Though still in progress with James Gavin’s thick new volume on the life & times of the recently departed ancestor Lena Horne, several in-progress observations give high marks to the writer’s thorough, detailed efforts. Gavin, who penned the equally-rewarding Chet Baker bio The Long Night of Chet Baker, details La Horne’s vivid and often troubling life, a life full of seemingly equal measures of heartache & triumph from the moment of her life’s inception in Brooklyn, pulls no punches in telling it like it was, and delivering a balanced sense of Lena’s life through the lens of someone possessing deep admiration coupled with the often gritty realities of her life.
I’ve lifted a couple of sample paragraphs to give some sense of Gavin’s craft, beginning with this passage on Horne’s early chorus-girl days:
"But in their attic dressing room, Webb’s chorines [dancer-choreographer Elida Webb] faced the tawdry realities of show business seven nights a week. They were crowded into a long, narrow space, one side occupied by racks of costumes, the other by dressing tables and mirrors. The dingy walls were hung with mirrors and the dancers sat elbow to elbow, budget cosmetics and overflowing ashtrays spread out in front of them. Outfits were slung over chairs, and the air reeked of perfume, cigarettes, and sweat. It was a typical backstage chorus-girl scene; dancers at most of the big white nightclubs had it no better."
Throughout the book Gavin repeatedly takes the reader back to the scene of Horne’s various exploits, pratfalls and all, with an unerring eye to detail; the kind of detail that makes the reader a veritable fly on the wall of 20th century show business history, in "sepia" tonalities.
Here’s a later passage from Horne’s earliest Broadway star turn, as part of the determined integrationist impressario Lew Leslie’s doomed show "Blackbirds of 1939":
"Finally, on February 11, Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1939: A Harlem Rhapshody opened at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre. After all the turmoil, the results reeked of haste and desperation. The show looked like a bus-and-truck version of a Cotton Club review [The notorious, tough-on-black-asses Cotton Club was Ms. Horne’s show biz entry point, as a teenaged chorine]. Its dancers executed a cyclone of punishing moves, but the sketches seemed pale and cliched. There were a few entertaining songs by the team of Johnny Mercer and Rube Bloom (who would soon write "Fools Rush In"), and some memorable scenes. In the opener, "Children of the Earth," hands pushed up through the ground and wriggled like snakes. "Frankie and Johnny," the old folks song about a murderous woman, was spun inot a fully staged courtroom scene; this time Johnny was tried for shooting Frankie, and jurors, lawyers, and defendant sang their testimony."
This is one of many examples of how Gavin turns back the hands of time and places the reader squarely in a box seat at the Hudson Theatre for this vivid glimpse of one of Horne’s earliest tribulations, prior to the great triumphs of her hall-of-fame career.
The book is Stormy Weather – The Life of Lena Horne by James Gavin (pub: Atria), and it is highly recommended.