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Lena Horne: Maybe … Maybe Not

It’s not that she lied. It’s that when Lena Horne told Rosie O’Donnell, “I like show business,” she was being truthful only in small part. The occasion, a talk-show interview to promote a charity for singers, was one of very few interviews Horne did in the years before her death this week, at 92, and, for the sake of a good cause, she allowed herself to say something that she had devoted her final decades to disproving. As she went on to make plain, Horne cared deeply about singers, and she loved the art of music. It was the business of show-making that Horne despised—in part because of her liberal distrust of commerce and in part because of her loner’s distaste for attention-grabbing. The standard narrative of Horne’s life casts her as victim of a system rigged against black womanhood, and it’s true that Hollywood underestimated her and misused her—essentially abused her—in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Yet Horne was no pushover, and when decent roles and countless offers to sing came to her in her later years, she passed on most of them to stay home and read.

I had the privilege of spending quite a bit of time with her over a period of several years, during the 1990s, at first to interview her for my biography of her closest friend, the jazz composer Billy Strayhorn, who preceded Horne in death by 33 years. We talked for hours at a time, took a few walks through Central Park, and once sat on a bench on Fifth Avenue and shared the cheese sandwich I had brought for myself in a bag. She liked to visit the Whitney, which was around the corner from her apartment, and she knew her art. The duly lavish tributes to her in all the media this week inevitably celebrated her glamour and beauty, and for good reason. Yet this emphasis on her extraordinary physical presence honors only one dimension of her, and it was not what I recall most vividly from my experience with Horne. A quiet, private, thoughtful woman, she spent much of her time reading and watching the news. Her apartment was full of books—jammed in cases on the walls of every room, and in neat little stacks on the coffee table. The only thing “Hollywood” about it was the fact that it looked like a movie set designer’s idea of a college professor’s home. A few months after Horne and I started talking about Strayhorn, she got the idea to record an album in tribute to him and other departed friends of hers whom she missed. She thought of the album as a message across the divide, and she decided to call it We’ll Be Together Again. To put this the way she would have, the project got her off her ass, leading her to do a series of sensational final performances, including a show at the Supper Club filmed for TV. One of the highlights was a tune Strayhorn had written especially for her, called “Maybe”—a paean to ambivalence in the language of show business.