Happy Birthday, Lena

blues walked in 2Kathleen George, author of The Blues Walked In and The Johnstown Girls, shares an essay on the eve of Lena Horne’s 101st birthday.

Lena Horne would have been a hundred last June 30th. Coming soon is her next birthday. The US post office issued a stamp this year and it shows a wildly vital woman of years singing her heart out. Her beauty was legendary; her smile was infectious. And her wit—as anyone who has listened to her “dialogues” on the recording of her 1981 concert in New York—was sometimes scalding.

I’ve listened to the CD of that concert a thousand times, sung along with her, and laughed at the stories she tells. I heard what I understood to be anger fueling her wit. And why not? To be adored, worshipped, called spectacularly beautiful and also, at the same time, have suffered the indignities of not be admitted to restaurants, clubs, hotels—would that not inflame anger?

In this month in which we remember the special magic of Robert F. Kennedy, we might note that he chose Lena, among others, that he invited her to talk with him, to consult about racism and what could be done in the country. It was one of the markers of her stepping out of herself to become active.

Lena’s early singing was marked by a precision rhythmically and tonally but also by a polite and perfect mid-Atlantic diction. She preserved some of that sound for certain songs up till the end. But she learned new tricks of performance along the way. She could drop that crispness and belt out a song. She could slide on a note, drop her g’s and get earthy. Call it show business—knowing what audiences would eat up. I call it becoming fully herself with all its contradictions.

What a personal history she participated in, meeting and partying with everyone who was famous in the almost-century of her life. And yet, here is an incident that eventually helped make her the activist she finally became. There are slightly different versions of it, but here at the basics:

She was participating in the USO tours. For a while she felt good about it. She visited camps down south and made a lot of soldiers happy. The black soldiers were allowed to put her photo in their lockers. She thought she was doing something good. But when she got to Little Rock, she felt something negative right away. The military personnel were not friendly to her. The night she performed she found herself singing to a sea of white faces. “Where are the Negro soldiers?” she asked an officer. “ Oh,” she was told, “we don’t allow them in the hall.” Furious, holding her ground, she said, “Where will they be tomorrow morning?” “Eating breakfast, in the mess,” was the sarcastic answer. But she had grit. “Then set me up there. I want to sing to them.”

But when she got to the mess hall the next morning and saw some chairs set up, she saw the black soldiers standing in back (and cheering her of course), but more white men trooped in and took the chairs. “Who are these men?” she asked. The answer was “German prisoners of war.”

I imagine the Germans loved her too. But that’s not the point. She was there to lift the spirits of the black boys who were even while serving their country treated as far lesser than anyone with white skin.

She organized her own tours for a while after that.

And lived hard and had joy. And chickened out of conflicts and was afraid. And overcame fear. And also suffered a great number of personal losses over the years.

And sang about it. Feelings. All kinds.


GeorgeKathleenKathleen George teaches theatre at the University of Pittsburgh and is a writer, most recently of The Blues Walked In.


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