STORMY WEATHER: The Life of Lena Horne, by James Gavin. Atria Books, 598 pp., $27.
In the 1940s, the press bestowed several condescending sobriquets on Lena Horne: "sepian songstress," "beauteous bronze," "Chocolate Cream Chanteuse." She was introduced to nightclub audiences as "Miss Lena Horne." At the age of 34 in 1952, Horne referred to herself as a "dried-up old broad," a term she'd use for the next five decades before retreating from public life in 2000. A victim of racism, an idolized singer, a performer who swung violently between self-abnegation and towering self-regard: all describe Lena Horne, brought to vivid life by James Gavin, a biographer who is gimlet-, not moon-eyed.
Gavin, the author of "Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker" and "Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret," begins his study of Horne, who turned 92 last month, with memories of the legend when he interviewed her on assignment in April 1994: "Who was the real Lena Horne? Even in her 70s she seemed confused. As for all she'd achieved, none of it seemed to bring much comfort." Refreshingly, Gavin forgoes armchair psychology about Horne's past - her beloved, gambling father left when she was a toddler; her mother, a frustrated actress, was pathologically envious of her daughter's career - when discussing the "tangled web of victimhood" Horne often spun for herself. Certainly, Horne had much to be enraged about. She endured hateful Jim Crow laws while traveling as a singer; MGM, the studio for which she made "Cabin in the Sky" (1943), had no idea what to do with her, offering one of her dream roles, the biracial Julie in "Show Boat," to Horne's lily-white, non-singing pal Ava Gardner.
Yet sometimes, Horne simply manufactured injustices. The left-leaning performer would claim that the blacklist had kept her off television for seven years, even though "by the mid-'50s Horne had done a considerable amount of TV." And while Horne, who attended a civil-rights rally with Medgar Evers in Jackson, Miss., and who called "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" her "Bible," hoped that she was "allied with the larger black struggle," she "still measured almost everything in terms of her private hurts and frustrations."
That hurt, frustration and rage were channeled into what Gavin deems Horne's true metier: her nightclub act, where "her diction was sharp as a scalpel." The chilly ferocity of Horne's performances seems to have been fueled by hate. She called nightclubs "toilets" and said of her adoring audiences, "I just didn't like them, really." Sometimes, the disgust was self-directed: during rehearsals for the 1957 musical "Jamaica," a reporter found Horne in her dressing room, crying, "I hate myself!" When Mike Douglas praised Horne for her beauty on his talk show in 1968, the singer shot back, "I'm like that portrait of Dorian Gray. You know how lovely it was outside? You should see what's goin' on in here!" Gavin illuminates both the outside and inside of his legendary subject, capturing the awe he felt when first meeting Horne without being blinded by it.