Happy Birthday, Lena Horne

To me, birthdays have always seemed an odd thing. I get celebrating a graduation or even an anniversary: These require hard work. But my birthday? I wasn’t even there, at least not until the end of it. I just sort of showed up, like every day since.

But then there’s a life like Lena Horne‘s. She marked her 90th birthday on Saturday, and that lady deserves a party.

Most of her online photos, even recent ones, are in black and white, and I think I know why. She personifies elegance. And wisdom. And old-fashioned class, unlike some young starlets we could name.

Although she’s retired from public appearances, her long career reads like a history of the struggle for civil rights on stage and screen. Sang at Harlem’s Cotton Club in the days of Billie Holiday? Check. Shunted to stand-alone movie scenes so that she could be edited out for distribution in the South? Yep. Lost a role to Ava Gardner because MGM worried about an African-American lead? You know it. Blacklisted in the 1950s for social activism? Of course.

But she believed, and no one could change that path she sang about as Glenda the Good Witch in The Wiz.

Decades later, she’s still got it. In 1995, her album An Evening With Lena Horne was honored with a Grammy for Best Vocal Jazz Album, and listening to hits like “Stormy Weather” on her final album, Seasons of a Life (2005), feels like sitting down with an old friend.

And because we should all listen to our elders, here are some Lena Horne gems of wisdom:

“Don’t be afraid to feel as angry or as loving as you can, because when you feel nothing, it’s just death.”

“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”

“You have to be taught to be second class; you’re not born that way.”

And one more reason to love Lena Horne:

“It’s ill-becoming for an old broad to sing about how bad she wants it. But occasionally we do.”

Living this life for ninety years? Now that’s an achievement.

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