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My neighbor, Lena HorneBY: Dan Rottenberg 05.24.2010
Lena Horne was a beautiful and talented woman, justly embittered by the labels American society pasted on her. As her neighbor in New York in the ‘50s and ‘60s, I witnessed some of that bitterness firsthand.
Lena Horne, between black and whiteDAN ROTTENBERG
Lena Horne, who died on May 9 at the age of 92, was widely considered one of the world’s most beautiful women. She possessed a bewitching voice and an elegant manner. She could dance, too. Yet when she arrived in Hollywood in the early 1940s, she was told that only two roles were available to her: as a lady’s maid or a jungle girl. All of her assets were trumped by the only characteristic that mattered: She was black.
Yet the further irony about Lena Horne is that she didn’t think of herself as black and indeed wasn’t black, except by the dominant society’s definition. Like Barack Obama only more so, her blood was mixed up on both sides with that of white Europeans and Native Americans. Her family emulated the white bourgeoisie, but in practice she was excluded from both black and white circles.
The squandering of human potential is surely one of the world’s great tragedies. In theory we Americans live in a society designed to prevent such a tragedy— perhaps the only society, with the exception of ancient Athens, Elizabethan England and Western Europe since the Enlightenment, where talented individuals can pursue their individual destinies.
So in Lena Horne’s case we must ask: What greater social purpose was served by refusing to cast her in any but menial roles? Who benefited by pigeonholing this multi-ethnic woman as a black woman? What movie audience was spared what trauma by snipping her songs out of films when they screened in theaters down South? What civilization would have come crashing down by recognizing her as an individual human being rather than as the representative of one race or another?
Lena Horne broke many racial barriers during her career: first black star on a long-term movie studio contract, first black on the cover of Motion Picture magazine, first black GI pinup girl. But these “firsts” brought her no comfort— only bitterness at the label society had pinned on her, just as you or I would resent being labeled a great Jewish writer or a great Italian musician or a great gay actor or a great woman movie director. “I’m me, and I’m like nobody else,” she declared in a memoir written late in life.
When a man called Horne a “nigger” in a Beverly Hills restaurant, she hurled an ashtray, a lamp and several glasses at him. But she took out much of her frustration on her long-suffering white husband, the band leader Lennie Hayton, some of which I witnessed firsthand: The Haytons were my neighbors when I grew up in New York in the ’50s and ‘60s. Their apartment was directly above ours.
It was an elegant old building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, said to be the only Class A apartment building in New York that would rent to blacks. Consequently it attracted an eclectic group of tenants that included not only Lena Horne but also Harry Belafonte, the flutist Julius Baker, the ventriloquist Paul Winchell, the dancer-actress Sono Osato and the Hearst columnist George Sokolsky. And in the early ’60s we tenants got to know each other better than most, through a series of meetings at which we formed a corporation to buy the building from its landlord— one of New York’s first co-op conversions. As a further consequence, my formative years were far richer than those of my friends who lived in racially or religiously segregated buildings.
I retain three memories of Lena Horne (then in her early 40s) from that period. In the first, she is attending a tenants’ meeting in my parents’ living room, dressed in a turtleneck sweater and slacks, looking every bit as stunning as she ever did in the movies. In the second, she is riding the elevator to run some errands, dressed down to such a degree (dark glasses, a hooded sweatshirt, old baggy pants) that she could easily be mistaken for a bag lady— obviously her line of defense against celebrity groupies who might otherwise recognize her on the street.
A blood-curdling scream
The third concerns a Saturday afternoon when my father and I went upstairs to the Haytons’ apartment to discuss some matter concerning the building. Lennie Hayton met us at the front door and explained that his wife was taking a nap. For perhaps five or ten minutes we chatted in the front hall. Then I heard what sounded like a blood-curdling scream from the back of the apartment: “Daddy!”
To this Hayton merely smiled quietly. “I guess she’s up now,” he explained.
For all that Lena Horne gave us, I do hope she finds more peace now than our society ever gave her.
Oh, yes— you were wondering who was our building’s landlord, that paragon of enlightened American liberalism who, uniquely among New York landlords of that bigoted day, rented to tenants without regard to race, creed, color or religion? I will tell you: It was the dictator Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic with an iron hand for 31 years until his assassination in 1961.♦
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