“Demanding.” “Difficult.” “Emotional.” “High-strung.” “Diva.” “Beautiful, but…” And, my personal favorite, “Bitch.” The words used to describe powerful, uncompromising women often condescend and sometimes mock. If she demands excellence, if she refuses to compromise, or if she insists on calling bullshit by its name, a woman can expect a backlash. And if she happens to be beautiful, too, well, God help her.
No one knows this better than Lena Horne, whose story is compellingly told in my friend James Gavin’s book, Stormy Weather: the Life of Lena Horne. Meticulously researched and engagingly written, Stormy Weather traces the arc of Horne’s life and career against the sociopolitical backdrop of the American 20th century.
The fire-and-ice persona that Horne painstakingly and deliberately cultivated was a by-product not only of living in a brutally racist, segregated society, but of Horne’s own personal complexities; on more than one occasion, Horne was her own worst enemy. However, James Gavin neither condemns nor canonizes his subject. Rather, he masterfully and respectfully lets Lena Horne’s fascinating story, with all its trials, tribulations and triumphs, speak for itself.
We need more writers like James Gavin. He knows the music inside and out, and he has deep love and respect for the musicians. And how could anyone have anything but deep love and respect for Lena Horne’s artistry?
Check out the clip below. Horne communicates volumes with the simple arching of her eyebrows; every gesture is purposeful. Lyrics which may have sounded benign in the hands of someone less gifted take on profound meaning. The second song, “The Eagle & Me,” becomes a veritable civil rights anthem in Lena Horne’s riveting, guaranteed-to-give-you-goose-bumps interpretation. Oh, and she swings like crazy.
It’s worth noting that the word “diva” is frequently used pejoratively, but its literal meaning is “goddess.” At 93 years old, Lena Horne is, in the truest sense of the word, a diva.