implying that the ancient Sen. Calhoun might have improved Lena’s incomparable genes.

Lena, obligingly, almost fell out of her seat and over the railing, laughing. Then she came to the stage and sang us one last song. Her legend remains intact. She was the greatest star!

6 comments so far.

  1. avatar rick gould says:

    Love Lena, but that bit about her getting turned down for Julie in “Showboat” has always been hotly debated… as the studio not casting her NOT because she was black. BUT because it wouldn’t have been much of a surprise in the scene where it’s revealed that Julie is of black heritage if she had been played by Horne!
    Plus, Judy Garland, who was originally slated, then later, Ava Gardner, who was very touching in the role, were both FAR bigger box office than Horne, who was on her way out at MGM.
    But Horne didn’t see it this way, obviously…

  2. avatar Maizie James says:

    Thanks Liz for this excellent article about the ‘Great Lady’ Lena Horne.

  3. avatar Jerry Dale says:

    In addition to Liz Smith, another one of Lena’s great fans was Rosie O’Donnell.  Check out Lena’s two appearances on Rosie’s talk show which are posted on YouTube.  Rosie is the perfect host and Lena is utterly charming and incredibly beautiful.

  4. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    Lena Horne was a constant reminder of the racism of the entertainment industry as a whole, not just Hollywood, that everone wanted to forget and from time to time she was intent that they not. I suspect the reason why was becuase she knew the Civil Rights Act didn’t end the racism. Which we still live with in this country. Even in the entertainment industry. 

    As I posted elsewhere I have never really understood “celebrity auctions” although they pull in bigger bucks for everyone including the auction house but in this case I hope a collector is “front and center” and buys the “career memorabilia” and keeps it intact.   If anyone ever deserved a museum, it was Lena Horne.

    As for the matter of the role of Julie the reality is MGM didn’t want to deal with the reality of the racism that still existed in this country which they would have had to do had they cast Lena Horne in the role. Not to mention the matter of the film being boycotted in the South although it might not have been. We will never know. Shame we didn’t.  It might have changed things for lots of others as well as for her. And for the rest of us. 

  5. avatar riofd8s9afdsa says:

    As for the matter of the role of Julie the reality is MGM didn’t want to deal with the reality of the racism that still existed in this country which they would have had to do had they cast Lena Horne in the role. Not to mention the matter of the film being boycotted in the South although it might not have been. We will never know. Shame we didn’t.  It might have changed things for lots of others as well as for her. And for the rest of us.

  6. avatar Count Snarkula says:

    There is a DVD out.  By Blue Moon records.  It is a very small and intimate performance with Lena in a small nightclub.  Find it.  Buy it.  And listen and watch her sing “Yesterday When I Was Young”.  I think it sums up her life if you see her face and listen to her spit the lyrics out.  Alas, it also sums up the Count’s life as well.