Lorraine Gerard, the wife of a bebop pianist named Vinnie Gerard, was nearing eighty in 2005, but time had not dimmed a particular memory from her Depression-era childhood. She grew up in Canarsie, a bayside neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. Her family took her for weekend fun to the shore, where buskers entertained for coins on a well-known pier.
In 1933, Lorraine got her first glimpse of a lovely, waiflike teenager whose name, she heard, was Lena Horne. "Every Saturday and Sunday she used to sing and dance on the beach for pennies," Lorraine recalled. "She appeared to be extremely poor. I thought she had the ugliest legs, and I wasn't the only one that thought that. Scrawny, you know? Her dresses were skimpy-looking; you could tell that she was in need." Lorraine's family never spoke to the girl, but she earned their sympathy, and they tossed some change her way.
Her household needed all the help it could get. Lena's mother was a jobless and sickly actress; her Cuban stepfather was unemployed, too. They could barely pay the rent on their small Brooklyn apartment and lived on groceries from relief organizations. For Lena—who'd been born into the well-heeled respectability of the black middle class—life now held considerable shame.
A decade later she had good reason to obscure her past. M-G-M had signed her to a long-term contract, the likes of which no one of color in Hollywood had ever known. In the black community, all eyes were on her. As a sex symbol of uncommon refinement, Horne would have to revolutionize the Negro persona in Hollywood. Among the reams of press she received was a profile in PM, a Manhattan leftist newspaper. For an article called "The Real Story of Lena Horne," she told reporter Robert Rice about her distinguished family, which included schoolteachers, activists, and a Harlem Renaissance poet. Apropos of nothing, Horne mentioned that an interviewer had asked her if she'd ever "danced for pennies on the street" as a youngster.
"I told him no," she said.
Keeping up appearances would always be crucial to Horne, as it was for so many black people throughout her lifetime. They had to take great pains to counter the stereotypes that the white community associated with them. A veneer as painstakingly wrought as Horne's wasn't easily dropped; it was the armor she needed to survive, and it hid lots of secrets. Only in 1963, when the civil rights movement had forced much of America to take an honest look at what it meant to be black, did Horne start delving behind her own mask. She did so for an autobiographical article in Show magazine, "I Just Want to Be Myself."
"I came from what was called one of the First Families of Brooklyn," Horne explained. They shunned discussing the slave ancestry that had spawned them all—"yet it was the rape of slave women by their masters which accounted for our white blood, which, in turn, made us Negro 'society.'" Home was an immaculate four-story brownstone in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant section. An iron fence with sharp black spikes protected 189 Chauncey Street on three sides. That barrier told passersby to keep their distance; and for Lena's grandmother Cora, the lady of the house, it shut out the neighborhood's seamier elements—the poor Irish in tenements across the street, the Swedes who ran a garage a few doors down.