Sunday, June 5, 1994

LENA HORNE: A Legend Lays Bare Her Hurt

Photo by Andy Freeberg

1993, Lena Horne made a rare public appearance at a party for the 25th anniversary of the Studio Museum in Harlem. Then 75, she seemed eager to speak with anyone who approached her -- until somebody asked if she would be singing after dinner. "I'm too old to be singing," she blurted out. "You don't keep a voice all your life. When I had to start lowering keys, that was the cue telling me to get out."

Four months later, she recorded her most elaborate album in 17 years, "We'll Be Together Again," a valentine to departed friends from a woman who either shut them out of her life or lost them to death. She calls herself "evil and angry and jealous and possessive," and for her, life has grown quite solitary. She now lives in a huge apartment off Fifth Avenue, surrounded by books and ever resentful "that the men in my life have all left me."

The album didn't come easily. Until a year ago, Miss Horne turned down almost every job offer, every invitation. "What does anybody want with an old broad like me?" she would often snap. Her career had climaxed with "The Lady and Her Music," the one-woman autobiographical show that opened on Broadway in 1981 and closed in London three years later. After that, she slipped out of sight, leaving a carefully crafted public image of a funky, racially liberated woman who had finally found peace.

Today, her stature as one of the living legends of show business is secure, as the recent rush of media attention proves. But bitter memories rage on. She complains about her years as a white man's sex symbol stuck in a nightclub circuit she hated, about the racial indignities she suffered in Hollywood, about her long-standing reputation as a stunning but superficial beauty. "You know. 'She's great-looking, but she can't do nothing,' " she says. By the time she appeared as a presenter at last year's Academy Awards, inactivity had caught up with her; she seemed frail and slightly disoriented.

It took the spirit of Billy Strayhorn, her only soul mate, to get her back to work. At the JVC Jazz Festival last June, Miss Horne sang at a tribute to Strayhorn, Duke Ellington's longtime partner, who died in 1967. After weeks of rehearsal and near-crippling anxiety, she strode onto the stage at Avery Fisher Hall with a voice that sounded reborn and received three standing ovations. Backstage, her friend Shirley Cowell, a record producer who had been urging her for years to get back in the studio, said, "You're ready." The album was produced independently by Miss Cowell and sent to Bruce Lundvall, president of Blue Note Records, who decided to buy it after hearing one song.

"There's a vulnerability in her voice now that's wonderful to hear," he says.

One recent afternoon, Miss Horne sat on a sofa in a suite in the Wyndham Hotel in Manhattan and talked about what prompted her to give singing one more try. She wore a black velvet suit, big round glasses and a black hat that hid everything but her face and a few silvery strands of hair.

"I kept thinking, 'Why am I here?' " she says. "My kid left, my father left, my husband left, Billy left -- why am I still here?"

A few weeks earlier, she says, the young employees at Blue Note had tried to let her know: "All the little hip-hop kids came around and they're saying, 'Oh, Miss Horne, we're going to take you out on the road!' I want to say, 'Look, you're just children to me. I can't, and I won't, try to be young for you.' I can just be me. And I'm sorry this poor company's going to have trouble." Asked why, she adds: "I don't have any luck with albums. But I had a reason to do this one. Billy pushed me."

Their first meeting, she says, was "just destined." One night in 1942 she sat in a Hollywood theater watching Ellington's revue "Jump for Joy." She was a former band singer and Cotton Club chorus girl and a divorced mother of two. She had just become MGM's token black starlet.

During intermission, Ellington sent Strayhorn over to greet her. "He was charming to look at, with these twinkly kind of glasses," she recalls. "A wise look. He sat beside me and we began to talk." By the end of the evening, she says, "it was like he was a part of myself." He became the only man with whom she felt free enough to let down her guard. Strayhorn was a homosexual, but she says: "We never discussed sexuality at all. I wasn't throwing off a lot of femininity and he wasn't throwing off a lot of macho. It was more like brother and sister. But I was very jealous of him with everyone."

As the decade wore on, MGM made little use of her, and her few records went nowhere. In 1947, she married Lennie Hayton, a white man who worked as an arranger and accompanist at MGM. "I didn't marry Lennie because I was in love with him," she told an interviewer in 1980. "I callously realized that I would have to associate with a white person to get the things I wanted professionally."

"Daddy," as she called Hayton, who died in 1971, helped her put together the definitive nightclub act. It was a deftly paced hour of archly sophisticated show tunes and mock-sexy numbers like "Evil Spelled Backwards Is Live." By 1956, when she began her celebrated association with the Empire Room of the Waldorf-Astoria, audiences beheld a fire-and-ice beauty whose every flutter of the eye was calculated and utterly spellbinding. The lullaby quality of her voice in the 40's had turned into an animal ferocity, so stylized that most listeners never noticed the musicianship underneath.

Today, she brushes off her famous mystique: "People kept saying, 'There's so much mystery about her. What is she thinking? And she's so sexy.' And I wasn't. I just didn't like them. So I had this kind of grand attitude, which went very well in the nightclubs." All the while, she knew that she had traded her blackness for a career as a sex object for affluent whites -- one reason she resented the constant fawning over her looks. Charlie Cochran, a saloon singer and pianist and a friend of her daughter, Gail, remembers, "If Lena sensed that you were in the least bit in awe of her, she'd freeze you right out."

Lena Horne can still freeze you right out, but she seemed to draw audiences closer in the early 70's, after she had lost Strayhorn and Hayton to cancer, her father to emphysema and her son to a kidney ailment. In 1976, she made perhaps her most expressive record, "Lena -- A New Album," a collection of ballads scored for strings by the Canadian arranger Robert Farnon. By 1981, when "The Lady and Her Music" opened, many thought Miss Horne was baring her soul on stage for the first time.

But after three years, eight performances a week had taken their toll on the singer, who was 67. Once the show closed, she had to have a pacemaker implanted. "I fought it," she says. "I hated the idea of something . . . not me being inside me. Then I went into one of those pits I go into. I didn't want to do anything, I didn't want to see anybody, I just wanted to stay home and read a book."

Just because she has made a new record does not mean she is making a comeback. So far she has resisted the pressure to tour, to do Carnegie Hall or to return to Broadway. Recently, though, she sang in Florida with the Palm Beach Pops, mainly to see if she could recapture the joy she felt at Avery Fisher Hall last year. "They really didn't react as a New York audience would," she says, smiling. "But I think that out of New York, you know, nothing is happening."

Even so, Manhattan has grown a little bleaker for her. Last summer, she lost her hairdresser, who died of AIDS, and the wardrobe mistress from "The Lady and Her Music." "We were very close," she says. "As close as I allow myself to be."

Miss Horne reaches for her coat and slowly rises from the sofa. "When they hear this album," she murmurs, "I wonder if they'll say, 'Why would an old broad like that be singing with passion?' But of course, they don't know that people will always have passion and romance inside them. We don't become empty shells just because we're older."

Then, almost as an afterthought: "I had a very interesting life, really. It's not all music. But it comes out in the music."