This is February and Black History Month is half done, but there are so many stories and facts to uncover about African Americans and our history. It has been five years and over 24 days since United States voted into office our first black President Barack Obama, 47 years since the United States’ landmark Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia ruled that state bans on interracial marriage were unconstitutional in 1967. And featured prominently in this month’s Vanity Fair Magazine 20th annual celebratory spread on Oscar nominees is dark hued Lupita Nyong’o a Yale Drama school trained beautiful woman of Kenyan heritage flanked by four other individuals of African descent. Lena Horne, the first African American actress to be signed to a major motion picture company in 1942. In October 1944 she broke another barrier by being the first African American to appear on the cover of Motion Picture Magazine. Author and journalist James Gavin’s 2009 book told us one year before Ms. Horne’s death there were many, many internal and politicized race based barriers she would topple in her extraordinary 92 years of life.
Gavin and I will be speaking about his book Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne, Atria Books a division of Simon Schuster on Sunday February 16th at 1PM as part of the Black History Month Speakers Series at St. Philip’s Episcopal church in Harlem. Gavin is presently working on his next book on the life of Peggy Lee, an iconic Jazz singer (1920-2002), so we talked via the internet for this interview. 44….. I
I asked the author if he believed there:
Tod Roulette: … is something uniquely American about the career of Lena Horne and her personal life?
James Gavin: Oh, yes! Lena rode the waves of American social history and change, era after era, starting in her teens. She was born into the black bourgeoisie, as it was called back then. From there she was plunged into the racist South of the ‘20s. Then, Harlem in the ‘30s, with all its joys and pains. The Golden Age of Hollywood, with its racist underbelly. Progressive politics of the 1940s. The blacklist. The heyday of international supper clubs. The civil rights movement in the ‘50s and ‘60s, its aftermath in the ‘70s. She lived a great American saga.”
TR: What are your hopes that people who are not African American will learn about Ms. Horne’s story by reading this critically well received book?
JG: Well, many things. No one who hasn’t walked a mile in those shoes can ever understand how hard it was in Lena’s day – and frequently still is – to be a black person. To leave your house every day and to suffer some blow or many blows to your confidence, to your sense of worth, because of the ugliness of bigotry. I don’t know how many more generations it will take before people stop hating others whom they perceive as different. Many white and black people look at Lena and see an apparently privileged goddess of Hollywood who, by most appearances, didn’t suffer much. No doubt, Lena was blessed in unusual ways. But Lena paid big emotional prices for her gifts. She said this about her career: ‘I never had time to enjoy this damned thing. It was always a struggle. A fight.’ And look how many people she empowered.’
I didn’t know if Gavin had ever actually met Lena Horne so I ventured the question and what a great story he had. I am envious of the time he recalls alone with the woman whose celebrity was set aside as he interviewed her for the New York Times Arts and Leisure section in 1994.
TR: Did you ever meet Ms. Horne?
JG: I wrote about it in the introduction of my book says Gavin. Her ‘comeback’ CD on Blue Note, We’ll Be Together Again, was about to be released. Imagine – just me and her, alone in a New York hotel room for over two hours. I asked her every question I’d ever wanted to ask her. She really felt like talking, and she seemed to like me. She touched my heart deeply with her openness, her vulnerability, her obvious pain, and with the scars of her struggle. I got a sense that day that even though Lena had triumphed socially, triumphed artistically, and was one of the most beautiful and admired women in the world, she hadn’t known much happiness. The price for being Lena had been high. I wrote my 1,200-word article and moved on. Ten years later, I began to turn that extraordinary conversation into a book.
The book has been lauded by none other than society gossip columnist, Liz Smith who wrote: The Life of Lena Horne and anointed it as “Magnificent, gripping, marvelously written…(it) may just be one of the best biographies about show business, race, love, sex and music ever written.” This Black History Month do yourself a favor and purchase this book about the incomparable person of Helena Mary Calhoun Horne.
Tod appeared on the cover of Motion Pic Tod Roulette is an Arts and Culture writer for Harlem World Magazine, his first book titled, “Rowing Not Drifting – Bryant Women in Kansas, 1795-1908: The Expansion of the West and the Participation by Women of Color,” will be published this 2014 by Mammoth Publications.
The event is free to the public and begins promptly at 1PM. at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church is located at 204 West 134th Street New York, NY (located between Adam Clayton Powell Blvd., and Frederick Douglas Blvd.)
Photo credit: Author James Gavin with Jeffrey Brown of the News Hour.
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