|LENA HORNE TURNS 80|
JUNE 30, 1997
The NewsHour celebrates legendary singer Lena Horne's 80th birthday with a look at her life as an entertainer, a pathfinder and civil rights activitist. Kwame Holman provides a background report, then vocalist Nancy Wilson sings Horne's praises to Margaret Warner.
LENA HORNE: (singing) Fish gotta swim; birds gotta fly.
KWAME HOLMAN: Lena Horne has grown into a legend in the entertainment world over more than 60 years in it. A singer, a dancer, and actress, she's been called sultry, sophisticated, brazen and wise.
LENA HORNE: (singing) --can't help lovin' that man of mine.
KWAME HOLMAN: Horne got her start in the chorus line at Harlem's Cotton Club in 1933.
LENA HORNE: Lena had a lot to learn, I'm still learning, you know. At 80, I feel there is a lot I don't know.
KWAME HOLMAN: In 1942, Horne's father brought her to meet the head of MGM, Louis Mayer.
LENA HORNE: My father said I can get a maid for my daughter. I don't want her in the movies playing maids.
KWAME HOLMAN: She never did play the role of a maid. Still, her early roles were limited to one or two songs that could be excised easily for segregated Southern theaters.
LENA HORNE: (singing) It was just one of those nights, just one of those fabulous flights--
KWAME HOLMAN: She did play a key character in 20th Century Fox's "Stormy Weather" in which she sang a song that became a signature for her.
LENA HORNE: (singing) Don't know why there's no sun up in the sky. Stormy weather--
KWAME HOLMAN: In 1947, Horne married for the second time--to composer Lennie Hayton, a white man--and the two moved to Paris, where interracial marriages were more accepted. Like many others in Hollywood, Horne was blacklisted in the Communist Red scare of the 1950's, in part because of her friendship with actor and political activist Paul Robeson.
LENA HORNE: I just told them I belong to the same organizations and clubs Mrs. Roosevelt belongs to--but with a few brave exceptions, I was still unable to do films or television for the next seven years.
KWAME HOLMAN: During that time she played nightclubs and cabarets. In the 1960's, she joined the march on Washington, and she came to Mississippi to be with Medger Evers and to speak to the NAACP on what turned out to be the night Evers was fatally shot.
LENA HORNE: Nobody black or white who really believes in democracy can stand aside now; everybody's got to stand up and be counted.
KWAME HOLMAN: In 1981, she opened on Broadway with "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music," which later toured throughout the United States.
LENA HORNE : My identity is very clear to me now, I am a black woman, I'm not alone, I'm free. I no longer, I say I'm free because I no longer have to be a credit, I don't have to be a symbol to anybody; I don't have to be a first to anybody. I don't have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I'd become. I'm me, and I'm like nobody else.
KWAME HOLMAN: Horne has said she never sings when she's alone and doesn't even keep copies of her own records. And she claims she's nervous on stage. But that didn't show at last week's 80th birthday celebration at Lincoln Center's Avery Hall, where Horne was honored for a lifetime of musical and civic achievements.
LENA HORNE: (Singing) I'm going to love you like nobody loves you--but that ain't what I'm gonna sing--(cheers and applause)--Baby, I can't live to love you as long as I want to love you, as long as I promise you, Baby, I'm gonna love you as long as I live. (Applause and Cheers)
JIM LEHRER: On now to Margaret Warner.
MARGARET WARNER: For more about the legendary Lena Horne we're joined by a friend, singer Nancy Wilson, who recently released her 60th recording. Unfortunately, cabaret performer Bobby Short cannot be with us. Ms. Wilson, what made--what makes Lena Horne great?
NANCY WILSON, Singer: Oh, I'm not sure that I can tell you exactly what makes her great as far as the music is concerned. I think it's the total package. As I remember her as a young girl, I saw this beautiful woman, and I'd never seen anyone so beautiful. I watched this clip--this elegant, sophisticated woman--and I couldn't think of anything else I would rather be.
If I'm going to sing, this is what I want to aspire to be. I watched where she worked, and then I think as you look at the woman, she has grown more beautiful as the years have gone by. I admire and respect her heart, her soul, her spirituality. She has stood for all that is good in this country.
MARGARET WARNER: And I imagine you're referring to her work really as a pioneer racially in the entertainment industry. How significant of a figure is she in that regard?
NANCY WILSON: Well, I don't know that we would have been able to play Las Vegas, go into the front doors of hotels, without a Lena Horne and a Nat Cole. These things would not have happened and did not happen until they insisted. We weren't allowed to stay in the same hotels where we were able to work, so I came along just at the end of that. So I owe her this deep debt of gratitude for paving the way and allowing me to have a much easier time of it.
MARGARET WARNER: Has she ever talked to you about her Hollywood years? She has said that really the NAACP chose her to break the color barrier in Hollywood. It was 1942. Why then? Why Lena Horne?
NANCY WILSON: Well, Lena had it all. She had the patience to take a lot of crap, you know, and she was groomed to do that. I think her family was very supportive of it. So she was able to withstand a lot of the things that were going on. And when you look at this--like I say--she had the walk, the talk, the look. She was able to be everything that anybody white or black would have wanted to be.
MARGARET WARNER: But it must have been very painful at the same time.
NANCY WILSON: It had to be. I think she must have--I've listened to her talk about those years, especially in some clips, and it was very painful for her. And I think that the more recent years have been such a relief for her because she doesn't have to prove anything to anybody anymore. She--when she says she's free, I understand exactly what she means. I don't have to carry this cloak for an entire race anymore; I'm free to be Ms. Horne, and it doesn't get better than Lena Horne.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, when she--it was when she was blacklisted, as we just saw in that clip--but then she really put her full energy into being a cabaret singer. What makes--how is it different being a cabaret singer than say being a stage or film singer?
NANCY WILSON: Oh, you know, I think when I look at Lena, that is what I have always aspired to be; that is what I do. I think it's fantastic. There is nothing in the world like the communication that you have between your audience, and they feed you. I've watched her grow. I mean, the things that I get from her from a cabaret performance and when she went on Broadway, she was able to bring that cabaret feeling to a theater, which is something that I had not seen before. She has just grown emotionally. She was giving far more. I mean, it was for real. This was not about a camera. When she sang to you from a stage in a cabaret, she touched your heart.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, she has also said the early years--maybe up till she was in her 50's--that she had a certain kind of rage or anger, but she could never show it performing. Talk just a little bit about that. I mean, did you see it in her?
NANCY WILSON: No. That's why I say this woman not only is a great singer; she's a great actress. (laughing)
MARGARET WARNER: Whether she's in the movies or not.
NANCY WILSON: Whether she was in the movies or not, because she really had to--she just had to keep a lot of things in. She had to live a life in the public eye and not show any anger or--because we went through as a race of people--she, as I say, paved the way for me. I didn't go through anywhere near the kind of insults and things that Lena Horne did. And because she had--as I say--the patience and she was willing to do it, but she swallowed a lot of rage and a lot of anger to do it.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, she has also said that getting involved with the civil rights movement was a personal turning point for her. Can you understand that? Can you explain that to us?
NANCY WILSON: Well, I remember Selma. I remember someone asking me, why are you going to Selma, and I said that is where I have to be and why would I not be there. This is where the fight is being done, not just for me, but for my son and for my people. Consequently, I have no place else I'm supposed to be. I can fully understand that, but I felt the same way, marched, went a mile, wore out shoes, because this was where I was supposed to be, and I can identify with that. And once you--I mean, as I listened to her talk with Medger Evers and being there speaking, I can sense that and I get goose bumps today just thinking about it.
She was there, and she became so strong in the movement. Everybody thought this was this beautiful, sophisticated, elegant lady; but there was this fierce tiger, this lioness in this woman. And it came out, and she grew in stature inside herself. I mean, you could see how much she changed. She became so fulfilled and so complete. I have admired her forever, but I just watched her. As a young woman, I watched this beautiful woman grow and when I grow up, I mean, I want to be like Lena Horne. I think she is magnificent.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Nancy Wilson, thank you so much.
NANCY WILSON: My pleasure. Thank you.