After releasing her first album in more than a decade, the sultry artists talks abut her career

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated May 13, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

Lena Horne will not sip a drop, but she will order tea for you at an empty Manhattan restaurant and watch you drink. She will sit very straight and elegant, folding and refolding a cloth napkin; you will notice her slim navy blue pantsuit, her mod white fisherman’s cap, her chic gold rings, her good manicure. She will talk about aging-she is 76. And loss-so many in her life have died. And she will talk about the music she listens to at her home, alone—Aretha, and plenty of it.

Horne will do this only because she has a new album to promote. We’ll Be Together Again is her first major-label recording released in the U.S. in more than a decade, since 1982’s Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, the Grammy- winning original-cast recording of her smash 1981 Broadway show by the same name. The idea of making We’ll Be Together Again was inspired by the brilliant performance Horne gave in New York last summer at the JVC Jazz Festival’s tribute to composer Billy Strayhorn, who was Duke Ellington’s musical collaborator and Horne’s self-described ”soulmate.” On the album, she sings Strayhorn tunes like ”Maybe” and the celebratory ”You’re the One,” as well as a sassy ”Love Like This Can’t Last.” Horne is also one of the hosts of the just-released MGM compilation movie, That’s Entertainment! III.

Usually, though, Horne has no interest in publicity, or in recording, or even in going out on the streets of New York, where she lives and where she must keep her makeup on and her nails manicured because, inevitably, someone will recognize her for the entertainment legend she is. Someone will burble, ”Miss Horne! Miss Horne!” And she will have to compose herself to receive the adoration of an audience she is always surprised loves her so generously.

Lena Horne would like you to believe that if she had her way, the woman who became famous in the ’40s as a sultry, satiny, sophisticated beauty in movies and in nightclubs, the black performer who experienced the blatant and subtle wounds of racism and who eventually became a champion for civil rights-that lady would rather be sitting at home reading biographies and watching the gory vampire movies she favors.

You believe, maybe, 50 percent of this. You also believe that a woman who can belt out Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin’s ”Havin’ Myself a Time” (as she does on We’ll Be Together Again) must like to step out and do what she sings about every now and again.

”It took me a long time to learn how much (the audience) was actually willing to give,” says Horne, whose 1981 Broadway run marked her return to live performances after a lengthy absence. ”That show brought it all back to me. I’m kind of a loner. Except, when I got up there, and I was telling (the audience) things that happened to me, I found that they found things amusing that I did. And I thought, ‘You know, they’ve been there all along ready to give, but I wasn’t asking them for anything. I just wasn’t giving enough of me.”’ She rolls her napkin into a rapier and continues. ”I hate singing! I mean, I don’t hate it when I’m doing it. But I don’t sing in the shower. I don’t sing in the kitchen. I don’t sing until I have to.”

George Wein, the man who encouraged Horne to join the Strayhorn tribute last summer (his Festival Productions produced the JVC Jazz Festival), begs to differ. ”I think she’s lying!” he says. ”I think she loves to sing. Maybe not to perform, but singing When she came off the stage that night, she was walking on air. She knew she had done something wonderful.” But Horne says that when she was a little girl in Brooklyn in the ’20s, she wanted to be a schoolteacher, and you believe her. You also believe, as you listen to her repeatedly invoke her mother-dead now some 15 years-that somewhere along the way, young Lena became convinced that the way to win her mother’s love and respect was to create the performing career the senior Horne, an aspiring actress, dreamed of for herself. ”When I was in my teens and went to the Cotton Club,” Horne recalls, ”(my mother) said, ‘If I had your opportunities, I would be the biggest star in the world.”’

Mama, however, could not have predicted the uncharted path her daughter’s stardom would take. Plucked from her place in the chorus line of ”chocolate cuties” (the club’s words) at Harlem’s Cotton Club, where she first appeared when she was 16, Horne went on to become a Hollywood movie star, playing her honey-colored and languid self in 16 MGM productions-among them 1943’s Stormy Weather (the title song of which still endures as her theme), Ziegfeld Follies, and Panama Hattie. Later she would take her act to clubs and cabarets. Along the way, racism-and her guilt over being a compliant token representative of her race-cut deep. Always, she was the Special Case: the chorine who got the big break, the black GI pinup whose scenes were staged so they could be snipped out of prints sent to Southern movie theaters, the black woman who felt isolated from her own people for so long. With her second husband, music director Lennie Hayton, who was white, she had entree into a glossy, white showbiz world. ”We were a chic-looking couple, white-brown and all this kind of crap,” Horne says dismissively.

What Horne lacked for decades was a sense of herself. ”It took me a long while to get over getting impatient with people’s lack of understanding nature,” she explains. ”It was only after I joined the National Council of Negro Women (in the ’60s) and began to find women-not in the theater, but who were hairdressers, teachers, lawyers, all of these real-life strong women-who made me not feel so alone. I had felt so alone for many years.”

We’ll Be Together Again is about loneliness and loss. Between 1970 and ’71, three of those closest to Horne died within 18 months of each other: Hayton; her father, Ted; and her only son, Ted, who succumbed to kidney failure at the age of 28. (She also has a daughter, writer Gail Buckley-whose ex-husband is director Sidney Lumet-and five grandchildren.) Strayhorn died of cancer in 1967; more recently, Horne lost her hairdresser of 15 years and her beloved housekeeper of more than 30 years, who, she says, was ”my mother, my sister, my best friend, because in this business I don’t trust anybody. She died, and I’ve never gotten over her.”

Still, sorrow has not softened Horne’s sly, ironic sense of humor, which comes out in such a silky drawl that you don’t realize at first she is being fierce. ”I made my living being sexy,” she says. ”I would never let (the audience) know that I hated it. They were thinkin’ for years I was this remote, sexy beauty-you know, at the Waldorf-Astoria, with men around going oooh-and I was thinkin’, ‘God, let me get through (this set), then I’ll have dinner at eight. What am I gonna have from room service?’

”I was never money-mad because I could always work and make my salary, pay my expenses,” Horne adds matter-of-factly. ”I was never interested in doing anything you can to make a lot of money. I didn’t think of it. I was too dumb to be a whore. That takes hard work!”

Lena Horne insists on paying for your tea. She will tell you plenty. She will also reserve a lot. She will walk out of the restaurant and onto the streets of New York straight and proud and damn-it-all. You will decide that this dignity, indeed, is what becomes a legend most.