Horne of Plenty

updated 07/06/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/06/1998 01:00AM

Lena Horne reveres Billie Holiday, but this lady never had any use for the blues. "I am an emancipated woman who refuses to sing about some man walking out," says Horne, seated regally in her elegant, three-bedroom apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Through a long, troubled but ultimately triumphant career in which her anthem was "Stormy "Weather," Horne has always seemed un-sinkable, commanding audiences with that dazzling, haughty beauty and a tigress's voice that could swell from a come-hither purr to a you-ain't-seen-nothin'-yet roar.

And if Horne didn't sing the blues in the '40s and-'50s—when she was glorified as a breakthrough black star even as she was punished by prejudice—the great-grandmother, just turning 81, is not about to start singing them now. On her new jazz album, Being Myself, she swings with easy confidence. The voice has lost some of its luster, "but it doesn't bother me if I don't sound nice and pretty," says Horne.

She has surrendered very little else to time. The face, with its proud mouth and strong cheekbones, remains remarkable. Yes, the corneas of both eyes have been replaced, her heart is on its second pacemaker ("They wear out like last year's automobiles") and her legs were a bit shaky when she received an honorary degree in May from Yale. Even so, says Horne, "most days I feel like I'm in my 50s." In the words of her friend, actor-director Ossie Davis: "A man would have to be dead not to be impressed by Lena Horne."

The great-granddaughter of a freed slave, she was born June 30, 1917, into a proudly professional, middle-class family in Brooklyn, N.Y. Much of her childhood was spent with her paternal grandfather, Edwin Horne, cofounder of the United Colored Democracy, a lobbying group, and his wife, Cora, who enrolled Horne in the NAACP at age 2. "She was a role model to me," says Horne, whose ancestry also includes traces of French, Jewish, Iberian and Native American blood.

Her parents split up when she was 3. Teddy Horne, she says, was "a street man, elegant and beautiful" (his best friend worked for gangster Dutch Schultz). Her mother, Edna, who dreamed of the stage, occasionally dragged Lena down South while she performed in black tent shows. "She came at a bad time," says Horne, "to have what she wanted."

With a proper grandmother who wanted her to be a teacher and a mother who craved stardom, Horne "was always torn between social activism and the show biz thing," says her only surviving child, Gail Lumet Buckley (now a 60-year-old mother of two, wife of journalist Kevin Buckley and the former wife of film director Sidney Lumet). Edna won the first round: After Lena's grandmother died, Edna persuaded the 16-year-old to quit school and join the chorus at Harlem's famous Cotton Club, where the dancing and singing classes Lena had taken as a "proper little prig" unexpectedly paid off. But at age 19, touring with an all-black band and anxious to escape the ever-meddling Edna, she says, "I ran away and got married."

Her husband, Louis Jones, 28, a friend of her father's, brought his bride home to a well-connected family in Pittsburgh, where he became interested in politics and expected Horne to play housewife. "I hated it!" she says. "I didn't know how to boil water." She was thrilled by the birth of her daughter—"I wanted a family," says Horne—but she and Jones broke up in 1940, around the time their son Teddy was born.

Horne headed back to New York City, taking little Gail with her. (Jones insisted on keeping Teddy. That loss—and Teddy's death of kidney disease at age 30, leaving three children—are subjects Horne still finds too painful to discuss.) She began wowing audiences at a hot, integrated club, Cafe Society She recorded with bandleader Artie Shaw, had a fling with boxer Joe Louis and sat at the knee of an early civil rights giant, actor-singer Paul Robeson. "He taught me about my people," says Horne.

When Horne took her act to L.A. in the early '40s, New York's black elite, including Duke Ellington, urged her to put her talent up on the big screen to enhance the image of blacks. When she was offered a contract by Louis B. Mayer, her father took the opportunity to meet the MGM boss. "The only Negroes I ever see are menials or Tarzan extras," Teddy Horne told Mayer. "I don't see what the movies have to offer my daughter. I can hire a maid for her. Why should she act one?"

She didn't. With her sultry beauty swathed in studio glamour (although at least one MGM makeup artist at first refused to work on her), Horne established herself as a luminous presence in two all-black 1943 musicals: Stormy Weather, in which she sang the title song that became her signature number, and Cabin in the Sky. She was profiled simultaneously in TIME, LIFE and Newsweek and became a wartime pinup for both black and white soldiers. But what began as studio packaging turned into shrink-wrap. In films such as Thousands Cheer and Till the Clouds Roll By, she was the sole black, relegated to torch songs in isolated guest spots that could be easily snipped out for distribution in the South.

Life was even cruder off the lot, where whites not only reflected the bigotry of the day but too often acted on it. "Mexicans and blacks got beat up," says Horne, who considered Ava Gardner one of her few friends. Because California law forbade interracial marriage, Horne went to Paris in 1947 to wed her second husband, MGM conductor-arranger Lennie Hayton. "I learned to love him," says Horne, but she admits she was first drawn to him for the boost he could give to her career: His musical advice was impeccable, and he was white.

But neither fact was of much use in the postwar Red Scare. Horne, blacklisted in the early '50s because of her association with the left-leaning Robeson and others, was shut out of Hollywood (she ultimately made only 16 movies) and forced to perform abroad. By the mid-'50s, she returned to nightclubs, singing with a startling, sexy toughness that made her a Vegas sensation. "Lena had this rebelliousness," says comedian Alan King, who often opened for her, "a sassiness." More like a slow burn for her token status. "There were no blacks in the audiences," says Horne, who once insisted on entering through the front doors of the then-whites-only Sands Hotel. "I was singing about airy-fairy crap."

With the civil rights movement, Horne took her angry presence—and the social consciousness instilled by her grandmother—to the cause. "I'm not a soapboxer," she says, "but I didn't want to be left out." In 1963 she marched on Washington, D.C. with Martin Luther King, and she performed at a rally for Medgar Evers shortly before his assassination. "Lena would fight like hell for black people," says Ossie Davis.

But in the early '70s, Horne—already devastated by the 1967 death of the man she considered her soul-mate, Duke Ellington's arranger-composer Billy Strayhorn—was overwhelmed by personal tragedy. In a single 18-month period she endured the deaths of Hayton (although they separated in the '60s, she was at his deathbed), her father and her son, Teddy. She retreated from view. "Lena takes longer than most people to go through things," says a close friend, Kitty D'Alessio, president of the lingerie company Natori. "But never underestimate her strength."

Indeed, when the 63-year-old Horne, eventually goaded back into showbiz by Alan King, strode onto the stage of Broadway's Nederlander Theater in 1981 with Lena: The Lady and Her Music, audiences saw a recharged powerhouse. The one-woman show, which won raves and a Tony, was more than a comeback—it marked the arrival of a mature artist on the level of an Ella Fitzgerald. "Growing older," says Horne, "seemed to make me blossom."

She has gradually trimmed her career back from that high point, last performing live at a 1997 birthday tribute in New York, but plans to record at least one more album. Nowadays, although she keeps up with music ("I like rap if I can understand what they're saying"), Horne prefers to relax at home. She loves reading, from Balzac to detective novels, but nothing delights her more than her five grandchildren and great-grandson, Jacob, 3. "When her own children were growing up, she was working," says her friend D'Alessio. "Being able to watch little things that she may have missed in her own kids has been a great experience."

And a deservedly mellow conclusion to one of the most impressive sagas in show business. "Oh, I've had it all," says Horne, bursting into raucous laughter. "A great life!"

Tom Gliatto
Nancy Matsumoto in New York City

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