In Memory of Lena Horne
Lena Horne passed away on May 9, 2010.
Lena Horne was born in Brooklyn, New York on June 30, 1917 and grew up in both New York and Georgia. Lena showed such talent and beauty from early on that by the time she was sixteen she was performing in the chorus line at the Cotton Club in Harlem. Horne then joined Noble Sissle’s Orchestra followed by a stint with Charlie Barnet in 1940. At the time Lena preferred New York to touring and began performing at Café Society and replaced Dinah Shore as the vocalist in NBC’s show The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street. Already at this time Horne had starred in some lower budget films but was signed by MGM and became the first black performer to sign a long-term deal with a major Hollywood studio. Lena performed in the 1942 film ‘Panama Hattie’ and ‘Ziegfeld Follies’ in 1946. At this time the studios refused to put Lena in a leading role, aside from ‘Cabin in the Sky’ which featured all African Americans, because she was African American and all her scenes in movies had to be done in such a way that those scenes could be cut to be able to show these films in states where people had not yet evolved to the point of being able to handle seeing an African American on a movie screen.
Lena decided to focus on her music career in the early 1950s due in part to being blacklisted for her social views which included the idea that all people are created equal and should be given equal opportunity in America. Horne toured internationally and recorded one of her popular albums, ‘Lena Horne at the Waldorf-Astoria’ in 1957 which at the time became the best selling record by a female vocalist on RCA-Victor. Horne was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical in 1958 for her role in Jamaica. Also in the late 1950s and ‘60s Lena made appearances on all the popular television variety shows including The Ed Sullivan Show, Kraft Music Hall, The Dean Martin Show, The Judy Garland Show and The Andy Williams show among others. In 1970 she co-starred with Harry Belafonte in an hour long television special and in 1973 she did an hour long special with Tony Bennett. Horne also guest starred on many television sitcoms including The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, The Cosby Show, Sanford and Son and A Different World. In 1981 she received a special Tony Award for her one-woman show ‘Lena Horne: The Lady and her Music’. In 1988 Horne recorded the album ‘The Men in My Life’ with guests including Sammy Davis Jr. and Joe Williams and in 1989 Lena won the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Some of Lena Horne’s achievements for civil rights include working with Eleanor Roosevelt to pass anti-lynching laws, attending the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 as well as speaking and performing on behalf of the NAACP, SNCC and the National Council of Negro Women. Lena Horne was a warrior for civil rights and speaking out for the freedom of all people throughout her life as well as an incredible performer and entertainer. In the words of Quincy Jones, “Lena Horne was a pioneering groundbreaker, making inroads into a world that had never before been explored by African-American women, and she did it on her own terms. Our nation and the world has lost one of the great artistic icons of the 20th century. There will never be another like Lena Horne and I will miss her deeply."
“I don't have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I'd become. I'm me, and I'm like nobody else.”
“You have to be taught to be second class; you're not born that way“
“Don't be afraid to feel as angry or as loving as you can, because when you feel nothing, it's just death.” – Lena Horne
Lena Horne is a legend. There is no getting around that fundamental fact whether one considers it a cliche or not. Furthermore, it is impossible to understate the actual historical significance and social meaning of who Lena Horne was in the wider context of both 20th century American popular culture in general and African American culture specifically. It's also very important to remember that when the civil rights movement called on its popular artists to take open public stands on behalf of the goals and objectives of the movement for freedom, justice, and equality Ms. Horne was ALWAYS on the frontlines and never failed to make and maintain a strong outspoken committment to the larger principles of the movement whether it had a negative effect on her personal career or not. And despite the blatantly false assertion in the NY Times obit below Horne WAS blacklisted by both Hollywood and the television industry for at least 15 years because of her longtime intimate personal and political friendships with such important radical activists as Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois which only added to the indifference, scorn, and criminal neglect of her and nearly every other well known black artist of the 1940-1970 era--especially those like Horne, who aside from being highly talented and beautiful also cared deeply about her people and the larger society and courageously put themselves and their careers on the line many times to say and do the right thing. Thus for many reasons--both artistic and political-- the strength, grace, luminous talent, and love of Ms. Horne will be sorely missed...
Lena Horne, Singer and Actress, Dies at 92
By ALJEAN HARMETZ
May 9, 2010
New York Times
Lena Horne, who broke new ground for black performers when she signed a long-term contract with a major Hollywood studio and who went on to achieve international fame as a singer, died on Sunday night in Manhattan. She was 92.
Her death, at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, was announced by her son-in-law, Kevin Buckley. She lived in Manhattan. In a message of condolence, President Obama said Ms. Horne had "worked tirelessly to further the cause of justice and equality."
Ms. Horne first achieved fame in the 1940s, became a nightclub and recording star in the 1950s and made a triumphant return to the spotlight with a one-woman Broadway show in 1981. She might have become a major movie star, but she was born 50 years too early: she languished at MGM for years because of her race, although she was so light-skinned that when she was a child other black children had taunted her, accusing her of having a “white daddy.”
Ms. Horne was stuffed into one “all-star” film musical after another — “Thousands Cheer” (1943), “Broadway Rhythm” (1944), “Two Girls and a Sailor” (1944), “Ziegfeld Follies” (1946), “Words and Music” (1948) — to sing a song or two that, she later recalled, could easily be snipped from the movie when it played in the South, where the idea of an African-American performer in anything but a subservient role in a movie with an otherwise all-white cast was unthinkable.
“The only time I ever said a word to another actor who was white was Kathryn Grayson in a little segment of ‘Show Boat’ ” included in “Till the Clouds Roll By” (1946), a movie about the life of Jerome Kern, Ms. Horne said in an interview in 1990. In that sequence she played Julie, a mulatto forced to flee the showboat because she has married a white man.
But when MGM made “Show Boat” into a movie for the second time, in 1951, the role of Julie was given to a white actress, Ava Gardner, whose singing voice was dubbed. (Ms. Horne was no longer under contract to MGM at the time, and according to James Gavin’s Horne biography, “Stormy Weather,” published last year, she was never seriously considered for the part.) And when Ms. Horne herself married a white man — the prominent arranger, conductor and pianist Lennie Hayton, who was for many years both her musical director and MGM’s — the marriage, in 1947, took place in France and was kept secret for three years.
Ms. Horne’s first MGM movie was “Panama Hattie” (1942), in which she sang Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things.” Writing about that film years later, Pauline Kael called it “a sad disappointment, though Lena Horne is ravishing, and when she sings you can forget the rest of the picture.”
Even before she came to Hollywood, Brooks Atkinson, the drama critic for The New York Times, noticed Ms. Horne in “Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1939,” a Broadway revue that ran for nine performances. “A radiantly beautiful sepia girl,” he wrote, “who will be a winner when she has proper direction.”
She had proper direction in two all-black movie musicals, both made in 1943. Lent to 20th Century Fox for “Stormy Weather,” one of those show business musicals with almost no plot but lots of singing and dancing, Ms. Horne did both triumphantly, ending with the sultry, aching sadness of the title number, which would become one of her signature songs. In MGM’s “Cabin in the Sky,” the first film directed by Vincente Minnelli, she was the brazen, sexy handmaiden of the Devil. (One number she shot for that film, “Ain’t It the Truth,” which she sang while taking a bubble bath, was deleted before the film was released — not for racial reasons, as her stand-alone performances in other MGM musicals sometimes were, but because it was considered too risqué.)
In 1945 the critic and screenwriter Frank S. Nugent wrote in Liberty magazine that Ms. Horne was “the nation’s top Negro entertainer.” In addition to her MGM salary of $1,000 a week, she was earning $1,500 for every radio appearance and $6,500 a week when she played nightclubs. She was also popular with servicemen, white and black, during World War II, appearing more than a dozen times on the Army radio program “Command Performance.”
“The whole thing that made me a star was the war,” Ms. Horne said in the 1990 interview. “Of course the black guys couldn’t put Betty Grable’s picture in their footlockers. But they could put mine.”
Touring Army camps for the U.S.O., Ms. Horne was outspoken in her criticism of the way black soldiers were treated. “So the U.S.O. got mad,” she recalled. “And they said, ‘You’re not going to be allowed to go anyplace anymore under our auspices.’ So from then on I was labeled a bad little Red girl.”
Ms. Horne later claimed that for this and other reasons, including her friendship with leftists like Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois, she was blacklisted and “unable to do films or television for the next seven years” after her tenure with MGM ended in 1950.
This was not quite true: as Mr. Gavin has documented, she appeared frequently on “Your Show of Shows” and other television shows in the 1950s, and in fact “found more acceptance” on television “than almost any other black performer.” And Mr. Gavin and others have suggested that there were other factors in addition to politics or race involved in her lack of film work.
Although absent from the screen, Ms. Horne found success in nightclubs and on records. “Lena Horne at the Waldorf-Astoria,” recorded during a well-received eight-week run in 1957, reached the Top 10 and became the best-selling album by a female singer in RCA Victor’s history.
In the early 1960s Ms. Horne, always outspoken on the subject of civil rights, became increasingly active, participating in numerous marches and protests.
In 1969, she returned briefly to films, playing the love interest of a white actor, Richard Widmark, in “Death of a Gunfighter.”
She was to act in only one other movie: In 1978 she played Glinda the Good Witch in “The Wiz,” the film version of the all-black Broadway musical based on “The Wizard of Oz.” But she never stopped singing.
She continued to record prolifically well into the 1990s, for RCA and other labels, notably United Artists and Blue Note. And she conquered Broadway in 1981 with a one-woman show, “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music,” which ran for 14 months and won both rave reviews and a Tony Award.
Ms. Horne’s voice was not particularly powerful, but it was extremely expressive. She reached her listeners emotionally by acting as well as singing the romantic standards like “The Man I Love” and “Moon River” that dominated her repertory. The person she always credited as her main influence was not another singer but a pianist and composer, Duke Ellington’s longtime associate Billy Strayhorn.
“I wasn’t born a singer,” she told Strayhorn’s biographer, David Hajdu. “I had to learn a lot. Billy rehearsed me. He stretched me vocally.” Strayhorn occasionally worked as her accompanist and, she said, “taught me the basics of music, because I didn’t know anything.”
Strayhorn was also “the only man I ever loved,” she said, but Strayhorn was openly gay, and their close friendship never became a romance. “He was just everything that I wanted in a man,” she told Mr. Hajdu, “except he wasn’t interested in me sexually.”
Lena Calhoun Horne was born in Brooklyn on June 30, 1917. All four of her grandparents were industrious members of Brooklyn’s black middle class. Her paternal grandparents, Edwin and Cora Horne, were early members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and in October 1919, at the age of 2, Lena was the cover girl for the organization’s monthly bulletin.
By then the marriage of her parents, Edna and Teddy Horne, was in trouble. “She was spoiled and badly educated and he was fickle,” Ms. Horne’s daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley, wrote in her family history, “The Hornes.” By 1920 Teddy had left his job with the New York Department of Labor and fled to Seattle, and Edna had fled to a life on the stage in Harlem. Ms. Horne was raised by her paternal grandparents until her mother took her back four years later.
When she was 16, her mother pulled her out of school to audition for the dance chorus at the Cotton Club, the famous Harlem nightclub where the customers were white, the barely dressed dancers were light-skinned blacks and the proprietors were gangsters. A year after joining the Cotton Club chorus she made her Broadway debut, performing a voodoo dance in the short-lived show “Dance With Your Gods” in 1934.
At 19, Ms. Horne married the first man she had ever dated, 28-year-old Louis Jones, and became a conventional middle-class Pittsburgh wife. Her daughter Gail was born in 1937 and a son, Teddy, in 1940. The marriage ended soon afterward. Ms. Horne kept Gail, but Mr. Jones refused to give up Teddy, although he did allow the boy long visits with his mother.
In 1938, Ms. Horne starred in a quickie black musical film, “The Duke Is Tops,” for which she was never paid. Her return to movies was on a grander scale.
She had been singing at the Manhattan nightclub Café Society when the impresario Felix Young chose her to star at the Trocadero, a nightclub he was planning to open in Hollywood in the fall of 1941. In 1990, Ms. Horne reminisced: “My only friends were the group of New Yorkers who sort of stuck with their own group — like Vincente, Gene Kelly, Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen, and Richard Whorf — the sort of hip New Yorkers who allowed Paul Robeson and me in their houses.”
Since blacks were not allowed to live in Hollywood, “Felix Young, a white man, signed for the house as if he was going to rent it,” Ms. Horne said. “When the neighbors found out, Humphrey Bogart, who lived right across the street from me, raised hell with them for passing around a petition to get rid of me.” Bogart, she said, “sent word over to the house that if anybody bothered me, please let him know.”
Roger Edens, the composer and musical arranger who had been Judy Garland’s chief protector at MGM, had heard the elegant Ms. Horne sing at Café Society and also went to hear her at the Little Troc. (The war had scaled down Mr. Young’s ambitions to a small club with a gambling den on the second floor.) He insisted that Arthur Freed, the producer of MGM’s lavish musicals, listen to Ms. Horne sing. Then Freed insisted that Louis B. Mayer, who ran the studio, hear her, too. He did, and soon she had signed a seven-year contract with MGM. She was not the first black performer under contract to a major studio — MGM had signed the actress Nina Mae McKinney for five years in 1929 — but she was the first to make an impact.
Though she was not the first black performer under contract to a major studio - MGM had signed the actress Nina Mae McKinney for five years in 1929 - Ms. Horne was the first to make an impact.
The N.A.A.C.P. celebrated her contract as a weapon in its war to get better movie roles for black performers. Her father weighed in, too. In a 1997 PBS interview, she recalled: “My father said, ‘I can get a maid for my daughter. I don’t want her in the movies playing maids.’ ”
Ms. Horne is survived by her daughter; Gail Lumet Buckley; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Her son died of kidney failure in 1970; her husband died the following year.
Looking back at the age of 80, Ms. Horne said: “My identity is very clear to me now. I am a black woman. I’m free. I no longer have to be a ‘credit.’ I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody; I don’t have to be a first to anybody. I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become. I’m me, and I’m like nobody else.”
Peter Keepnews contributed reporting.
Lena Horne dies at 92; performer altered Hollywood's image of black women
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 11, 2010; B05
Lena Horne, 92, an electrifying performer who shattered racial boundaries by changing the way Hollywood presented black women and who enjoyed a six-decade singing career on stage, television and in films, died of a heart ailment May 9 at a hospital in New York.
Ms. Horne, considered one of the most beautiful women in the world, came to the attention of Hollywood in 1942. She was the first black woman to sign a meaningful long-term contract with a major studio, a contract that said she would never have to play a maid.
"What people tend not to fully comprehend today is what Lena Horne did to transform the image of the African American woman in Hollywood," said Donald Bogle, a film historian.
"Movies are a powerful medium and always depicted African American women before Lena Horne as hefty, mammy-like maids who were ditzy and giggling," Bogle said. "Lena Horne becomes the first one the studios begin to look at differently. . . . Really just by being there, being composed and onscreen with her dignity intact, paved the way for a new day" for black actresses.
He said Ms. Horne's influence was apparent within a few years of her leaving Hollywood, starting with actress Dorothy Dandridge's movie work in the 1950s. Later, Halle Berry, who won the 2001 Best Actress Oscar for "Monster's Ball," called Ms. Horne an inspiration.
Ms. Horne's reputation in Hollywood rested on a handful of musical films. Among the best were two all-black musicals from 1943: "Cabin in the Sky," as a small-town temptress who pursues Eddie "Rochester" Anderson; and "Stormy Weather," in which she played a career-obsessed singer opposite Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.
In other films, she shared billing with white entertainers such as Gene Kelly, Lucille Ball, Mickey Rooney and Red Skelton but was segregated onscreen so producers could clip out her singing when the movies ran in the South.
"Mississippi wanted its movies without me," she told the New York Times in 1957. "So no one bothered to put me in a movie where I talked to anybody, where some thread of the story might be broken if I were cut." In Hollywood, she received previously unheard-of star treatment for a black actor. Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios featured Ms. Horne in movies and advertisements as glamorously as were white beauties including Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable.
Nevertheless, Ms. Horne was frustrated by infrequent movie work and feeling limited in her development as an actress. She confronted studio officials about roles she thought demeaning, a decision that eventually hurt her.
James Gavin, a historian of cabaret acts who has written a biography of Ms. Horne, said: "Given the horrible restrictions of the time, MGM bent over backward to do everything they could. After MGM, she was an international star, and that made her later career possible, made her a superstar."
Ms. Horne appeared on television and at major concert halls in New York, London and Paris. She starred on Broadway twice, and her 1981 revue, "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music," set the standard for the one-person musical show, reviewers said. The performance also netted her a special Tony Award and two Grammy Awards.
Gavin said Ms. Horne cultivated a "ferocious" singing personality through her flashing eyes and teeth.
"Unlike Perry Como and Bing Crosby, who were warm, familiar presences, Lena Horne was a fierce black woman and not a warm and fuzzy presence," Gavin said. "She was formidable and the first black cabaret star for white society."
Ms. Horne said she felt a need to act aloof onstage to protect herself from unwanted advances early in her career, especially from white audiences.
"They were too busy seeing their own preconceived image of a Negro woman," she told the New York Daily News in 1997. "The image that I chose to give them was of a woman who they could not reach. . . . I am too proud to let them think they can have any personal contact with me. They get the singer, but they are not going to get the woman."
For her repertoire, she chose the sophisticated ballads of Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin and Billy Strayhorn. She loved the music but also said she liked surprising the white audience who expected black entertainers to sing hot jazz or blues and dance wildly.
In her singing, Ms. Horne showed great range and could convincingly shift between jazz, blues and cabaret ballads. New Yorker jazz writer Whitney Balliett praised her "sense of dynamics that allowed her to whisper and wheedle and shout." In the early 1960s, Ms. Horne said she felt her sophisticated act sounded increasingly obsolete as she saw a younger generation at sit-ins and marches protesting racial discrimination.
'Good little symbol'
Ms. Horne struggled for years to find a public role on race matters. Her earliest mentors urged her to remain reserved and graceful in public, what she called "a good little symbol." In the late 1940s and 1950s, she chose to focus on quietly defying segregation policies at upscale hotels in Miami Beach and Las Vegas where she performed. At the time, it was customary for black entertainers to stay in black neighborhoods, but Ms. Horne successfully insisted that she and her musicians be allowed to stay wherever she entertained. One Las Vegas establishment reportedly had its chambermaids burn Ms. Horne's sheets.
In 1963, Ms. Horne appeared at the civil rights March on Washington with Harry Belafonte and Dick Gregory and was part of a group, which included authors James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry, that met with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to urge a more active approach to desegregation. Ms. Horne also used her celebrity to rally frontline civil rights activists in the South and was a fundraiser for civil rights groups, including the NAACP and the National Council of Negro Women.
Looking back, she said her legacy on race was complicated by her ambition. She said she married the white conductor and bandleader Lennie Hayton in 1947 -- her second marriage -- to advance her career, because "he could get me into places no black manager could."
"It was wrong of me, but as a black woman, I knew what I had against me," she told the Times in 1981. "He was a nice man who wasn't thinking all these things, and because he was a nice man and because he was in my corner, I began to love him."
Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was born June 30, 1917, in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her mother, an actress, was largely absent from Ms. Horne's early life because of work on the black theater circuit.
Shifted at first among friends and relatives, Ms. Horne was raised mostly by her maternal grandmother, a stern social worker and suffragette in Bedford-Stuyvesant, then a middle-class Brooklyn neighborhood. Ms. Horne said she was influenced by her grandmother's "polite ferocity."
In 1933, when she was 16, Ms. Horne was reunited with her mother and new stepfather, a white Cuban. It was the peak of the Depression, and they lived on relief in Harlem. Ms. Horne was pushed into a job at the Cotton Club by her mother, who knew the Harlem nightclub's choreographer.
"I could carry a tune, but I could hardly have been called a singer," Ms. Horne said. "I was tall and skinny, and I had very little going me for except a pretty face and long, long hair that framed it rather nicely." Ms. Horne began by wearing three large feathers and doing a fan dance, but she took singing lessons and gradually won better parts.
Ms. Horne made $25 a week for three shows nightly seven days a week. Her stepfather went to see the racketeering club owners to raise Ms. Horne's salary. In reply, they had his head shoved down a toilet, Ms. Horne said.
Exhausted by 19, she fled to her father's home in Pittsburgh and married a friend of his, Louis J. Jones, a minor Democratic Party operative. She and Jones had two children, Gail and Edwin, but the marriage disintegrated over money quarrels.
Helped by record producer John Hammond, she won a long engagement at Manhattan's Cafe Society Downtown, the first integrated nightclub in the United States. She had a stormy affair with married boxer Joe Louis, a regular at the nightspot, and befriended entertainer and social activist Paul Robeson. Her friendship with Robeson, a communist sympathizer, was a key factor that led to her brief blacklisting a decade later.
Challenged the system
The work at Cafe Society Downtown prompted ecstatic reviews and led to Ms. Horne's career onscreen. Working closely with NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White, Ms. Horne said she wanted to "try to establish a different kind of image for Negro women." They successfully challenged the casting system that had long marginalized black performers onscreen by having them portray servants, minstrels or jungle natives.
To Ms. Horne's surprise, her efforts to overcome servile screen parts were resented by many black actors who viewed her as a threat more than a pioneer. She said she was perceived as a danger to the system of informal "captains" in the black acting community, who worked as liaisons with film producers when they needed "natives" for the latest Tarzan picture.
"I was not trying to embarrass anyone or show up my colleagues," Ms. Horne told Richard Schickel for his biography, "Lena" (1965). "I was only trying to see if I could avoid in my career some of the traps they had been forced into. It was no crusade, though of course I hoped that if I could set my own terms in the movies and also be successful, then others might be able to follow."
Bored from infrequent movie work, she began taking outside singing engagements and devoted more time to advocating fair employment and anti-lynching laws. She also filed a complaint with the NAACP when she sang for soldiers at Fort Reilly, Kan., on a studio-sponsored tour and saw German prisoners of war seated ahead of black soldiers. This complaint irritated the studio.
MGM producer Arthur Freed was also unhappy that Ms. Horne refused to act in a Broadway show he had backed, "St. Louis Woman." She said the black characters were cliches and offensive. She said Freed took revenge by turning down her requests for plum movie assignments.
Ms. Horne returned to a lucrative singing career. At one point in the mid-1950s, she made $12,500 a week singing at Las Vegas casinos. Her 1957 best-selling album of jazz standards, "At the Waldorf Astoria," captured her at a peak moment -- at the tony New York hotel where she long performed, backed by an orchestra conducted by her husband, Hayton.
Hayton, from whom she had long been separated, died in 1971; her son died about the same time from a kidney ailment. Survivors include her daughter, the writer Gail Buckley; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Ms. Horne spoke of her 1981 one-woman show as the most liberating moment of her life, saying her identity was clear to her because "I no longer have to be a 'credit,' I don't have to be a 'symbol' to anybody. I don't have to be a 'first' to anybody. I don't have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I'd become. I'm me, and I'm like nobody else."
Lena Horne: A glamorous revolutionary By Eugene Robinson Tuesday, May 11, 2010; A15 Washington Post
"Lena Horne is coming on!"
When I was growing up, those words were the signal to drop everything and rush to the family room, where Ed Sullivan or Perry Como or Dean Martin had just announced the next performer. At the time, I didn't understand why it was unthinkable to miss one of Horne's appearances. I didn't yet realize that she was one of one of the most significant American entertainers of the 20th century -- and certainly didn't realize how burdened she was by her trailblazing success.
Horne, who died Sunday at 92, was an infiltrator. She strode confidently through doors that had been closed to African American entertainers, and she was able to do so because white audiences found her not just beautiful and talented but also non-threatening. Late in her life, she gave a sense of how difficult that role had been to play.
"My identity is very clear to me now," she said when she was 80. "I am a black woman. I'm free. I no longer have to be a 'credit.' I don't have to be a symbol to anybody; I don't have to be a first to anybody. I don't have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I'd become. I'm me, and I'm like nobody else."
Indeed, she was different. She was light-skinned, with just enough tan in her complexion to make it evident that she wasn't white. Her nose was narrow, almost turned-up; her hair, in the fashion of the times, was always straightened. She was, by any standard, gorgeous. But she knew that the racial ambiguity of her looks allowed her to attain a level of stardom that was inaccessible to singers and actors who conformed more closely to white America's image of "black."
There was no ambiguity, however, in her sense of herself as a black woman -- or in her strong political and social views. She was the first black performer to sign a long-term contract with one of the major Hollywood studios, earning $1,000 a week from MGM in the 1940s; she made thousands more from radio and nightclub appearances, and in 1945 she was described in a magazine article as "the nation's top Negro entertainer."
MGM cast her in a series of musicals, showcasing not just her voice but her beauty and sophistication. But the studio made sure that her scenes could be easily scissored out of prints of the movies that were destined for theaters in the South, where audiences would not have accepted a black actor as anything but a servant or a savage. Meanwhile, Horne was envied and even resented by other black actors in Hollywood who had to play servants and savages to get any work at all.
"They didn't make me into a maid, but they didn't make me anything else, either," Horne wrote in her autobiography. "I became a butterfly pinned to a column, singing away in Movieland."
Horne was always outspoken about civil rights. During World War II, she complained about how black soldiers -- who had made her a popular pinup, essentially the black Betty Grable -- were being treated in the segregated Army. Her refusal to perform for segregated audiences got her disinvited from USO tours.
Horne blamed her activism and her associations for the waning of her movie career after her MGM contract expired in 1950; actor Paul Robeson and scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, both known for their left-leaning views, were among her good friends. There is no evidence that she was ever actually blacklisted, however. Tastes changed, and musicals became passe. By the time black actors began to get substantial dramatic roles in the movies, Horne was past leading-lady age.
She wasn't a great singer like Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan. Hattie McDaniel and Dorothy Dandridge were better actors. But Lena Horne was a much more important figure in American social history, because she was able to bridge the gap between black and white in a way that others could not. She could be vocal, even strident in her advocacy for civil rights; she could be a proud black woman who stood up for African American causes and refused to back down. But she could do all of this without ever seeming alienated.
She would come on Ed Sullivan's show and sing "Stormy Weather," and she would own the stage -- a glamorous, elegant revolutionary who helped change the way American eyes perceived black and white.
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