Well, she’s gone and, with her, truly, the end of an era. Somehow, subconsciously, I had always felt that when she goes, that’s pretty much it. You know, there’s always that one figure whose very presence here on earth, however attenuated, nevertheless made this world a richer, better, more privileged and enlightened place. The era I refer to as ending is that golden age of show business many of our parents were lucky enough to grow up in, and some of us were able to enjoy the final vestiges of, in the 1960s-80s. It was the era of elegance and an overwhelmingly variegated abundance of great performers, when men nattily wore suits, and women, devastatingly, gowns, and gloves, moving in the mesmerizing half-light of chic boites. Triumphantly aware of, and enabled by, the example of this flourishing theatical aristocracy, people, even civilians, were adult and carried themselves thusly, attempting to drink like Sinatra, smoke like Dietrich, quip like Coward, sing like Garland and, hopefully, approximate, in the way they led their lives, something approaching the ineffable, imperturbable (at least on the outside) magical poise and unswerving seriousness of Horne. Her birth sign was Cancer, with all the creativity and difficulty that entails, and, as a fellow Crab, she was a rare example of class and grace I could point with pride to (as opposed to George W. Bush, Nancy Reagan, Randy Jackson, Sylvester Stallone, Tom Cruise, Lindsay Lohan – God help us! – and other horrors too numerous to mention).
If nothing else, from an entire life and career conducted with indefatigable elegance, there was her voice -supple, celestially melodic and so, so sexy – probably the most sheerly lovely of them all. Her one-woman show on Broadway remains the greatest live performance I have ever seen.
Onscreen, she is at her most luminous and profitably utilized in Vincente Minnelli’s CABIN IN THE SKY (1943), where she is given the full MGM glamour treatment and takes it all in spectacular stride, being simply irresistible as a vamp sent by the devil himself to tempt poor Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. Minnelli loved her all his life and lavished care over her presentation here: witness the way she plucks that one gigantic, impossibly perfect magnolia blossom from a tree to wear it like a Lily Dache chapeau. Pure decorative Minnelli; pure sensually soignee Horne.
After that, moviegoers – and we of a later generation planted before our televisions – had to content themselves with those frustrating, single cameo appearances she made in MGM musicals which followed, made so she could easily be excised for racist exhibitors’ purposes. How many fitful hours of June Allyson, Gloria DeHaven and Kathryn Grayson one had to endure before that startling moment when a curtain would part and there SHE would be, dressed in some Grecian draped column by the brilliant Irene, impossibly goddess-like, but a breathing, moving, and ever so swinging goddess who would momentarily shake things up ferociously and singlehandedly justify Technicolor.
In one of those typical quandaries that beset New Yorkers every now and then, I had been invited to her birthday gala celebration at Roseland, which took place during the run of her show by my late friend, journalist Bob Weiner. As bad luck would have it, this coincided with my first (family-organized) trip to the Orient. Of course, I went to China, but I did gnash my teeth a bit non the Great Wall thinking of what I missed.
I did see Lena at one of her last big public appearances, her 80th birthday celebration at Avery Fisher Hall in 1998, where, after endless onstage tributes to her of highly varying quality, she finally appeared onstage, magically sang one song a capella which blew everything which had preceded her completely away, and had Liza Minnelli, at her neediest, desperately clinging around her neck like an Elsa Peretti pendant.
I admired Lena for the way she withheld her approval of Janet Jackson impersonating her in a biopic project after Jackson’s infamous wardrobe malfunction at the Superbowl. (It looks like Alicia Keys – a much better choice, and she can act which she proved in the too-little seen NANNY DIARIES – will now play her in this Oprah-produced venture.) Apart from the notoriously redoubtable Ethel Waters, her CABIN IN THE SKY co-star, all the dark divas worshipped her, like Eartha Kitt, who shortly preceded her in death, but told JET magazine, “I adore her. She does not know this, but when I was trying to figure out what I could do to be recognized, loved and wanted in show business, I saw her in STORMY WEATHER with Katherine Dunham. I saw her on the screen, a high-class sophisticated lady … She gave me the feeling that I would be OK, that there was a place for me in show business.”
Leslie Uggams, Horne’s close friend and sorority sister, is carrying the torch like no one else, with a show based on Lena that had a triumphant recent run in Los Angeles which she is trying like the duckens to bring to New York. Although I never previoiusly saw any real connection between the two, after catching Uggams at two recent Manhattan engagements, I cannot wait to see how she applies her agelessly magnificent voice and shimmeringly warm personality to this project, which I am sure she carries off stupendously.
In the current Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute exhibit, Lena has pride of place in the room devoted to screen legends, with a clip of her from STORMY WEATHER running on the
walls, along with Garbo, Dietrich, Hepburn, Shearer, Crawford and Hayworth.
Although I never knew her, my friend, Marle Becker, did, and here is his touching tribute:
By now you may have heard on the news or read in the paper or on the Internet, that singer/actress Lena Horne passed away yesterday at the age of 92.
I met Lena in 1981 during her amazing one-woman show on Broadway, ‘Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music.’ I was nothing more than a groupie who stopped by the stagedoor at the Nederlander Theatre one evening to get an autograph – and that meeting quickly turned into an amazing friendship of almost 30 years.
Lena has had a profound influence on me from the time I bought my very first LP, ‘Lena Horne at the Waldorf-Astoria’ in 1957. And who could have ever imagined that some 25 years later we would meet and begin one of the most amazing relationships ever! On a personal level, I can honestly say that Lena was a kind, caring, considerate and concerned friend while always remaining the most resilient, compassionate and deeply courageous person I’ve ever met and I feel blessed beyond measure to have enjoyed the pleasure of knowing her.
Although her death was not unexpected, it is still nevertheless a tremendous loss and while I am grateful for the time we shared, I will miss her terribly — particularly that electric smile and her wonderful sense of humor. But she has left me with dear friends that I treasure and met through her, most notably her lifelong friend, Edouard Plummer; her hairdresser, Phyllis Della; her stage manager, Joe Lorden; her press agent, Josh Ellis; and one of the men who produced her record-breaking one-woman show on Broadway, Fred Walker.
The world has lost a great talent and a wonderful human being and I am left with some wonderful memories and one less friend.”
see her singing “Moon River” here
with Tuskegee airmen during WWII, and Noel Parrish
here are more tributes from her friends that were sent to me from Marle Becker:
JOSH ELLIS WAS LENA’S PRESS AGENT ON HER LEGENDARY ONE-WOMAN BROADWAY SHOW IN 1981, ‘LENA HORNE: THE LADY AND HER MUSIC.” AFTER JOSH’S NOTE IS AN EMAIL FROM FRED WALKER, CO-PRODUCER OF THAT SHOW. AS YOU CAN SEE, LENA WAS VERY MUCH LOVED BY ALL WHO CAME IN CONTACT WITH HER AND THE THING WE ALL RECOGNIZE IS THAT LENA LEFT US WITH THE GREAT GIFT OF FRIENDSHIP – SOMETHING WE ALL VALUE. AND AS A GROUPIE INITIALLY, I WAS MORE THAN THRILLED TO BE ACCEPTED AS A PART OF HER EXTENDED ‘FAMILY’. AND I’LL TRY NOT TO BORE YOU WITH ANY MORE OF THIS, I PROMISE, BUT…..THERE ARE TOO MANY WONDERFUL STORIES ABOUT LENA, FROM THE PEOPLE WHO REALLY KNEW HER, NOT TO SHARE THEM WITH YOU. HOWEVER, I AM DEEPLY SADDENED THAT I AM STILL IN FLORIDA AND WILL NOT BE ABLE TO ATTEND HER FUNERAL ON FRIDAY. MARLE
Josh Ellis: “The news this morning of Lena Horne’s death hit me like a punch in the stomach. I got the news by reading condolence emails from friends. That’s because I check my emails in the morning before I watch or read the news. Working with Lena was my last truly happy experience in the theatre. There were other shows, other stars and other hits after Lena, but she was my favorite, along with Yul Brynner.
Through Lena I met my great friend Marle Becker and the wonderful Edouard Plummer. Through Lena my terrific working relationship with producer Fred Walker and hair designer Phyllis Della bloomed into lasting friendships. Lena brought Mike Martin and me even closer. And for the years Lena and I were together, I think and hope that she and I had a mutual admiration society going.
On stage Lena was magic. Backstage she was magic. In her dressing room she introduced me to Rosa Parks, Alberta Hunter, Harold Arlen and Marilyn Horne, just four of the endless list of the famous who had to come backstage to congratulate her after “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music.” Working with Lena was to watch 20th Century history come to life.”