From the estate of Lena Horne
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    Auction Finds

    Fan away those lost years, Lena Horne

    Nobody wanted the Lena Horne fan, my auction buddy Janet told me. She had pointed out the fan early on, lying on top of a tray of stuff under a table at the auction house.

    I had walked right past it. Don’t know how I missed it, because I’m always on the lookout for anything with an African American theme. But there it was: a black church-like fan with Lena Horne’s name written in orange across the front.

    It was a mystery to me that no other auction-goer was willing to bid on the fan. Most times, Janet and I are in a virtual fight with certain bidders over black memorabilia, to the point that we’re ready to strangle them. We’re fighting to take our history home to be preserved; they only want it to sell. Either those bidders were not at this auction or they didn’t think the fan was worth their trouble.

    Janet only paid about a buck for it. It seemed the right thing to do.

    I saw the snubbing of the fan as pretty indicative of Horne’s early life in Hollywood. When she should have been a starlet like Heddy Lamar and Ava Gardner, she was given one-shot singing roles that could be cut out of white films when they showed in the South.

    She and Dorothy Dandridge – women whose beauty and talent equaled those of white actresses – were pariahs during those years of the 1940s and 1950s. While Dandridge seemed to internalize the pain, Horne seemed to contain it in a box to the side. Unlike Dandridge, who died of an accidental drug overdose in 1955, Horne lived to see her life exonerated. She became a star through her later non-Hollywood years and up until her death on Mother’s Day last week at age 92.

    Bill Cosby gave tribute to her last night on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” noting out loud that you can’t give back the years that were stolen from her because of the racism. He said it several times, as if he were speaking for not only her but for all of us – for both then and now. Horne was a principled woman who refused to take parts as maids or servants, and made her mark with her music and her involvement in the civil rights movement.

    She also made an impression on boys like Cosby, who remembered her up there on the screen. He told of going across the street from the projects where he lived in Philadelphia to a movie theater to drool over Horne. Her name was on the marquee, he said, but he had to sit through the whole movie before she came out to sing one song and then disappear. Except for the song, she spoke not a word. (“I became a butterfly pinned to a column singing away in Movieland,” she said in her autobiography “Lena.”)

    That was her life at MGM, the studio that signed her. She was never featured in a leading role in a white movie (she did black-cast movies like “Cabin in the Sky” and “Stormy Weather,” both in 1943) because she was black. She sang solo musical numbers so she could be easily cut out of films when they were shown to audiences in southern states (like mine – Georgia – and Horne’s for a while when she lived as a child in Macon, Fort Valley and Atlanta in the 1920s).

    Horne was a guest as herself on “The Cosby Show” in 1985, and he brought along a clip to Leno’s show to demonstrate how grown men acted around the beautiful star: Stricken. Taken. Goo-goo eyed. It was a lovely and loving tribute.

    I saw Horne in her one-woman show “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music” in the early 1980s, and joked about her Hollywood years without bitterness or rancor. In one instance, she recalled being passed over for the role of the mulatto Julie in the 1951 film version of “Showboat.” Instead, the studios took the “Light Egyptian” makeup that Max Factor had been commissioned to make to darken her skin (for the 1942 movie “Panama Hattie”) and put it on her friend Ava Gardner to darken her for the role.

    This is how Horne recounted it in “The Lady and Her Music”:

    “They said to Max Factor, “Look at this woman. Look at her. Create a makeup to make her look more colored.” That’s a little something we used to call each other before we got straight.

    He said, “Okay.” Okay, they’ll do anything. And he went away, come back about two weeks later with a makeup they created for me. Named it Light Egyptian. Took this Light Egyptian and put it all over Ava Gardner. So I’m gonna tell you, I felt bad for a while. About 12 years.”

    Rest well, Lena. You never got what you deserved from Hollywood, but we adored you.

    By the way, TCM will be showing three of Horne’s early movies this Friday night:

    The Duke is Tops (1938), at 8 p.m. This was Horne’s first movie, when she was 20 years old. Top billing went to Ralph Cooper, host of Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. The movie was later renamed and re-released in 1943 as “The Bronze Venus,” and Horne got top billing.

    Cabin in the Sky (1943), 9:30 p.m. A classic among early African American-themed movies by a major Hollywood studio. It was one of her first acting roles at MGM.

    Panama Hattie (1942), 11:15 p.m. This was her first MGM movie, in which she sang  one song, Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things,” in a club.

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    2 Comments

    1. Great website. I’m glad I found this info.

      • Thank you. I thoroughly enjoy learning and writing about my finds. Pls continue to read the blog and pass along the link to everyone you know.

        Sherry

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