On The Set With Lena Horne

There are some days you just can’t forget. On March 13, 1993, I was given the opportunity to watch Lena Horne film her introductions for That’s Entertainment! III and interview her for Entertainment Tonight. The setting was the recording stage where Horne and all the MGM stars and musicians worked during the “golden age.” (Never mind that it was now the Sony Pictures lot; the stage itself hadn’t changed a bit.) The fabled hairdresser to the stars, Sydney Guilaroff, had come out of retirement to take care of Ms. Horne that day, and Roddy McDowall was there with his camera to take pictures of the historic happenings.

Some fifty years earlier MGM featured Lena Horne in the all-black musical Cabin in the Sky, with Ethel Waters and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and made her a star…but didn’t know what to do for an encore. In the white world of the 1940s—

—there was no place for a glamorous, sexy black woman, so the studio featured her in stand-alone musical numbers in such films as Broadway Rhythm, Ziegfeld Follies, and Words and Music that showcased her charisma and sensational voice but had no connection the plot. That way, theater owners in the South could excise the numbers, if they chose to, without affecting the films. Horne had star quality to burn and earned a home at MGM, where there were “more stars than there are in the heavens,” but they never quite knew what to do with her.

When the crew broke for lunch, I had a chance to sit down with the star to conduct a brief interview. We hit it off right away and she couldn’t have been more gracious. I asked her if she felt uneasy coming back to MGM after so many years, and she replied, “I would had felt stranger than I did, but Sydney—who’s my friend for many years, and used to do our hair—I called him before I came out here. I said, ‘Would you come to MGM with me?’ He said yes, so already I was pacified, and the set itself—the soundstage—was very familiar. And I liked my director and the crew, so I don’t pay attention to anybody else but them, and I felt good. I didn’t feel like I had returned home…but it was a working element I can deal with. It’s the security I always felt with musicians; as long as I hear that good sound, then I don’t worry. It’s when I’m with amateurs that I get nervous. I worked with a lot of great musicians, besides my husband.”

I then asked if she and her husband, longtime musical director, Lennie Hayton had met at MGM. “Yes. We were doing Thousands Cheer with Vincente Minnelli, whom I had known from New York. I saw [Lennie] around the set for about a year and disliked him intensely. He disliked me because everybody came and said, ‘You’ve got to go hear this girl…’ and ‘she’s great,’ and he says, ‘Nobody can be that great.’ Besides, he didn’t like vocalists anyway—no musician does—but when we finally faced each other, we hit it off. It was very good for me because he made me stretch. You know who really was great? Kay Thompson [MGM’s legendary vocal coach]. Kay said, ‘Well now, we have to do what we can with what you’ve got.’ Which is great. You know, you get tired of people saying, ‘Well, she’s cute and has a little voice but she can’t…’ Kay said, ‘You’ve got something, we’ve got to work with that.’ And she did it.”

Did she view MGM the same way other up-and-comers did, as a kind of university? “It was a training [ground] for me, it was, and I worked with the best. I didn’t do any acting, but I had the best vocal help and best orchestrations.”

One of the people she bonded with at Metro was Ava Gardner. “She was younger than I was, of course, but we hit it off ‘cause she was what I call a really reconstructed Southerner. I mean, she was born good, and we understood everything. And she had problems, too; that was nice for me to find that other woman did have the same problems I did.”

I wondered if her memories of her time at MGM were bittersweet; she said they were. “They didn’t know what to do with me. I had a very feisty, marvelous father, and he came with me to meet Mr. [Louis B.] Mayer, and he said, ‘You know, I can hire a maid for my daughter, I don’t want her playing somebody’s maid out here.’ Finally I said I was so unhappy to someone and they called Hattie McDaniel and came back to me and said, ‘You call this number.’ And I called and I heard her voice. She said, ‘Would you mind coming and having tea with me?’ ” Her subsequent meeting with McDaniel, the first black actress to win an Academy Award, and Hollywood’s indelible Mammy, made a lasting impression on young Lena.

“I went to her house, which was absolutely beautiful, beautifully furnished, and the tea was a real English tea with tiny sandwiches and tiny cakes. She said, ‘You know, I have had to wear two hats all my life. The bandana that I wear for making my money and taking care of my family, and here you see me in my hat which is my home and the niceties of life that I like and have, and I want you to not to let them make you unhappy.’ Here was this great genius lady who was untapped still, even though she got the Oscar… I mean, I was ready to go home every month back to New York [to] work in some cabaret, but she made it bearable. I was lucky to have these strong friends.”

“I had a great support group. I had been in the Cotton Club and in Café Society and I was used to ‘feeling’ live folk [in the audience], so I was very realistic about the movies. I said, ‘Listen, I’ll go back on the stage.’ But meanwhile, I had this name made for me by one movie [Cabin in the Sky], and the other movies that came.”

I asked her what she thought young people could learn from her experience. “The thing that I think is important is that they should know a great deal more about their history than they feel they should. Because when the time comes…a slap can come to you, but if you know what had come before and how people dealt with it, it strengthens you. I was strong because I knew what my grandmother had gone through, and my father and my grandfather. My work ethic has always been: work, know the lines, know where you’re going to stand, and trust the pros that are behind you. If the hairdresser is great, I don’t worry about the hair. And if my costume designer is brilliant I don’t worry about the way I look. All I worry about is getting that stuff across to the audience.”

Although Horne’s time in Hollywood was a source of frustration to her, it did propel her beyond the New York cabaret scene and make her a bona fide star. She built on that foundation to forge a great career in the recording field, in nightclubs, on Broadway and television for decades to come. She even returned to Hollywood in 1969 to play a leading role opposite Richard Widmark in a (forgettable) western called Death of a Gunfighter…but at least she came back a star, on her own terms. Similarly, when she appeared in the 1978 musical The Wiz, as Glinda the Good, her mere presence was treated as an Event.

(She propagated a story that MGM considered her for the role of Julie in the 1951 Show Boat that went to her friend Ava Gardner. This flustered the film’s director, George Sidney, who knew it had no basis in truth—even though Horne got to sing the part in the 1946 Jerome Kern musical biopic Till the Clouds Roll By. Although Julie is a character of mixed blood, the fact remains that in 1951, America would not have accepted a black woman having a romantic relationship with a white man on screen—and MGM wouldn’t have dared to cross that line.)

Three great singers–Peggy Lee, Vic Damone, and Lena Horne–on a 1978 CBS special saluting Richard Rodgers. We didn’t realize how lucky we were to see such extraordinary talents on TV in those days.

In some latter-day interviews Horne sounded bitter or scornful toward various Hollywood colleagues and even Lennie Hayton, but the day we sat down to chat she even found forgiving words for her costar in Stormy Weather, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, admitting he didn’t treat women terribly well but remained a brilliant talent.

Lena Horne went through so much in her long and eventful life that it isn’t difficult to understand that her outlook changed at different junctures. Who could possibly imagine the conflicting emotions she felt? But she survived, and prevailed. The day I met her she was in great good spirits, and why not? She was being treated royally…and loving it.

This just in: on Friday, May 21, Turner Classic Movies will honor Lena Horne during prime-time, with showings of three films: The Duke is Tops (1938), Cabin in the Sky (1943), Panama Hattie (1942), and a film with John Garfield that was one of her favorites, The Fallen Sparrow (1943).

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