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A new book tells the life story of screen-and-song legend Lena Horne

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STORMY WEATHER")

LENA HORNE: (Singing) Don't know why there's no sun up in the sky. Stormy weather since my man and I ain't together.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

That's the voice of Lena Horne. She was a pioneering star of stage and screen in the 1940s and for decades after, and the epitome of Black beauty and excellence at a time when Hollywood was loathe to show either. The role she accepted and those she refused helped change the game for Black actors. Donald Bogle is a fan, film historian, and an educator at NYU and Penn.

DONALD BOGLE: I was shocked. There were students who didn't really know her, and I just felt that, you know, something should be done.

FADEL: So Bogle wrote a book, "Lena Horne: Goddess Reclaimed." He spoke with our co-host, Michel Martin.

BOGLE: Lena Horne came to Hollywood in the early 1940s, the period when the Second World War had broken out. And previously, roles for African Americans in Hollywood movies, mostly they played comic servants. You had a lot of very talented people who played these roles, but there wasn't the idea of full-fledged stardom. Lena Horne comes and MGM Studios, the most powerful of the Hollywood studios at that time, they decide that they're going to do something different with her, that she will not play the comic giggling maids.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Why were they willing to do that?

BOGLE: Well, because Louis B. Mayer, who was the head of MGM, he understood that during the war, there were the Black GIs going abroad to fight for freedoms of others, and they were going to be coming home where basic freedoms were denied to them in their own country. The idea was that something different had to be done. And so this is why Lena Horne proved to be the right woman at the right time.

MARTIN: But when it came time for her to go to MGM, she had her father come out...

BOGLE: Yes.

MARTIN: ...And negotiate. Would you tell that story?

BOGLE: She was in a situation where there were no African Americans around to really advise her or in positions of power, and she contacted her father. He came and he talked to Louis B. Mayer, and he said he didn't want to see his daughter playing a maid in the movies. I'm sure that it was just sort of stunning.

MARTIN: It's stunning to me to hear that this man comes and says to them, listen, my daughter is not going to be playing any maids, OK? I'm just, like, fascinated by that.

BOGLE: Well, he also said - according to Lena Horne, he said, you know, she wouldn't be playing maids and he would get her a maid of his own if this was the case.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

BOGLE: And Lena said, well, of course he was just jiving, but her father knew what to say.

MARTIN: There's a story in the book about how MGM's hair and makeup department didn't really know what to do with her, but you tell the story about how the head hairdresser...

BOGLE: Yes, Sydney Guilaroff.

MARTIN: ...Wouldn't - some of his underlings would not touch her hair, so he wound up doing her hair himself.

BOGLE: No one would touch her head, no one. And he said that he could not be with her every day on set, and so he hired a Black woman to style her hair. And this is significant as well. But I should add this about her at MGM. With the inroads that she made, she still had these problems. MGM put her in musical segments of films that starred whites. She would do her number, then disappear from the movie, and this really frustrated her because she really wanted to play roles.

MARTIN: And was that to make it easier for the Southern theaters to cut her out?

BOGLE: Precisely. As the war progressed, Lena Horne entertained at Army bases. And she really wanted to reach the Black troops, the Negro troops. Many of them told her that in the South when her films were shown - and posters outside of theaters and so forth would have her on - and she wouldn't be in the film. And so local censors apparently cut her out. But the scenes were constructed in such a way that the musical segments could easily be cut out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN’T HELP LOVIN’ DAT MAN")

HORNE: (Singing) Oh, listen, sister. I love my Mr. Man, and I can't tell you why.

BOGLE: Her final disillusionment with Hollywood was that Lena Horne appeared in a movie called "Till The Clouds Roll By." She performed numbers from the musical "Show Boat."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN’T HELP LOVIN’ DAT MAN")

HORNE: (Singing) It must be something that the angels done planned.

BOGLE: And "Show Boat" had a character, Julie, who was passing for white. She was a mulatto. And then her racial identity is revealed, and she's expelled from the show boat. They were remaking it in the early '50s. And Lena Horne had done this thing in "Till The Clouds Roll By," which I think she thought was like a screen test and that she would get the role in the remake, and they didn't give it to her. The role went to Ava Gardner, who's white...

MARTIN: Oh, wow.

BOGLE: ...Who was a good friend of Lena Horne's.

MARTIN: Yeah, but still.

BOGLE: Yes, but still.

MARTIN: Yeah.

BOGLE: This was part of the thing that just ate at her.

MARTIN: How do you want people to think about her now? I want to mention that she died in 2010 at the age of 92. She performed for a very long time, like in nightclubs. And she had, like, one-woman shows. In fact, I actually got a chance to see her in one of those shows. So she managed to really create a long career for herself, but is there something that you're hoping this book will do to restore Lena Horne to prominence or something like that?

BOGLE: The idea was to make people see a struggle someone might have had, and then to see the ultimate triumph, and a person who had a certain confidence and determination to make a statement to the world through her work. And so I would want people to see that and to see the films and find pleasure in them. I mean, that's quite significant.

MARTIN: That is award-winning film historian Donald Bogle. His latest book, "Lena Horne: Goddess Reclaimed," is out now. Donald Bogle, thanks so much for talking to us.

BOGLE: Michel, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LADY IS A TRAMP")

HORNE: (Singing) I like the theater but never come late. I never... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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