By Tod Roulette
It’s fitting that the personal effects of Lena Horne,would be sold at a Doyle auction house during fashion week no less.
Horne, an uber multilayered woman of talent, notable firsts of race, glamour and grit was beyond icon to a presence on stage to a thinking invested activist and film star of African American heritage.
“She was a citizen of the world and there are so many parts of her exhibited by her wardrobe” says Louis Webre Marketing at Doyle auction house on 87th Street in Manhattan. Pointing to a rack and taking down two garments in particular that showed how engaged and interested Ms. Horne was in all of humankind. He held in his left hand an intricately colorful and appliqued Arabic gown and a very Afro-centric one in the right hand and quickly pointed out the glitter entertainment bedazzled pieces where the two other pieces just left.
In his biography, Stormy Weather James Gavin says that Ms. Horne led a life very much like the young one she experienced as a child-being pulled in different directions by different factions and interests. She was fought over by her mother a wanna be show biz beauty in her own right and her very proper grandparents – the Horne’s of Brooklyn, her father’s family. Her only surviving child, Gail Lumet Buckley graciously hosted the evening’s private preview of star-studded folk, the well-heeled friends of the family, NAACP board members (which received a number of items for the cause) and Apollo theater board and management.
All the parts and worlds of Ms. Horne in a cozy comfortable and tony setting surrounded by items of a woman who was enrolled as a lifetime member of the NAACP at the age of two years although her looks could have easily allowed her to turn her sharp shoulder blades on the oppressed darker sons of Ham in the U.S. at a crucial time in American history.
“She spoke of going in search of the older blacks who had taken her in, and the children who’d briefly become her friends. “Everything was I had never left,” she said. “It was a flashback.” (p. 355, Gavin).
Cicely Tyson as stunning as when she graced the pages of Ebony in days past hugged Amy and Jenny Lumet, Lena’s granddaughters of the exceptional beauty. A large defiant painting of Lena Horne stood on the auction floor painted by Geoffrey Holder lot #, 1175, estimate 2,500-3,500 .
He arrived with Cecily Tyson and posed holding Ms. Buckley like his little girl in his big gentlemanly stature. At their feet sat Ms. Horne’s Louis Vuitton steamer trunk which is stamped several times by the French Cruise Line name. Lena Horne and Lennie Hayton her manager, a Jew had to travel on the French cruise line as evidenced by lot # 1181 (estimate, 500-700) in the Doyle sale Ms. Buckley pointed out to the Louis Webre retold because interracial marriages were illegal in the U.S. in the 1950’s. Their marriage was a public secret for some 14 years.
I asked Ms. Buckley whose husband a jovial gray-haired white man holding her Chanel purse and wine, why she chose Doyle auction house over another one of the big auction houses such as Sotheby’s or Christie’s. “That’s simple. Word of mouth. A friend of mine said, Doyle and so I called them and they have been wonderful”, said Buckley.
I asked if she was working on another book and she admitted ” No, well yes here and there, but nothing that I want to talk about at this point.” said Buckley almost apologetically waving her hands slightly. Her two books The Hornes: An American Family about her mother’s family in Brooklyn and Blacks in Uniform: From Bunker Hill to Desert Storm in 2001.
Her two stunning daughters stood beside their mother and Ben Jealous from the NAACP, while the head of auction house, Ms. Kathy Doyle welcomed everyone.
I grabbed a moment with Jenny Lumet (whose father is Sidney Lumet – yes who produced the Whiz featuring Ms. Horne as the Good Witch) and asked her what it felt like to see all of her grandmother’s things everywhere on the floor and she stated there were a number of things that caught her unawares.
“I combed that place with a fine tooth comb and I didn’t see a couple of things I see on the floor here. Like that silver studded piece over there.” said Ms. Lumet pointing to Lot # 1091, a flat matte jersey top with silver metal studs est. 100-150. I asked her if she was ever allowed to play or touch the ‘toy surrey with the fringe on top’ undoubtedly a remembrance of Ms. Horne’s rendition of the Rogers and Hammerstein classic winter romantically. The granddaughter pointed excitedly across to the glass case and confirmed she was not allowed to go near her grandma’s momento. (Lot 1196, est. 200-300).
The night was a brilliant mix of smart folk like “Eloise” storybook illustrator Hilary Knight, Lot # 1152, est. 200-300 which features a drawing Lena and husband Lenny Hayton.
Ms. Horne with writer Kay Thompson and their friendship as girlfriends in a talented bright world of entertainment, Patrick McMullan celebrity photographer, Spencer Means, Jonelle Procope, President of the Apollo and Leslie Uggams. The catalogue itself is like a show bill from The Woman and her Music with family photos going all the way to Lena’s grandparents, her mother pre-deceased son, Teddy Jones and photos with Aretha Franklin, designer Giorgio di Sant Angelo and Barbra Streisand.
In 2007 on an early morning around the corner from Lena’s house the now recluse Horne stood in front of me and my two small boys at Duane Reade, she was battling what seemed like a major cold. Unsteady and Incognito and standing in front of my son Jayson who had just thrown up in the street on the way to a doctor’s appointment I didn’t realize the only other person in the store standing in front of us, was Ms. Horne until she spoke to the clerk asking for another medication. She was wearing black and a hat that masked who she was along with large dark glasses but as she stumbled backed into Jayson, age 8 years old she said, “I’m sorry baby”. There was no mistaking, it was Ms. Horne. She toddled out and I discreetly told Jose and Jayson who she was. They immediately wanted to go meet her. Suddenly his stomach virus subsided. It was star magic and gentleness. I thought about her that whole morning.
“I was always battling the system to try to get to be with my people. Finally, I wouldn’t work for places that kept us out. … It was a damn fight everywhere I was, every place I worked, in New York, in Hollywood, all over the world,” she said in Brian Lanker’s book “I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America.”
She changed America with every battle she engaged in and every time she graced the stage with mellowed bitterness, beauty, hard-nosed truth and eloquent diction.
Thank you, Lena.
Tod Roulette is a Harlem based private art dealer and published writer whose work has appeared in Avon Books anthology, Fighting Words and numerous articles in ARude, Men’s Style, Paper, Out magazine, Harlem World Magazine and others. His Masters thesis is being rewritten as a book and examines four generations of female members of his MidWest family 1795-1908, “Rowing, Not Drifting-Bryant Women in Kansas, 1795-1908: The Expansion of the West and the Participation by Women of Color.”
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Photos are courtesy of Leila Jacue, photography (unless otherwise indicated): top to bottom, l to r: Lena Horne by Conte Nast; Jenny Lumet (granddaughter), Mrs. Gail Lumet Buckley (daughter) and Amy Lumet; Geoffrey Holder painting of Lena Horne, lot # 1196 by Doyle; Jonelle Procope, President of Apollo Theater with Gail Buckley; Geoffrey Holder and Mrs. Buckley; Mr. and Mrs. Kevin Buckley; Gail Buckley with President of the NAACP, Ben Jealous; Tod Roulette and Jenny Lumet discusses her favorite items; Lena Horne Surrey with the Fringe by Doyle; Tod Roulette and Spencer Means; Gail Buckley, Tod Roulette and John Reddick; Richard Avedon contact sheets of Ms. Horne, Lot # 1014.