Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Stormy Weather

The Life of Lena Horne
By James Gavin (Atria Books; 598 pages, $27)

For most of her life, Lena Horne has been a very angry woman. She may have given as good as she got for many of her 92 years, but as related in James Gavin's definitive new biography, she had reason enough.

"Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne" takes its title from her signature song, but in the beginning, it wasn't even her song: It was Ethel Waters', and the older star's resentment of Horne during the making of the groundbreaking film "Cabin in the Sky" would presage Horne's own iciness years later toward younger singer-actresses like Diahann Carroll.

Although Horne was born and raised in a middle-class family, her early life was no walk in the park. Her mother was an actress who frequently left Lena to be raised by her grandparents. At school, she was taunted by other black kids for the lightness of her skin. "In her first memoir," Gavin writes, "Horne recalled their abuse. 'Yaller! Yaller!' they chanted. 'Got a white daddy! Shame! Shame!' " Gavin tells us she tried to darken her skin by spending time in the sun, but she also felt self-conscious about the way she talked: "At her grandmother's home, to use anything but textbook English was grounds for punishments. But [other African Americans] talked in thick southern accents, using Negro dialect. A confusion overtook her that she never quite lost." MORE