LENA HORNE: THE LADY AND HER MUSIC
If she had had her way, says Lena Horne, she probably would have been a schoolteacher, telling children about the three Rs. Lucky children! Fortunate parents! Celestial meetings of the P.T.A.! But with all due respect to the nation's teachers, one must add that it is truly the impossible dream. On opening night last week it was hard to imagine the lady anywhere else than on the stage of Broadway's Nederlander Theater, where she was doing what she was obviously born to do: singing, strutting and enchanting audiences.
The show, which will run through the summer and then go on to San Francisco and London, displays Horne in all her moodsall 10,000 of them.
She is cool and she is hot, sultry and cerebral, soft and brassy loud enough to wake the folks in New Jersey. She does her standards, like Can't Help Loving Dat Man of Mine, and successfully essays a few that are not attached to her name, like The Surrey with the Fringe on Top. When she begins Rodgers and Hart's Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, a premonitory shudder passes through the theater. She does not disappoint, and the words"I'm a rich, ripe, ready plum again"are not sung but caressed, as if they were old friends, which they clearly are. Sixty-four next month, Horne has not only been around, she has been all around for a long, long time.
Her career provides a capsule history of the black experience in show business. Her mother was an actress who always wanted to be what Lena is now, glamorous and successful, and her father was a gambler and numbers runner. The first five years of her life she spent mostly with her grandparents in Brooklyn, where she was born; after that she was boarded out with families in the South while her mother toured with acting companies. The acting did not bring in much money, however, and when she was 16, Lena became the wage earner, dancing and singing in the chorus of Harlem's famous Cotton Club. It was not a happy time. Working conditions backstage were terrible, pay was bad, and when Lena's white stepfather tried to get her a bigger role, the club's white owners beat him up and pushed his head into a toilet bowl. After joining another band, she recalls, "I literally ran away and married the first man I met."
The marriage produced two children, a boy and a girl, and then ended. Horne found her real happiness at the old Café Society Downtown in Greenwich Village, at that time "the one place in New York that had a mixed audience." With other performers, like Billy Daniels, Billie Holiday and Paul Robeson, she found the family life she had always wanted. Robeson was both father and teacher, and after the show was over, the two of them would often talk until dawn. "He'd tell me about black people, about my people, my grandmother," she says. "He was supplying all the things I had missed when I was living with strangers."