DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.
Singer and actress Lena Horne died Sunday in New York at the age of 92. She blazed a trail in Hollywood in the 1940s as the first black performer to sign with a major studio, but despite her talents, she was relegated mostly to nonspeaking, singing roles that could be cut out of films for Southern audiences.
Horne became a popular performer for U.S. troops during World War II and had a successful career recording and performing in night clubs. Here's a Cole Porter song from her first MGM movie, "Panama Hattie."
(Soundbite of movie, "Panama Hattie")
(Soundbite of song, "Just One of Those Things")
Ms. LENA HORNE (Singer): (Singing) It was just one of those things, just one of those crazy things, one of those bells that now and then ring, just one of those things.
It was just one of those nights, just one of those fabulous flights, a trip to the moon on gossamer wings, just one of those things.
If we'd thought a bit of the end of it before we started painting the town, we'd have been aware that our love affair was too hot not to cool down.
So goodbye, dear, and amen...
DAVIES: That's Lena Horne, from the 1942 film, "Panama Hattie." Today, we'll listen back to a 1986 interview Terry recorded with Lena Horne's daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley. They spoke when Buckley had written her book "The Hornes: An American Family," which was the basis for an "American Masters" documentary on PBS.
The book traces her family history from slavery to the move north, where they become one of the most prosperous and influential black families of Harlem and Brooklyn. They worked on behalf of civil rights and women's rights and advocated education for the advancement of blacks. Those intellectual and social family traditions were broken by Lena's father, who made his money gambling and running numbers.
Terry began by asking Lumet about Lena Horne's parents, who were regarded as the black sheep of the family.
TERRY GROSS, host:
What did your grandparents do to earn the reputation of black sheep?
Ms. GAIL LUMET BUCKLEY (Author, "The Hornes: An American Family"): Well, my grandfather, theoretically this is family history. We hope it's true. At least I hope it's true, because it's fun made a killing in the Black Sox scandal of 1921, the baseball fix.
He certainly suddenly had a lot of money in 1921 and had run off he ran off to Seattle that year, ran away from his wife and his three-year-old daughter Lena, and he was away out of her life for a long time.
Shortly thereafter, her mother left her to go on the stage, and this was unheard of, because her mother had also been brought up in the bosom of the bourgeoisie. The only career that a black bourgeois woman could accept honorably was teaching. When they did work, they taught or social work, and to go on stage was tantamount to prostitution.
GROSS: So your mother ended up getting shuttled back and forth between relatives in the South and in the North.
Ms. BUCKLEY: Yes, she did. She lived she was initially brought up by her grandmother in Brooklyn, the wonderful Cora Calhoun, feminist and suffragette, and then her mother decided I want this child back. And she didn't really want the child. She just wanted to make her mother-in-law mad, it turns out, because she would be touring in these tent shows in the South and would leave little Lena with whoever happened to be around while she'd go off.
And so my mother created a sort of dual personality for herself, her Southern personality, when she'd go to one-room schoolhouses, and the kids made fun of her accent and her skin color. And then the other personality that she'd have to which was her real personality when she'd go back to her grandmother into Brooklyn and her friends in Brooklyn.
GROSS: So in a way, she was really a perpetual outsider as a child.
Ms. BUCKLEY: Yes, she was. She was the outsider both in the middle class, in a way - even though those were her roots - and certainly with poorer blacks, among whom she lived, but was not did not really belong.
GROSS: How did your mother start in show business?
Ms. BUCKLEY: Well, she'd done amateur theatrics in clubs, in her various little clubs in Brooklyn - the Junior Debs, they were called. She wanted to sing and dance. Her mother, she'd always had dancing and singing lessons, and she'd done amateur theatrics. And when her grandmother died, her mother decided I'm going to put this girl on the stage. She's pretty, and she's talented. Let's see what happens. So at 16, she was put into The Cotton Club.
GROSS: Your grandfather provided protection, so to speak, for her when she was playing in these clubs that were frequently run by the mob.
Ms. BUCKLEY: Yes, absolutely. Dutch Schultz's mob protected her in The Cotton Club because he was very close to Dutch Schultz's black numbers men.
GROSS: You wrote that when she was 19, she had no boyfriends because her mother really wanted her to focus on the stage and not to be distracted. What happened to her when she married young? What happened to her career?
Ms. BUCKLEY: Well, she assumed that she was going to retire, and then shortly after I was born, a call came from Hollywood: A quickie, all-black musical film was being produced in Hollywood, and some people who had seen her in The Cotton Club said come and do this show, this movie, without auditioning or anything.
And she was not the same slim creature she'd been in The Cotton Club. She'd just had a baby, and she arrived, and they were sort of disappointed. But nevertheless, she made the movie. It was called "The Duke is Tops," and when she became a star, they renamed it to "Bronze Venus" and made her the star. It was still the same movie. It was a sort of backstage romance, very innocuous story.
And so that was sort of a dip into show business. Then she got another call after she finished that movie to be in a Blackbirds show, "Blackbirds of 1939," which was a flop, but when it opened on Broadway it only lasted about seven performances she got wonderful reviews from the New York Times, and all the columnists noticed her.
GROSS: Your mother spent some time touring with the Charlie Barnet Band, and they'd tour through the South and run into all kinds of segregation problems. Did she ever consider trying to pass for white during that period?
Ms. BUCKLEY: She never did, though people earlier in her career and later in her career and all through her career in the early stages, people had suggested it, and she always refused.
GROSS: Since she was the granddaughter of people who had been very important in the black bourgeoisie in New York, did she feel that it was okay for her to be in show business or music? Did she feel like she was violating the family tradition in any way? Now, we'd spoken about how her father ended up being your grandfather ended up being a numbers-runner and gambler, and your grandmother, her mother, wanted to be on the stage. So for her parents, show business would have been fine.
Ms. BUCKLEY: It was great. It was fine. But for her her grandmother would have been horrified if she'd been alive. She wanted her to be a teacher. She was going to be a teacher. That was all set, even though she'd encouraged the music lessons, because this was all right. Bourgeois children had were exposed to culture, as it were.
GROSS: Was she guilty about that?
Ms. BUCKLEY: I don't think so. I think she was very interested in her career. I think she was serious about it. She had to make money, and this was the middle of the Depression, when she was starting all this, and I think she had ambition. She really wanted to make it.
GROSS: After some of the performances that you mentioned, like Lew Leslie's "Blackbirds of 1939," she for a while sang at Cafe Society.
Ms. BUCKLEY: Yes. That was her favorite job she ever had, so she says.
GROSS: Describe what was so special about the club.
Ms. BUCKLEY: Well, it was a special place. It was very much well, I called it a seminar with drinks.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BUCKLEY: Barney Josephson was an old-line socialist, pacifist, who wanted to start a nightclub. It was the first integrated nightclub in New York outside of Harlem, where both the patrons and the I mean, a few jazz spots would allow black customers in, but this, the policy was integration.
The policy was no fancy, no fake palm trees, no cigarette girls. It was all very much it was very left-wing, very intellectually stimulating, and everybody important who was black went there, and everybody important who was white went there.
So it was a fabulous meeting ground, and this is where my mother met friends of her uncles and friends of her parents - not her parents, particularly, but her grandparents, people who knew them, and especially of her Uncle Frank, who were people who had become very important in her life, like Paul Robeson.
GROSS: And a lot of intellectuals and writers hung out there. So I guess...
Ms. BUCKLEY: Yeah, and great performers - I mean, Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, Comden and Green.
GROSS: So it was one of the places in her life where her entertaining career and her family background came together.
Ms. BUCKLEY: Came together, absolutely - probably the only place where it really came together so neatly. And she was very happy there, and she got wonderful reviews. And it was where her career really began, because it was from there that she was asked to come to Hollywood to open a new nightclub. And then when she did that, that was the beginning of her Hollywood career.
GROSS: I thought it was interesting the way Barney Josephson suggested changes in her repertoire when she was singing at Cafe Society. Would you explain that?
Ms. BUCKLEY: Yes, and she auditioned for Barney. She first started singing "Sleepy Time Down South," and he said no, no, you can't sing that song. Don't you know what they do to black people in the South? So she said oh, I'm sorry. And then she started singing a song called "Down Argentina Way." He said no, no, you can't sing all that. There are all these girls in Brooklyn who are changing their name and make - and pretending to be Latin. You've got to be yourself. You've got to be real. Who are you?
And she said gosh, I don't, you know, I don't know. So he, Barney, is a wonderful guy, maintains that he sort of taught her what to sing and how to sing it, in a way.
GROSS: And he suggested she just sing standards.
Ms. BUCKLEY: He said sing standards and sing the blues. Sing one blues. And she said I can't sing the blues. She'd never sang the blues. The black bourgeoisie did not approve of the blues. And he said nonsense. Sing "Billie's Blues," which is a Billie Holiday song, and she just was so nervous about it and felt she couldn't do it. So she went to talk to Billie Holiday, who said: Do you have two children to take care of? Do you you know - just sing it, and don't worry about anything else. She was a wonderful woman - sad, wonderful woman. But she was very good to my mother.
DAVIES: Gail Lumet Buckley speaking with Terry Gross about her mother, Lena Horne, who died Sunday. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's 1986 interview with Gail Lumet Buckley. Her mother, Lena Horne, died Sunday.
GROSS: When your mother, Lena Horne, signed her MGM contract, she was, as you describe her, the first glamorous black star in Hollywood. So, I mean, before her, what could blacks...
Ms. BUCKLEY: Well, you played domestics or you played jungle extras. She was also the first long-term contract ever given a black player in Hollywood. And she was Walter White and Paul Robeson's test case. She was the test case of the NAACP, which had decided they were going to change the image of Hollywood.
It was World War II, okay, you know, we're supposed to fighting for democracy. Let's do it at home. And this was part of this program, and she was it. She was the test case. And that made her the enemy of a lot of black actors in Hollywood who were very upset. And they said you're trying to take work away from us. There'll be no more jungle movies. There'll be no more old plantation movies. What are you trying to do?
And Paul Robeson said to her: These people aren't important. The people who matter are out there, the Pullman Porters, those people, and they want to see a new image, and you've got to do it. And she said okay.
GROSS: So what did Paul Robeson want your mother to do?
Ms. BUCKLEY: Wanted her to refuse to play a domestic, to refuse to play any role that was demeaning to blacks and to stick by that and not be swayed from it.
GROSS: Did she have any doubts about taking on this work?
Ms. BUCKLEY: She did. She did. And she went back to New York kind of very upset. I mean, it had all been so fast.
GROSS: It's quite a responsibility.
Ms. BUCKLEY: It was an incredible responsibility. And she'd been this sort of overnight, huge success in the Hollywood nightclub. She'd auditioned for Louis B. Mayer, who said, yes. Sign her up instantly.
And, of course, the first role that they screen-tested her for was for a maid part. So they were really kind of trying to get out of it. They weren't taking it very seriously. But Robeson and Walter White were taking it seriously, and she was taking it seriously. And her father, Teddy Horne, the gambler, came out to Hollywood - flew out very dapper and demanded an interview very politely with Louis B. Mayer and said I can afford to hire a maid for my daughter. She doesn't need to play a maid.
And they were bowled over by this. They'd never seen anything like Teddy Horne or heard anything like that from a black man, who was not political, anyway.
GROSS: Did they know about his affiliation with gangsters?
Ms. BUCKLEY: They knew nothing about him except that he was incredibly he wore hand-made shoes and silk ties, and he walked in, and so very coolly and quietly and said he wasn't going to let his daughter do anything that was undignified.
So they had this - the family coming at them from one end and Paul Robeson and Walter White of the NAACP from the other end, and they were stuck with doing the right thing.
GROSS: So that she'd get roles? Were there roles for her?
Ms. BUCKLEY: There were no roles. There were never roles. And my mother always just had - was sort of in a part, because all her parts - scenes were cut out of the South, in the South her scenes were cut out. So she had to be filmed separately. So she never had roles. She just had moments in movies.
GROSS: Why don't you explain how that worked? When they cut out parts that she was in, in the South, like in "Words and Music," which was a movie biography of Rodgers and Hart.
Ms. BUCKLEY: Yes, they would cut out "The Lady is a Tramp," which she sang in it. They would just snip it out, take scissors and snip-snip when it got past the Mason-Dixon Line.
GROSS: So she couldn't be in anything that furthered the plot.
Ms. BUCKLEY: No. She could never be in anything that furthered the plot or was crucial to no that was a crucial moment in the movie. Never.
GROSS: She must have been very frustrated.
Ms. BUCKLEY: She must have been.
GROSS: Does she ever talk to you about that?
Ms. BUCKLEY: She only talked about it when she did her show, funnily enough, finally. She compensated by making a very hugely successful nightclub career and a very successful career in Europe. And that was what she did.
GROSS: Did MGM want to keep your mother under contract? Since they weren't giving her, well, the roles...
Ms. BUCKLEY: Well, yeah, you know why they did? Yeah, they did, because she was very key to the Lowes Vaudeville chains. They owned a lot of theaters, and she would play those theaters, the Capital in New York, I mean, whatever they were. They don't exist anymore.
So she was a good and also she was good for their image. We're not racist. We have Lena Horne. She was there, so they could never be accused of racism.
GROSS: She really got it from all sides.
Ms. BUCKLEY: She did. She did. But I think the forerunners always do. Look at Paul. Look at Jackie Robinson.
GROSS: Why did she leave Hollywood? Did the contract run out?
Ms. BUCKLEY: I think she just sort of got fed up and wanted to sort of -wanted to get away. And also, she wanted to get married, and they couldn't marry in Hollywood. It was illegal for blacks and whites to marry in 1946.
And she had a big fight with MGM in 1946, because they wanted her to be in a musical called "St. Louis Woman," which had a wonderful score by Harold Arlen. And she sort of really wanted to do it, and MGM was backing it. But once again, she listened to the NAACP and Walter White who said don't do it. It's a demeaning role - which I think in this case was a mistake.
Ms. BUCKLEY: Well, because it was a great score. It was because she would have played a prostitute. I mean, you know, so what? It was on the stage, and it was, you know, it was I think it would've been a great career opportunity for her to have been earlier on Broadway than she was.
GROSS: Did she feel as strongly about the politics of the roles as the people who were advising her did?
Ms. BUCKLEY: I think she felt so strongly, but I think her respect for them was probably as great as her feelings. I think she was very torn in the "St. Louis Woman" incident, but I think she probably she was very politicized, and Paul was very much a mentor, and Walter White. So I think she probably felt nearly as strongly.
GROSS: When your mother married Lennie Hayton - he white, she black - it was illegal...
Ms. BUCKLEY: Yes.
GROSS: ...at the time. Did they explain that to you?
Ms. BUCKLEY: They didn't say it was illegal. They said they were getting married, and it was a secret. That was all they said to me.
GROSS: Did they tell you why you couldn't tell anybody?
Ms. BUCKLEY: No, they just said don't tell anybody. And then, like, I was about 10 years old. So by three years later, when it was no longer secret, I totally understood why.
GROSS: Did that mean that you were moving more into the white world once that marriage happened?
Ms. BUCKLEY: Yes, yes, it did. We were out of the black world. We were out of the ordinary white world. We were into that world, and it was white. It was the international celebrity world.
GROSS: Your family spent a lot of time in Europe.
Ms. BUCKLEY: Yeah.
GROSS: Was that for political and racial reasons?
Ms. BUCKLEY: Yes, it was to avoid the blacklisting. My mother was blacklisted from TV for a while, and so we'd be - we were in Europe most of the '50s. I mean, every summer, we'd be in Europe.
GROSS: During this period, she became very popular in nightclubs.
Ms. BUCKLEY: Yeah.
GROSS: But you say that she really hated nightclubs.
Ms. BUCKLEY: She hated nightclubs.
Ms. BUCKLEY: Well, because usually they were run by the mob, and she considered most of them, her bosses, to be very unsavory characters. She hated the audiences in Las Vegas. She hated everything about Las Vegas, but she made a lot of money. And in those days, Las Vegas, a Mecca for huge stars.
And you didn't get little old ladies getting off of buses. You got more sort of serious gambling people, and she did hate it. She always said: I hate show business.
GROSS: She was doing some TV then, too.
Ms. BUCKLEY: Yeah. She was doing a bit, but not a lot. No blacks had their own show when she wanted to have her show.
GROSS: Were there things that she couldn't do when performing with white people on TV?
Ms. BUCKLEY: You weren't meant to touch a white performer. A white performer wasn't meant to touch a black performer on television in the '50s, and Perry Como, there were certain people who always - Perry Como always took her arm or always put his arm around her. There were certain people who consciously flaunted the unwritten rule of no blacks and whites touching on television.
DAVIES: Gail Lumet Buckley, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1986. Buckley's written for the Los Angeles Times, Vogue and the New York Times. Buckley's mother, Lena Horne, died Sunday in New York at the age of 92. Here's Lena Horne singing her signature song, recorded in 1941. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.