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Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne

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Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne
James Gavin
Hardcover; 608 pages
ISBN: 0743271432
Simon and Schuster
2009

...it just keeps rainin' all the time...

If James Gavin's biography of trumpeter Chet Baker, Deep In A Dream (Knopf, 2002), was a study of the slow motion, black hole implosion of a life into addiction and dissolution, then Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne is a survey in the slow motion explosion of a life marginalized by institutional racism and depleted by professional neglect. What first appear as two disparate biographical subjects reveal common cultural components, linking their personalities.

Baker and Horne share several characteristics as biographical objects. They both existed outside the mainstream, Baker as recidivist heroin addict and Horne as a mixed race woman in the racially provincial first half of the 20th century in the United States. Both were modest talents who became cultural icons, well beyond those talents' justification, through the sheer power of physical beauty. Both represent a ruined beauty, Baker's self-induced and Horne's the result of popular ignorance and neglect.

Gavin sensitively recounts Horne's schizophrenic upbringing, the pampered child of upper-middle-class parents in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York and the abandoned child of an unstable mother in the unforgiving South. Saddled as a child by a self doubt that would never quite leave her, Horne rose among the ranks of African-American artists during the height of Jim Crow America, paving the way for Halle Berry 40 years later.

Looming large in the discussion is Horne's stormy and confused relationship with men, most notably actor/director Orsen Welles and composer/arranger Lennie Hayton, Horne's spouse. Her only son is given fair treatment, as is his tragic death due to kidney disease. Gavin, in commenting on his impressions of Horne from interviews, noted that Horne seemed more than a little sad. Horne had much to be sad about, but that never overcame the grace and dignity with which she lived.

Lena Horne lived the whole of the 20th century. Her heyday was long, gradually fading with her advancing age. In her 90s and in seclusion, Horne remains a beautiful and timeless visage who made "Stormy Weather" her own in the same way Chet Baker did "My Funny Valentine."

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