Signed to a contract by MGM in 1942, stunning singer/actress Lena Horne was the first black performer to be given the full glamour girl star-making treatment. But as the years went on and her studio failed to make much use of her, Horne started feeling like a token — and she wasn’t just being paranoid. A tireless USO performer during World War II, Horne and MGM were deluged with fan mail from African-American soldiers, an outpouring of support which still didn’t change the fundamentally racist institutional attitudes holding Horne back. We’ll trace her journey from the stage of The Cotton Club to the Hollywood Hills; her two marriages and her relationships with Vincente Minnelli, Orson Welles and Ava Gardner; her triumphs and disappointments on screen and off throughout the war era; the final insult which soured LenaHorne on Hollywood for good, and her remarkable late-in-life comeback.
Before even listening to this episode, you might have noticed that there’s something a little different about it: it’s loooonnnng. This is not because I’ve suddenly fallen in love with the sound of my voice; it’s because I’ve fallen in love with the sound of LenaHorne’s voice. In the middle of my research for this episode, I discovered this public radio interview with Horne originally broadcast in 1966 and distributed by the Black Media Archive, and I thought it was so great that I immediately devoted the next couple of days to listening to all of the LenaHorne interview audio I could find. The episode is long because I included Lena’s version of her own story whenever possible, whether spoken or sung.
There are several excerpts in this episode from the autobiographical stage show Lena mounted in the early 1980s, “LenaHorne: The Lady and Her Music.” Some of these excerpts come from a television version of the show that’s been posted on YouTube; others are from the official soundtrack album.
Other audio-video sources used in this episode, not including music:
Other sources include Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne by James Gavin; Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood by Donald Bogle; A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli by Mark Griffin; and the book that got me started on the idea of including an episode on Lena into our Star Wars series, Dance Floor Democracy: The Social Geography of Memory at the Hollywood Canteen by Sherrie Tucker.
Stormy Weather instrumental, from a compilation called “Relaxing Jazz Instrumental 1940s Music”
Passing Fields by Quantum Jazz
Money by Jahzzar
Dances and Dames by Kevin MacLeod
Make a Wish (For Christmas) by Lee Rosevere
Laserdisc by Chris Zabriskie
I Knew a Guy by Kevin MacLeod
Stormy Weather part 1, performed by LenaHorne in “LenaHorne: The Lady and Her Music”
Derelict by Beck
Main Stem performed by US Army Blues
Dagger by Slowdive
Gnossiennes No. 1 by Eric Satie
Can’t Stop Loving Dat Man performed by LenaHorne in ’Til The Clouds Roll By
There’s Probably No Time by Chris Zabriskie
Stormy Weather part 2, performed by LenaHorne in “LenaHorne: The Lady and Her Music”