A star spangled star

DowhatsrightI must admit to not knowing much about the black singer, and actress, Lena Horne.

I knew she was talented and drop-dead gorgeous. But, it wasn't until I read Emily Yellin's superb book, Our Mothers' War, that I learned about Horne's pioneering role in the Civil Rights Movement.

Yellin's 2004 tome shines the spotlight on the role women played here, and abroad, during World War II. It's a fascinating page-turner that covers everything from WACS and WAVES to female traitors, radio DJs, spies, and movie stars such as Horne.

Lena was one of the few black Hollywood entertainers recruited by the USO to perform for our troops. She had been the first black woman to have the power to have her contract with the studio stipulate that she would not play maids or jungle natives, which had previously been the only roles open for black women. And, although she was deeply frustrated by the Jim Crow segregation laws that existed at the time, Horne agreed to the USO's request that she perform two, separate shows every time: one for the white G.I's and another one for blacks.

This continued until she was on a domestic tour to entertain troops stationed in Fort Riley, Kansas. Once there, Horne was told to stay two days. USO officials said she was needed to perform for white troops the first night, stay over, and then entertain black G.I.'s the next morning. She wasn't happy, but Horne agreed to change her plans and do the two performances.

Just before the second show began, however, Horne pulled aside the curtain and saw that the first few rows were full of white men, and the black American troops, who she was there to perform for, were seated behind them. 'Who are those guys?' she asked the stage manager. 'German P.O.W.'s,' he replied.

That was the final straw. Horne sang a few songs for the black G.I.'s, with her back turned on the Germans, completely ignoring them, then broke down and rushed off the stage. She headed to the nearest NAACP office and, with their help, issued a formal, written complaint to the USO. Horne stopped touring with the USO and, instead, underwrote her own, separate tour just to entertain the black troops in the evenings. That took some serious intestinal fortitude. 

Yellin reports that American blacks fought two world wars in the 1940's. In fact,  African-Americans spoke about a Double V: victory over the Axis forces and victory over segregation.

The first came with the surrenders of Germany and Japan, respectively. The second didn't begin in an organized way until 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, to end public school segregation. And, it didn't take full flight until the rest of the 1950s and the 1960s with the murder of Emmett Till, the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and the riots in Watts, Newark, Detroit and elsewhere.

When I think of Independence Day, I think of great American heroes. After having read Yellin's book about Lena Horne's efforts to end racism in mid 20th century America, I'd now include her in that list.

I'd also draw your attention to the difference in Hollywood stars, then and now.

During WWII, we had celebrities such as Horne fighting for equal rights, Jimmy Stewart flying countless bombing missions over Nazi Germany and Carole Lombard losing her life in a plane crash during a war bond tour.

Compare those heavyweights with Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Snooki, and one can begin to see just one reason why America finds itself in its current condition. Today's heroes are pale imitations, to say the least.

It may be just one blogger's opinion, but I believe one Lena Horne was worth more than all the modern-day stars populating Hollywood lumped together. And, I can't think of a single star I'd call an American hero. Can you?

22 thoughts on “A star spangled star

  1. Agreed, Emily. I have newfound respect for Hattie McDaniels as well. And, who knew about Julia Childs, and her role during WWII? Or, that there never was a Tokyo Rose? I must admit to having learned many, new things about a subject I thought I’d mastered. Maybe I’ll write a similar book and call it ‘Our dogs’ war’? I can interview people about the role their dogs played during WWII. FYI, former Congressdog Mick Cody has agreed to write the foreword. Can I count on Layla Yellin to contribute the after word?

  2. While we are at it…let’s not forget Margaret Mitchell’s and Dorothy Parker’s contribution to the Civil Rights movement… Amazing women, both of them.
    And I’d pay money to see any film starring former CongressDog Mick Cody.

  3. Agreed, Emily. I have new found respect for Hattie McDaniels as well. And, who knew about Julia Childs, and her role during WWII? Or, that there never was a Tokyo Rose? I must admit to having learned many, new things about a subject I thought I’d mastered. Maybe I’ll write a similar book and call it ‘Our dogs’ war’? I can interview people about the role their dogs played during WWII. FYI, former Congressdog Mick Cody has agreed to write the foreword. Can I count on Layla Yellin to contribute the after word?

  4. Thanks for the insight, Emily. As for the conversation your book, and my blog elicited, Caveat Repman. Tangents are an every day fact of life at Peppercom, so it stands to reason that suggesting Tom Cruise feed Sam Ford a cup of squirrel soup would be a natural outcome of a discussion about the role of women during WWII.

  5. When I wrote this book about WWII women in 2004, I never imagined it would result in a discussion of burgoo, Jessica Simpson and Toby Keith, and wrestlers in 2012. But then, I never imagined Twitter or Facebook back then either. Ha.
    I have a note from Katharine Hepburn to a male friend at the time, that I couldn’t include in the book for rights reasons, in which she says that men have it better than women in this war (WWII) because they can go fight and women can’t. Women weren’t allowed to be a part of the active part of the war. So unpaid, unheralded volunteers were most of what was available to them back then.
    But I think Sam’s point is good that it was a very different war. Not many women, stars or not, are itching for the fights since WWII. Neither are many men. So while I agree that the stars of today are not as active in the war effort, I think that is a symptom of the general attitude toward war changing, more than it is a cause of it. Also, men were drafted in WWII, as in Viet Nam. And so the engagement in those wars at home, both in support and against, was higher.
    Still, it would be interesting to have a time machine and get to see John Stewart and Stephen Colbert televise their shows from the European or Pacific fronts during WWII.

  6. No offense intended, but the burgoo has heart attack written all over it (which, in turn, means it would make for an ideal Peppercom client. Does anyone market it at retail, Sam? If so, Michael or Brian should pursue ASAP. We can add them to our Empty Calories Practice).

  7. From this non-Confederate state denizen…burgoo is a stew made up of a mixture of things and served with cornbread. Typically, it’s hickory-smoked meats with some vegetables and something to thicken it, like cornmeal. It’s most associated round these parts with Owensboro, KY, which also has quite the reputation for BBQ.

  8. Tell you what, Sam. If Tom Cruise serves you a bowl of squirrel soup, I’ll crawl on my hands and knees all the way from Manhattan to Louisville.

  9. I agree with your point here, only that you might have been overstating it. I think the dedication that actors, singers, and other public faces showed during WWII was phenomenal and should be remembered. And I think there’s plenty of blame to be thrown at the Hollywood culture of today. However, in calling out Hollywood culture, it’s important to nevertheless highlight the work of people who are showing dedication to the troops, like Gary, Toby, and the lot. Also, when it comes to doing things like serving in the army one’s self, etc., I do think it’s an important distinction that both the number of people who fought in WWII and the number of people who believed WWII was a necessary war is much different than the way people felt about Iraq and Afghanistan. So it was also considered much more a duty throughout our culture to support the troops and war effort in the 1940s than today. We can muse that Travolta or Cruise wouldn’t do so if WWII recreated itself, but hopefully we won’t find out. (Although, to be fair to Cruise, he is both in part from Louisville and has performed at USO events in the past, so he might be more likely than you’d think to serve me some squirrel soup.)

  10. Aside from the notorious case of Errol Flynn who allegedly ducked out on active duty and later portrayed heroes in war-time flicks, I don’t think many Hollywood celebrities of the era avoided serving their country, Sam. In fact, the various “canteens” created by the USO in major U.S. cities were routinely staffed with Hollywood celebrities who not only performed for the troops, but served them coffee, food and, in some cases, actually danced with them. Could you imagine John Travolta or Tom Cruise serving Lieutenant Second Class Sam Earl Ford his favorite cup of squirrel soup at the Louisville USO canteen? I think not.

  11. Are you suggesting C.M. Punk is no Bogart (someone else who was very active from that era in supporting the military and I believe was a veteran himself)? My point is simply that there are a lot of performers today who have gone out of their way to support the troops, as well as plenty who haven’t. But Mark Wahlberg, Carrie Underwood, Gary Senise, Louis C.K., David Blaine, Jon Stewart, Toby Keith, Stephen Colbert, Karl Malone, Lance Armstrong, Robin Williams, and Trace Adkins are among those who have. I just wonder what the list of celebrities from the 1940s who weren’t involved in the war effort in any way looked like….

  12. I’m not questioning the dedication of some sports celebrities, Sam. I think the big difference between World War II and today’s conflicts is the direct involvement of A-level celebrities.
    No offense to your wrestlers, but where are the Jimmy Stewart’s, Carole Lombard’s and Lena Horne’s of today? Not only are they NOT putting their necks on the line, they’re not even leaving the immediate perimeters of their expansive Beverly Hills mansions.
    That was then, and this is now. But, I’d much rather have yesterday’s stars protecting my back than the pale imitations passing themselves off as today’s celebrities.

  13. Great post, and agreed about shining the spotlight on some of these forgotten voices. I have to echo book’s points, though, about many celebrities dedicating time to the USO. And I think there are many that go beyond that: WWE has gone to Afghanistan and Iraq every year for years to put on shows in combat zones for the troop and air them back in the U.S. Toby Keith has been incredibly dedicated. Etc. I wonder what the count is of stars in the 1940s who WEREN’T involved. But there’s also the issue that a.) a far smaller part of or the population has fought in the current wars, and the public is much more divided about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan than they were about our entry into WWII (in terms of celebrities actually enlisting).

  14. Many still do USO tours (even Jessica Simpson!) but again, I agree, in this day of me me me, hard to find people who take a stand on anything but “me.”

  15. I agree there are a few celebrities who do what they can, Book. But, and this is the key point, WWII Hollywood entertainers literally put their lives on the line to either perform in front-line combat areas, fly bombing missions like Stewart or draw the lie in the segregation sand as Lena Horne did. I seriously doubt today’s Hollywood big shots would do the same. Most would never leave the 90210 zip code.

  16. I agree rep, but I think some do a lot of good and you may not hear about it. Oprah comes to mind with her emphasis on children’s schools as does Christy Turlington and her work for healthcare and birth control in African nations. I think celebrities back in the day appreciated their wealth and gave back more but just as the most people today, they want “theirs” and don’t want to share. My two cents (which I will end up donating to charity).