In the 1940s, the press bestowed several condescending sobriquets on Lena Horne: "sepian songstress," "beauteous bronze," "Chocolate Cream Chanteuse." She was introduced to nightclub audiences as "Miss Lena Horne." At age 34 in 1952, Horne referred to herself as a "dried-up old broad," a term she would use for the next five decades before retreating from public life in 2000.
A victim of racism, an idolized singer, a performer who swung violently between self-abnegation and towering self-regard: all describe Horne, now 92, brought to vivid life by even-handed biographer James Gavin.
Refreshingly, Gavin forgoes armchair psychology about Horne's past — her beloved, gambling father left when she was a toddler; her mother, a frustrated actor, was pathologically envious of her daughter's career — when discussing the "tangled web of victimhood" that Horne often spun for herself. Certainly, Horne had much to be enraged about. She endured hateful Jim Crow laws while traveling as a singer; MGM, the studio for which she made Cabin in the Sky (1943), had no idea what to do with her, offering one of her dream roles, the biracial Julie in Show Boat, to Horne's lily-white, nonsinging pal Ava Gardner.
Yet sometimes, Horne simply manufactured injustices. The left-leaning performer would claim that the blacklist had kept her off television for seven years, even though "by the mid '50s Horne had done a considerable amount of TV." That hurt, frustration and rage were channeled into what Gavin deems Horne's true metier: her nightclub act, where "her diction was sharp as a scalpel." The chilly ferocity of Horne's performances seems to have been fueled by hate. She called nightclubs "toilets" and said of her adoring audiences, "I just didn't like them, really."
When Mike Douglas praised Horne for her beauty on his talk show in 1968, the singer shot back, "I'm like that portrait of Dorian Gray. You know how lovely it was outside? You should see what's goin' on in here!" Gavin illuminates both the outside and inside of his legendary subject.