"Features chiseled out of marble" – that's how my father described Lena Horne. He did it so emphatically and so often that we would laugh, the "we" being my siblings and me. The five of us got a kick out of the devoted husband and father having such an obvious crush. I swear his eyes would stare off into the distance each time he said her name.
At first, I didn't get it. Horne's stylized, cabaret style left me cold when I would catch an old movie or a TV variety hour. But then I grew up and, as regularly happens, realized Daddy was right.
Lena Horne died on Sunday at the age of 92. Detailed obituaries
give Horne her due as an entertainer and activist; they hint at why she maintained a distance. Being a pioneer takes its toll.
Horne represented not just herself but also black performers who hoped to walk in her path. The talent and beauty of the "chocolate chanteuse" (and how insulting is that) were never enough. She never played a maid, but she seldom played a character. In movies, she mostly stood against a column and sang, stopping the show in numbers that were snipped for release in the South.
She had to fight every day, to live where she wanted, to sleep in hotels where she was the headline musical act. She turned her back on the German prisoners seated in front to sing to the black U.S. soldiers she had come to entertain.
In 1947, she went all the way to Paris to marry her second husband, white conductor and band leader Lennie Hayton.
Horne only seemed truly liberated from the reserved façade she was forced to maintain when she marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers. Her 1981 Broadway triumph, "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music," showcased the complete person and earned every superlative and award.
My dad – who kept up with her career via TV from his dining room throne -- wasn't surprised by the mix of fire and ice in this icon of men of a certain age. (On television's popular "Sanford and Son," Redd Foxx's adoration of Horne was a running theme culminating in a guest appearance by the lady herself that stunned Fred Sanford and his buddies.) African-Americans of Dad's and Horne's generation wore their masks in the sometimes hostile world they had to navigate; they had to hold a little of themselves to themselves to keep sane.
My father wasn't a Metro Goldwyn Mayer star, but he looked like one to me in his alligator shoes and sharp pocket squares. At dances, my mother's unmarried friends coveted him as a partner. But in second and third jobs as a bartender or waiter, he served those with one-tenth of his dignity – and he did it with a smile.
He loved Horne's beauty; he understood her fight.
I was lucky enough to see Lena Horne perform, in a revival of "Pal Joey" in the late 1970's in Los Angeles. She was gorgeous and in great voice.
"I no longer have to be a 'credit;' I don't have to be a 'symbol' to anybody," she is quoted as finally saying. "I don't have to be a 'first' to anybody. I don't have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I'd become. I'm me, and I'm like nobody else."
That's for sure. Though she had been living out of the spotlight for years in New York, I imagine her chiseled features as agelessly beautiful as ever. And if you believe in such things – and I have to confess I do -- my dad can at last see his idol up close.
Mom wouldn't be jealous. She always understood.