Lena Horne Was a Friend to the Press
"She made remarkable revelations," biographer says.
The late CBS correspondent Ed Bradley was fond of saying, "When I get to the pearly gates and St. Peter asks what have I done to gain entry, I'll say, `Have you seen my Lena Horne interview?' "
In that classic 1981 piece for "60 Minutes" [video], "he got the legendary performer to candidly discuss topics she had never broached in public: race, sex and the cost of being black in Hollywood. At one point, she even reached out to take his hand," David Zurawik recalled in the Baltimore Sun after Bradley died in 2006.
It takes nothing away from Bradley's interviewing skills to say that Horne, who died Sunday night at 92, was a friend to reporters.
"She was very accessible to the press from the very beginning of her career," said James Gavin, author of "Stormy Weather: the Life of Lena Horne," published last year.
In fact, "she very often had an easier time telling the truth to strangers than she did to friends," Gavin told Journal-isms on Monday.
"When I interviewed her at 30 in the spring of 1994, she didn't know me. She knew that I cared about her and cared about her career. She gave me one of the best interviews she ever gave anybody. We talked for over two hours. It became the kernel of the book that I did 10 years later.
"She did hundreds of radio and print interviews. She made remarkable revelations that made my book possible," he said.
"Something always came out. She wasn't always presenting the politically correct, image-conscious Lena Horne." Many of the revelations concerned her treatment by the MGM studios. But she also talked about racism, such as the time in the late 1940s when she was told she could not address the white host of a radio show by his first name. Horne blasted the racism of the broadcast industry in an interview with Nate Gross of the New York Daily News.
Cooperating with the press was part of the job, Horne told younger entertainers, such as the veteran singer-songwriters Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson.
"Lena Horne once told us, 'When you don't want to do your part of the job, stay home,' " Simpson recalled for Journal-isms last year. " 'So if you don't want to give them what they need to do their job - 'cause this is part of your job, it's show business - then you stay home. If you don't want to be pleasant about it, and get that part of the job done, then there's no reason to be there.' "
In the 1940s, according to Gavin's book, the white press called Horne "sepian songstress," "beauteous bronze" and "chocolate cream chanteuse."
In the black press, Horne was additionally a figure of pride. She was "a glamor queen, a sex symbol, a champion for Black rights" who was "far too beautiful, far too talented, far too irrepressible to be overlooked," as Ebony magazine described her.
The magazine introduced a May 1980 cover story on Horne with a boast about the access she gave the publication: "A rather shy, exceedingly private person off-stage, Lena has a longstanding rule against admitting the press to her home. But, remembering her more than 30-year relationship with EBONY (This marks her 10th appearance on EBONY's cover), she made an exception and invited EBONY Managing Editor Hans J. Massaquoi and Staff Photographer Moneta Sleet Jr. to visit her at her Santa Barbara, Calif., hideaway."
Horne wasn't just written about in the press, she was a part of it, writing an opinion column for the People's Voice, which was published from 1942 to 1948 and
was founded by Harlem politician Adam Clayton Powell, a congressman for 26 years.
"In one essay, she berated the entertainment industry for continuing to depict Negroes as 'silly, simple, shuffling types, laughing, dancing and bowing their way through life. A great section of White America laughs at these characterizations, and accepts them as normal and true to life . . . When will our entertainment be truly American in its scope and democratic in its treatment of Negroes and other persecuted peoples?' " Gavin wrote in his book.
The first AP news alert about Horne's death moved at 1:17 a.m. Eastern time on Monday: "Singer Lena Horne, who broke racial barriers as a Hollywood and Broadway star, has died."
Unlike with the death of civil rights leader Dorothy I. Height, who died April 20 at age 98 after a hospital stay, and whose death also was announced in the early hours, this time nearly all news organizations seemed prepared. (The New York Times had no obit ready when Height died.)
The Washington Post, for example, ran an AP photo gallery on Horne.
A later AP lead, by Verena Dobnik: "Lena Horne, the enchanting jazz singer and actress who reviled the bigotry that allowed her to entertain white audiences but not socialize with them, slowing her rise to Broadway superstardom, has died. She was 92."
Essence.com headlined, "Revolutionary Beauty Lena Horne Dies at Age 92."
The New York Times' Aljean Harmetz wrote, "Lena Horne, who was the first black performer to be signed to a long-term contract by a major Hollywood studio and who went on to achieve international fame as a singer, died on Sunday night . . . "
The Los Angeles Times' Dennis McLellan began, "Lena Horne, the silky-voiced singing legend who shattered Hollywood stereotypes of African Americans on screen in the 1940s as a symbol of glamour whose signature song was 'Stormy Weather,' died Sunday . . . "
"She was the pinup poster for thousands of black GIs in World War II and a fixture of the nightclub and cabaret scene of the 1940s," Joel Dreyfuss began on theRoot.com. "Lena Horne, a beautiful daughter of Brooklyn, whose career was limited by the apartheid of her time, died Sunday at age 92."
-- Mary C. Curtis, Politics Daily: Lena Horne's Cool Beauty Masked Fire; Dad Would Know
-- Karu F. Daniels, AOL Black Voices: Lena Horne, One of the Greatest and Most Versatile Performers, Dies at 92