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A Life-Altering Encounter With Lena Horne


Legendary performer Lena Horne is laid to rest today in New York. She touched many fans with her acting, her music and her class. And while most only glimpsed her work on screen or on stage, some were lucky enough to get closer.

NPR's Charlayne Hunter-Gault was one of those fortunate few. As a very famous college student herself, she met Lena Horne, an experience she wrote about for the online journal The Root. And now she joins us to talk about that. Welcome, Charlayne.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

KEYES: Briefly, how and why did you come to meet Lena Horne?

HUNTER-GAULT: I had been at the University of Georgia for, I guess, a little over a year when Jean Noble, who was then the president of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, heard that I was coming to New York and said, oh, well, I've got some friends I'd like you to meet and she never said what friends. And I figured they were other Deltas. And so I said, oh, great, fine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HUNTER-GAULT: So we got to this beautiful apartment building that I always loved on West End Avenue in New York. And got on the elevator and I still didn't know who it was, got to the door, rang the bell and who should open the door but this vision of a person, Lena Horne. And of course she's instantly recognizable. But what surprised me was that she was wearing just a plain, little old set of black pedal pushers and a little white cotton top and, you know, none of that sort of glamour. But...

KEYES: No furs, no jewelry.

HUNTER-GAULT: ...the fact that no furs, no jewelry. But that smile, you know, that just added all the furs and the jewelry and the glamour to the pedal pushers and the little cotton top. It was just an amazing surprise. And, of course, I didn't know how I was supposed to react. So I was trying to be cool, like, something like this happens every day. No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: At the time you were at a pretty challenging time yourself. You were the first black woman to attend the University of Georgia. Did she already know that? What did she say to you?

HUNTER-GAULT: Yeah, she knew because of course the story about the desegregation had been, you know, an international story. And then of course being a Delta and then she was a friend of Jean Noble. And so she knew who I was. And I think that she and Jean just instinctively understood what an uplifting moment this would be to meet someone like Lena Horne.

And what shocked me was that she started asking me all sorts of questions about what it was like at the University of Georgia and how proud she was of me. And of course, you know, she has that Southern background, so it was a very easy moment. She introduced me to her husband, the famous musician, pianist Lennie Hayden. And Lennie discreetly excused himself from the living room so that the girls could sit there and talk.

And it was just an amazing moment because I was trying to keep up with the conversation, but I was so awestruck, it wasn't even funny. I don't know if this may have been one of the few stars I had ever really met. I'd met Martin Luther King and people in the movement and that was important, but here was this wonderful creature. And I was in her house.

And then all of a sudden, she bounded out of the chair and said, okay, I'm going to go fix dessert. And I said to myself, she's going to fix dessert right now? You know, in my mind's eye I could see a maid in the kitchen fixing dessert and everything.

KEYES: Right.

HUNTER-GAULT: But Jean followed her, so I followed her into the kitchen, and she started to make with her own hands, strawberry shortcake. And just so comfortable and at ease. And she actually, as awestruck as I was, she put me at ease as well. That was the first part of an evening to be remembered.

KEYES: Well, this is two role models together in one room. I mean, what did you learn from her example about how to handle being a black woman?

HUNTER-GAULT: We didn't talk a lot about that. But you can imagine the trials and tribulations she must have gone through as a black woman in Hollywood during that period, even though she had this wonderful role in stormy weather and all of that. But, I mean, you can imagine if she were active today, the kinds of roles that she might be getting. Although I'm not sure, you know. It's still a bit of a challenge to find really credible roles for black women, I think, in Hollywood.

But in those days, you know, she didn't let it affect her personality. And she was a star. And yet I was so struck by her humility. And so a lot of people, while a lot of people talk about her beauty, meaning her physical beauty, I think the beauty for me came from within and I saw a lot of that that night. I mean, the humility of her, I mean, I kept calling her Ms. Horne. And after a while she said, just call me Lena, child.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HUNTER-GAULT: And, of course, being a Southern girl, that kind of child thing really got to me. And then she and Jean had conspired to make this an unforgettable evening for me, so she in a surprise visit, her son Teddy came by and I thought it was just to meet this really gorgeous creature, that would have been enough for me because he was as beautiful as his mother. But she had arranged to have him take me to Birdland, which was my first trip to hear a big band. In retrospect, it was a dream come true.

But I think the bottom line for me was to see this world-renowned starlet just being so gracious and giving. It's an image of her that I will carry with me the rest of my life.

KEYES: NPR correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault joined us from Johannesburg, South Africa. What a cool story. And thanks a lot for joining us.

HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you, I'm so happy to be able to share it.

KEYES: And if you want to read Charlayne's story of meeting Lena Horne, just check out our website. Go to the program page of npr.org and click on TELL ME MORE. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.