'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Bad Little Red Girl 

Prometheus 6 said it best: I guess it's time to get over my childhood crush. From the Guardian:

A handful of decades ago the roles for black performers in Hollywood movies were deliberately kept peripheral to the plots, so that their appearances could easily be edited out for screenings in the American south. Black singers and musicians were barred from taking rooms in the same hotels in which they were performing. Partners in an interracial marriage might decide to leave the US and move to more hospitable locations, such as Paris, to avoid hate mail and threats. All this and more happened to the singer and actor Lena Horne, who has died aged 92.

Horne not only rose above it all, but also significantly contributed to changing the situation. The velvet-voiced, multi-talented Horne first negotiated, and then resisted, the worst that a racist entertainment industry could throw at her. She rose to its summit as an original creative artist and a free woman whose style, beauty, eloquence and independence made her a role model for millions.

Horne shared stages with Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Billy Eckstine, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and many other legends of American music during her long and varied career.

She became one of the first African Americans to cross the music-business colour divide and tour with an all-white band, singing for the successful Charlie Barnet swing orchestra in 1940 and sometimes sleeping in the band bus when hotels would not let her enter with her colleagues. She became a favourite pin-up among black servicemen, but would nonetheless refuse to perform on wartime tours in which black GIs were either excluded from the audience, or on occasion placed behind the German PoWs in the seating arrangements.

Indeed, it seemed that just about every aspect of her life was a provocation:

. . . She had been singing at the Manhattan nightclub Café Society when the impresario Felix Young chose her to star at the Trocadero, a nightclub he was planning to open in Hollywood in the fall of 1941. In 1990, Ms. Horne reminisced: My only friends were the group of New Yorkers who sort of stuck with their own group — like Vincente, Gene Kelly, Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen, and Richard Whorf — the sort of hip New Yorkers who allowed Paul Robeson and me in their houses.

Since blacks were not allowed to live in Hollywood, Felix Young, a white man, signed for the house as if he was going to rent it, Ms. Horne said. When the neighbors found out, Humphrey Bogart, who lived right across the street from me, raised hell with them for passing around a petition to get rid of me. Bogart, she said, sent word over to the house that if anybody bothered me, please let him know. . .

In 1945 the critic and screenwriter Frank Nugent wrote in Liberty magazine that Ms. Horne was “the nation’s top Negro entertainer.” In addition to her MGM salary of $1,000 a week, she was earning $1,500 for every radio appearance and $6,500 a week when she played nightclubs. She was also popular with servicemen, white and black, during World War II, appearing more than a dozen times on the Army radio program Command Performance.

The whole thing that made me a star was the war, Ms. Horne said in the 1990 interview. Of course the black guys couldn’t put Betty Grable’s picture in their footlockers. But they could put mine.

Touring Army camps for the U.S.O., Ms. Horne was outspoken in her criticism of the way black soldiers were treated. So the U.S.O. got mad, she recalled. And they said, ‘You’re not going to be allowed to go anyplace anymore under our auspices.’ So from then on I was labeled a bad little Red girl. . .

And in 1947, when Ms. Horne herself married a white man — the prominent arranger, conductor and pianist Lennie Hayton, who was for many years both her musical director and MGM’s — the marriage took place in France and was kept secret for three years.

And, there was this:

Horne's long-suppressed anger over the treatment of blacks in white society erupted in 1960 when she overheard a drunk white man at the Luau restaurant in Beverly Hills refer to her using a racial epithet.

Jumping up, she threw an ashtray, a table lamp and several glasses at him, cutting the man's forehead.

When reports of her outburst appeared in newspapers across the country, Horne was surprised at the positive response, mostly from African Americans.

Phone calls and telegrams came in from all over, she told the Christian Science Monitor in 1984. It was the first time it struck me that black people related to each other in bigger ways than I realized.

Not surprisingly, Horne was one of the strongest, most publicly visible voices for civil rights in the 1960s.

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