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The Funeral of Lena Horne

By Janie Gust
Theres a saying that the only thing that stays constant in life is change and by that
measure I can say my life during 2010 has been extremely constant. I am now officially
a part of the bicoastal club, schlepping back and forth across the continental U.S., a
change precipitated by the recessions effect on the legal profession as well as my desire
to utilize my New York law license. So despite feeling 100% Angelena for the last
decade or so, I had to prepare myself for the inevitable: It was time to go back to New
York. In fact, I am in New York as I write this.
Yesterday, on Friday, May 14, 2010 at a Catholic church on the Upper East Side of
Manhattan, I had the honor of attending the funeral of a woman who is difficult to
categorize. Depending on your age and persuasion, one facet of Ms. Horne may reflect
more significantly in your eyes. For me, as a child, I recall her during the 1960s as a
singer and former movie star from decades past. Id see her occasionally on TV when my
parents would call us to the living room saying Lena Horne is on! I recall reading about
her in Ebony, on her ageless beauty or her support of the civil rights movement. I recall
her complex stream-of-consciousness type explanations on why she had married a white
man. That, despite being highly critical of the white mans behavior towards blacks and
the racial discrimination which she herself had been subjected to during her life and
career. She is reported to have quipped once, I married a white man to get even with
As I matured, I began to recall her as that force in The Wiz, singing Believe in Yourself
with raw emotion. And finally, I recall her as a woman who gave herself permission to
be as feisty and outspoken as she wanted to be, damn the critics. As a young adult, I
found myself drawn to her, purchasing The Hornes, her daughter Gails biography of the
family history, a book which is still on my shelf. And I wondered how she was doing
during these last few years when she dropped out of public view roughly a decade ago.
When I learned she died on Mothers Day here in New York I took another listen to her
music. For me, she was a great jazz singer who just got better with time.
So I was determined to say my farewell to this legend even if it meant standing outside
the church. Being a New York newbie, I had to go to an unfamiliar station from my
Brooklyn neighborhood to get to the Upper East Side and somehow got crossed up. Time
had suddenly run short. Im from LA; can you tell me where the 4 station is? I
inquired of a transit worker when I found myself at the wrong station. (For some reason,
preceding a question by saying Im from LA when I am in a pinch makes NYC folks
very accommodating, a sort of shorthand for those times I feel like Alice-through- thelooking-glass.) I was kindly directed to go across the street. And I was on my way.
When I got to the church on Park Avenue I briefly hesitated when I saw the press
lingering around. While the news release hadnt said it was a private service neither had
it stated it was open to the public. Yet, having come this far dressed respectably and not

seeing masses of people turned away I marched up to the church. Would you like to
sign the guestbook? an usher greeted me. I suddenly began feeling emotional. This was
real. I signed the guestbook using my LA address, hoping to convey for posterity that
there were people from throughout the country who wanted to pay their respects.
The service was beautiful. Tears streamed down my cheeks when the casket was brought
into the church as I thought of how I wished I had seen her in person during her life.
After the congregation sang a couple of hymns, the priest gently quipped that from the
singing he could tell there were some Baptists in the congregation. That generated a
laugh and quickly broke the tone of somberness. The crowd was a mix of races and so
was the service. A photo of her with late husband Lennie Hayton graced the program.
Former New York mayor David Dinkins, Rep. John Lewis gave eulogies. A few elderly
members of The Tuskegee Airmen were part of the program. Audra McDonald sang.
Granddaughter Jenny Lumet said a few words as well as one of Ms. Hornes white inlaws.
Lena Horne. Actress, jazz singer, consummate entertainer. Civil rights crusader. Bridge
across races and religions. Who she was to you may depend on who you are to yourself.
For me, she was a complex and beautiful mosaic who never forgot the African-American
threads that ran deeply throughout. And that reminds me of jazz.
Rest in Peace, beautiful lady.