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Horne of Plenty

Lena Horne, New York 1994

If Stormy Weather, James Gavin’s finely crafted biography of Lena Horne, doesn’t already hold a place of honor in your jazz library, now’s your chance to fill the gap with the paperback edition, published this month by Atria Books.

It may seem difficult to detect much similarity between Lena Horne and Gavin’s previous biographical subject, Chet Baker. Yes, both were startlingly beautiful (a claim Horne, unlike the ravaged Baker, could maintain until the onset, some years ago, of her fully-shuttered reclusion). More important, as Gavin so eloquently and candidly reveals, Horne was as much a tortured soul, as much a victim of self-condemnation and, ultimately, as much a disappointment to the immensity of her talent, as was Baker. Horne’s path from Greenwich Village’s Café Society to Hollywood at the height of MGM’s dream factory mystique, the world’s chicest night spots and, belatedly, Broadway superstardom, plus her late-to-the-movement yet fervent commitment to civil rights, paved the way for dozens of black entertainers. But Horne’s disgruntlement with so much of it – particularly what she justifiably perceived as MGM’s unwillingness to accept her as anything more than just a warbling objet d’art (one that could be easily excised when the films screened below the Mason-Dixon Line), and the well-heeled whiteness of the audiences that filled her club dates – boiled into lifelong bitterness and distrust. She was an absentee mother, a fickle friend (except to the one true love of her life, Billy Strayhorn, whom she openly admitted would have made the ideal spouse, if it weren’t for his sexual orientation), an apathetic lover and wife, and a fierce holder of grudges. Perhaps most startlingly, she was a richly gifted singer who considered her voice pedestrian (at least until her transition from cocktail party tunes to grittier fare in the late ’60s). Horne devotees will surely expect a glittering homage to their high priestess of icy sophistication. Instead, Gavin has the guts to reveal the scars and blemishes that Horne, like Dorian Gray, hoped would remain forever hidden behind a beautifully fabricated façade.

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