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The Lady Is a Tramp: How Lena Horne Helped Me Become a Tramp

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Oh honestly, unclutch your pearls. I'm not speaking ill of the dead.

If you ever heard the song "The Lady Is a Tramp"—and how the late Lena Horne sang it—you'll understand why I say that about the legendary performer.

Here are the lyrics:

I've wined and dined on mulligan stew, and never wished for turkey
As I hitched and hiked and grifted too, from Maine to Albuquerque
Alas, I missed the Beaux Arts ball, and what is twice as sad
I was never at a party where they honored Noel Ca-ad (Coward)
But social circles spin too fast for me
My hobohemia is the place to be

I get too hungry for dinner at eight
I like the theater but never come late
I never bother with people I hate
That's why the lady is a tramp

I don't like crap games, with barons and earls
Won't go to Harlem in ermine and pearls
Won't dish the dirt with the rest of the girls
That's why the lady is a tramp

I like the free, fresh wind in her hair
Life without care
I'm broke, it's o'k
Hate California, it's cold and it's damp
That's why the lady is a tramp

I go to Coney, the beach is divine
I go to ballgames, the bleachers are fine
I find a Winchell, and read every line
That's why the lady is a tramp

I like a prizefight, that isn't a fake
I love the rowing, on Central Park Lake
I go to opera and stay wide awake
That's why the lady is a tramp

I like the green grass under my shoes
What can I lose, i'm flat, that's that
I'm alone when I lower my lamp
That's why the lady is a tramp

And this is how Horne blew it and the roof off in an 1990 recording:

A "tramp" didn't only mean the nearly exclusive slut-shaming definition it does nowadays. It also meant a vagabond or–more precisely to what the song means–a bohemian, someone's who's an independent spirit, someone's who's seen as seeming comfortable traveling with many kinds and classes of folks, who romanticizes disconnecting from, and sometimes successfully eschews, the trappings of "middle-classedness." (Read Barbara Ehrenreich's Fear of Falling for a more in-depth discussion about this paradoxical relationship.)

Now, when I first heard that song in my teens, it flowed out of Horne's mouth with such life authority that I couldn't wait to grow up so I could be a tramp, to be a woman traveling all out of bounds of what "they" thought I "should" be—married (I divorced my partner of 4 years in 2003), bourgieosie-monied (Racialicious' Latoya Peterson did a great analysis of women of color and wealth), and mothering (no children of my own, though I claim a friend's baby as my niece and will soon be an aunt to a nephew). I have a job that supports my nascent writer's life and currently supplements my emerging safer-sex kit business.

Of course, owning such a business—and the fact that I choose to write about race and sexing it up—may have some people calling me "tramp" in that aforementioned finger-wagging sense, especially since "good" Black women aren't supposed to do "Jezebel" work because it's not "uplifting the race" from the racialized sexual stereotypes that haunt our communities and lives. To some people, having had several relationships with white men (Horne herself married "outside of the race," specifically to a white Jewish man), having had several lovers of different races and ethnicities, and having gotten out of my first poly experience (one of my lovers was 16 years my junior) just may burnish their views of my round-heeledness.

I, however, am not going to sweat this: this is what Horne herself had to say about sex and the older woman.

So, I'm deeply grateful for Horne's rich life and her contributions to social justice that helped me, well, be here at Bitch as a guest blogger...and what l will always love her for is living her life so I'm free to be the tramp I am today.

Thanks to Rob Fields for the link to the Horne/Bradley interview!

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Comments

5 comments have been made. Post a comment.

nice first post

I just heard "Stormy Weather" on the radio today, and I was grateful to learn more about the incomparable Lena Horne. Thanks.

Hey Anonymous! Thanks for

Hey Anonymous! Thanks for the compliment, and I'm glad the post was informative underneath all the respectful playfulness! It's a great way to start my gig here.

Between you and me, I prefer Lena Horne's version to Billie Holiday's. Just my taste, I suppose...

Great first post & tribute to Ms. Horne

Kudos, Andrea! You've given me a new appreciation for this song, and I look forward to more of your Bitch-ing here! xoxo

Awww, thanks!

You're my inspiration for doing this gig, Deesha. Thanks so much for supporting me in all my efforts!:-*

The Lady Lena

Thanks for the beautiful picture of Lena. I'd never seen it before.


Here's my favorite.  Look at the power in this woman!  And then she'd


open her mouth and you could feel it, too!  She's proudly a tramp.


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