Just saw the news that the incomparable Lena Horne died yesterday. She was 92. Born in Brooklyn, she joined the chorus at Harlem’s Cotton Club as a teenager. She made her Broadway debut in 1934 at age 17, but didn’t fully establish herself as a nightclub performer, recording artist, and film star until the early 1940s. Much of her early work required tricky negotiations with mainstream American racism: her numbers were sometimes dropped from films when they were shown in the south; when she married an MGM composer/arranger in 1947 they had to elope to Paris because interracial marriage was illegal in California. After making the leap from racially segregated audiences and venues to mainstream stardom, a trajectory complicated further by her being blacklisted from Hollywood film work during the McCarthy era, she participated in major civil rights protests, including the March on Washington. There’s a nice overview of the remainder of her career here.
Here are three of my favorite Lena Horne performances, two more obscure than the third. The first is my initial memory of Lena Horne, in a guest appearance on The Cosby Show. Claire takes Cliff and the kids to see Lena Horne at a swank Manhattan dinner club as part of an elaborate surprise. What I remember about watching this as a teenager is how awesome it would be to have the kind of urban sophistication (and money!) to go see someone famous like that perform for your birthday. It’s an idealized notion of urbanity I cling to and have yet to realize:
I probably had already seen this 1973 appearance on another New York-based show I was fond of as a younger viewer:
And there used to be a great clip available of my favorite Lena Horne song of all, her version of Rodgers and Hart’s “Where or When,” which was part of Words and Music, a 1948 film tribute to the songwriting team. The video’s been pulled from YouTube for proprietary reasons, but you can hear her standard recording of the same song from 1941 in this clip. It just may be my favorite performance of any Rodgers and Hart song, which is saying quite a bit. Has there ever been a more romantic recording?