Like many youngsters growing up in the mid-1970s I watched Sesame Street. In addition to Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, Sesame Street provided me with my first glimpse of the likes of Stevie Wonder, Richie Havens, Paul Simon and Madeline Kahn amongst many, many others.
And then there was Lena Horne.
Although Horne had four decades of show business under her belt the first thing I think of when I hear her name are those appearances on Sesame Street. It should come as no surprise that I am not the only one.
Until I learned of her death early Monday morning I had not seen these appearances in nearly three decades. But they never left my mind. Watching them again reminded me why she left such a deep impression on me.
First of all there was her ageless beauty. One look at her face and you would never forget those striking features. Then there was that voice. She could sing anything and make it meant something including the alphabet.
But perhaps what came across most strongly was her warmth. It radiated at its brightest when she helped Grover overcome his shyness through song.
Well, it worked. Perhaps it worked too well. Whatever tendencies towards reticence Grover might have had were certainly gone by the height of the Disco era.
She looked both self-assured and reassuring. In watching her hug Grover so tightly one would have never known of all the bigotry she endured in trying to find success as the first black contract player for MGM and as a nightclub singer. In watching her kiss Grover on the nose one would have never known that a few years earlier she had lost her father, her husband and her son in rapid succession. But what would a little boy know about stormy weather? He only saw the calm that came after.
By the early 1980s, Horne was at the height of her renaissance. She was the toast of Broadway with a Tony Award and Grammy Award winning one woman show Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music. It was during this time she was the subject of a profile on 60 Minutes by Ed Bradley. During the interview she put the sensual dimension of her persona on display. She told Bradley, “If a lady treats other people as she like to be treated she’s allowed to roll in the grass if she wants to.” To which Bradley asked, “Even if she is sixty-four?” “Even if she is sixty-four; particularly then,” replied Horne with a flirtatious smile.
A few years later, Horne made a memorable appearance on The Cosby Show in which she sang for Cliff Huxtable as a birthday surprise. But what I remember most about her guest appearance was when she met with the Huxtables after her set. In particular, I remember her words of wisdom for Denise Huxtable (played by Lisa Bonet). When Denise tells Horne she is sixteen Horne says, “I wish I could get that year back. I blew sixteen. I walked around in a blue funk all the time feeling sorry for myself.” Cliff retorts, “You sure hit that on the button.” But then Horne assures Cliff that Denise will grow out of it. When Cliff asks her how Horne says, “When she realizes what she’s got and she’s got a whole lot. I noticed it when I was out there singing. You’ve got a whole lot of love right here in your family.” Sometimes everything that you need is right in front of you and it takes someone else to tell you what is there. And who better to hear that from than Lena Horne?
But by the time 1998 rolled around Horne would show a much different side than with what I was familiar. Horne was a guest on The Rosie O’Donnell Show to promote her penultimate CD Being Myself in what turned out to be her last television appearance. After singing “Stormy Weather” Horne sat down with O’Donnell. When O’Donnell showed a GAP commercial featuring Horne singing “Winter Wonderland” she noticed Horne looking away from the clip. Horne told O’Donnell, “I want to be Aretha Franklin. I don’t want to hear that other lady.” The audience erupted in laughter. O’Donnell tried to reassure Horne by telling her, “I bet Aretha Franklin wants to sound like you.” But it was no avail. “No, no, I don’t think so,” said Horne.
O’Donnell concluded the interview by saying she had to remind herself she was in the presence of Lena Horne to which Horne gave a most revealing response. “Sometimes with me to come face to face with myself, me and then the other Lena Horne, it’s very difficult,” said Horne. While O’Donnell was clearly in awe of Horne it was equally clear that Horne was very much down on herself. The confidence that had shined through on Sesame Street, 60 Minutes and The Cosby Show was nowhere to be found.
I wish Grover had been there to hug her tightly and give her a kiss on the nose. But perhaps it was too late to have done much good. If the stormy weather hadn’t returned then perhaps the dark clouds had begun to gather. Our time here is not infinite and even the most gifted amongst us can lose faith in what has been given to them by G-d. For whatever her reasons, it would not be long before Lena Horne would fully retreat from public view.
But now that Lena Horne is gone I will remember the Lena Horne whose beauty stopped storms, whose voice gave meaning and whose warmth brought sunshine into a young boy’s heart.