Lena Horne gave America five decades of talent and beauty
Her looks sometimes overshadowed her skills
Lena Horne, the performer whose voice gained her a reputation as a revered jazz vocalist and whose looks made her one of the first Black onscreen leading ladies in the movies, recently died at New York-Presbyterian Hospital at the age of 92. The cause of death was not revealed at press time.
“Her timeless legacy will forever be celebrated as part of the fabric of American popular music, and our deepest sympathies go out to her family, friends, and fans worldwide as we all mourn the loss of music’s signature voice,” said Neil Portnow, president and CEO of the Recording Academy, said in a statement.
Oscar-winning actress Liza Minnelli offered fond memories of the jazz singing actress upon hearing the news of her death. “I knew her from the time I was born,” she said. “Whenever I needed anything, she was there. She was funny, sophisticated, and truly one of a kind. We lost an original. Thank you, Lena.” Minnelli’s father, movie director Vincent Minnelli, brought Horne to Hollywood to star in “Cabin in the Sky” in 1943.
A singing actress whose beauty sometimes overshadowed her talent, Horne was candid about her early success in the entertainment industry. “I was unique in that I was the kind of Black that White people could accept,” she commented. “I was their daydream. I had the worst kind of acceptance because it was never for how great I was or what I contributed. It was because of the way I looked.”
Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1917. She was the product of a leading family in the city’s Black society. Among the relatives in her family was Frank Horne, an advisor to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Horne was only two years old when her grandmother, a prominent member of the Urban League, signed her up for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She would later become a social activist in the fight for civil rights.
The legendary performer’s career started when she was a 16-year-old chorus girl at the famed Cotton Club in Harlem. She married Louis Jones of Pittsburgh in 1936, a union that would last through 1944. Their marriage produced two children, daughter Gail and son Teddy.
Later, she was the girl singer with the orchestras of Noble Sissle and Charlie Barnet and also appeared in Lew Leslie’s “Blackbirds of 1939.” For a short while, she billed herself as Helena Horne.
In the early 1940s, she turned up at nightclubs on the West Coast, and was spotted by an MGM talent scout, when she headlined a show at the Little Troc nightclub with the Katherine Dunham dancers in 1942. She soon signed with MGM (at that time, the most powerful studio in the United States), becoming one of the first Black women in American films to be fully glamorized, publicized, and promoted by her studio.
NAACP’s Walter White felt Horne could do much to alter the image of Black women in American films and urged the singer to overcome her hesitancy and sign with MGM. During that era, African American actresses were generally relegated to the roles of maids, often in comic relief style.
However, while Hollywood did not cast her as a domestic, it did not make her a mainstream superstar, either.
In most of her films, Horne appeared only in a musical sequence. Beautifully dressed and made-up, she performed a song or two, then disappeared, her sequences having nothing to do with the movie’s plot or characters. Later, when the studio felt her sequences might offend Southern White audiences, Horne’s scenes were cut altogether. This practice was true of other glamorized Black actresses of this era (e.g., Dorothy Dandridge, Fredi Washington, and Hazel Scott).
During this time, the two exceptions were “Cabin in the Sky” and “Stormy Weather,” all-Black musicals released in 1943, in which she played leading roles. Appearing regal, upscale, somewhat withdrawn, and a mulatto type (she had silky straight hair, keen features, and light tan skin that studios seemed infatuated with), she did not display the passion nor the sensitivity of Dandridge. But her beauty was so overpowering (and in “Cabin in the Sky” so seductively playful) that audiences could not take their eyes off her. Her rendition of the title song “Stormy Weather” became a huge hit and her signature musical performance.
For Black GIs of World War II, she became an African American pinup girl, as her glossy studio photographs graced their lockers just as those of Betty Grable and Jane Russell were stuck on the lockers of their White counterparts.
The year 1945 marked a turning point in the screen star’s life. Until that time, Horne made it a point to stay away from social activism, as she felt it would be detrimental to the progress of her career. However, while entertaining at an army base near the end of World War II, she saw German prisoners of war sitting up front while African American soldiers were relegated to the back. From that point forward, Horne became actively involved in social and political organizations.
In later years, Horne said her Hollywood period was a rough one in which she never felt entirely comfortable or free. That feeling of constraint shows in many of her films. Yet, ironically, when viewed today, her tight control and the filmmakers’ attempts to isolate her from the rest of the action simply augmented her superior, goddess-like appeal.
By the late 1940s, the entertainment beauty faced more serious career problems. Her second marriage to White arranger/composer Lennie Hayton (which she kept secret for three years) was viewed unfavorably by many people. Additionally, during the McCarthy era, she was listed in “Red Channels,” a publication that charged various entertainers in the 1940s and 1950s of being Communist sympathizers. Horne’s listing in this publication stemmed primarily from her friendship with actor/activist Paul Robeson, an acknowledged Communist. Although she was never a Communist, Horne was often shunned by television programs.
But the singer persevered, continuing to perform in major nightclubs in the U.S. and internationally. She made a strong comeback in the 1957 Broadway show “Jamaica.”
By the 1960s, she was one of the most visible celebrities in the Civil Rights movement, once throwing a lamp at a customer who made a racial slur in a Beverly Hills restaurant. In 1963, she joined 250,000 people in the March on Washington where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Horne spoke at another rally that year with another civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, just days before his assassination.
In 1969, she played a dramatic film role opposite Richard Widmark in “Death of a Gunfighter.” Then the 1970s opened tragically for the musical onscreen artist. Her father, her son, and Hayton all died in 1970 and 1971. Horne withdrew from the public eye, refusing to perform or see anyone except the closest of friends.
One of those in her inner circle, comedian Alan King, ultimately persuaded her to return to the stage. “I looked out and saw a family of brothers and sisters,” she said with amazement. Throughout the remainder of the ‘70s, Horne made numerous television appearances. Her most notable were “Tony and Lena,” a 1972 special with singer Tony Bennett; “Sesame Street”; “The Flip Wilson Show”; “Sanford and Son”; and “60 Minutes.”
The “60 Minutes” feature on Horne was conducted by the program’s late correspondent Ed Bradley, who often remarked, “If I arrived at the pearly gates and Saint Peter said, ‘What have you done to deserve entry?’ I’d just say, ‘Did you see my Lena Horne story?’”
In 1978, she portrayed Glinda the Good Witch in her last movie, “The Wiz,” and in 1981, she was in top form in her enormously successful Broadway show “Lena Horne:The Lady and Her Music.”
Within the Broadway production, she discussed some of the tensions of her prime years in Hollywood; she did the same in her autobiography, “Lena.” The Broadway production was taped in 1984 for cable television. It also ran on PBS.
Horne is survived by her daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley, five grandchildren, and several great-grandchildren.