Horne, Lena: Legendary Singer-Actress Dies at 92

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May 10, 2010–Singer and the first black actress to play lead roles in Hollywood pictures of the 1940s, Lena Horne has died. She was 92.

I have met and interviewed Lena Horne a number of times when I conducted research for my biography of Vincente Minnelli (published in 2009).  Horne was the star of Minnelli’s very first film, the all-black musical, Cabin in the Sky (1943). (See review).

She became famous for her singing style which fused rhythmn and blues and jazz, claiming that she deliberately maintained a facade of distance while performing, the exuberance and indominability of the off-stage woman clearly shown through.

Unlike many of her African-American contemporaries (Billie Holiday, Paul Robeson), she was not crippled by racism and opression and came to embody the fighter, the survivor, an inspiration for several generations of Americans of color. But her career definitely suffered from being a black actress in Hollywood of the 1940s.

Her 1981 Broadway triumpth, “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music,” captured all the strength, anger and vivacity which typified her life and professional career, which spanned more than six decades. Well into her late 70s, Horne continued to record and occasionally perform, seemingly untouched by the passage of time, her core of inner strength intact.

She was born Lena Calhoun Horney in Brooklyn, New York on June 30, 1917. Her grandmother was a prominent member of the NAACP and the National Urban League, her grandfather the first black member of the Brooklyn Board of Education. Dr. Frank Smith Horne, an uncle with whom she spent several of her childhood years in Georgia, was a scholar and educator, who had served as a race relations adviser to Franklin Roosevelt. Her ancestry was mixed, part Senegalese, part Native-American, and part white.

While her mother performed with the travelling Lafayette Players, a black stock company, Horne lived with several relatives, including her uncle Frank and her grandmother. After her mother remmaried, she returned to Brooklyn and attended various schools. At the age of 16 she was forced to abandon her ambitions of being a teacher in order to help her ailing mother. Family connections landed her a spot as a chorus girl at the Cotton Club, where she eventually moved on to featured spots. She left briefly to play a small role as a quadroon on Broadway in “Dance With Your Godsin 1934 and the following year joined Noble Sissle’s orchestra touring the country under the name Helena Horne.

In 1937 she tried to leave show business, by settling down in Pittsburgh to marry Louis Jones, by whom she had two children, Gail and Edwin. Her retirement didn’t last long as Jones was unable to find employment in Depression America. She sang at private parties in the Pittsburgh area and made her screen debut in a low budget all black film “The Duke is Tops” in 1938. The following year she was back on Broadway briefly in the revue “Blackbirds of 1939.After separating from Jones in 1940, Horne joined the Charlie Barnet orchestra, one of the first black performers to tour with a major white band. With Barnet she recorded the hit “Good for Nothing Joe” as well as the popular “Haunted Town.”

It was her extended stint at New York’s Cafe Society Downtown however that established her as a major solo performer. With the help of producer John Hammond, the 1941 engagement, which also included a night at Carnegie Hall, led to a full-fledged recording and radio career. In 1942 she came to Los Angeles to appear at the Little Troc nightclub in Hollywood, which brought her to the attention of MGM’s staff composer Roger Edens, and a contract offer from the studio.

She was skeptical, afraid of being stereotyped. But at the urging of her friends and civil rights leaders, she accepted the contract. Her first film was a small role in Cole Porter’s “Panama Hattie” in 1942. And in 1943 she was top-billed in the all black musical “Cbin in the Sky,” a performance which Variety dubbed “a definite click, both vocally and dramatically.Horne’s best known film was “Stormy Weather,” a loosely constructed biography of the legendary dancer Bill Bojangles Robinson. The title song became her career trademark.

The love affair with Hollywood was brief lived. After her twin film hits she was offered nothing but roles as maids and prostitutes and rebelled. Subsequently she agreed to appear only as a singer in mostly solo spots in films such as “I Dood It,” “Thousands cheer,” “Broadway Rythmn” and “Ziegfeld Follies” moments that could be deleted without affecting the plots, but which were often more entertaining than the films. In the 1946 “As The Clouds Roll By,” a musical bio-pic of Jerome Kern. she appeared as the mulatto girl Julie, the memorable character from Kern’s “Showboat.”

However, when it came time to remake “Showboat,” in 1951, MGM turned her down in favor of Ava Gardner, whose singing voice was dubbed and who wore “Light Eyptian” make-up, a blend created especially for Horne by Max Factor.

Her last two films under her MGM contract were “Words and Music” in 1948 and “Duchess of Idaho,” in 1950. Throughout she was wowing audiences at the Savoy-Plaza Hotel and the Copacabana in New York, and was named the season’s top nightclub attraction in 1948 by Life magazine. Her road stints in Las Vegas and elsewhere were netting her a hefty $12,500 a week. In 1947 she crossed the Atlantic and showed Europe what it had been missing. While performing in Paris she met musical director Lennie Hayton and married for the second time.

Horne’s protests against racism were not limited to Hollywood. While perfomring for American troops in Kansas during World War II, Horne reportedly stormed off-stage when she discovered German prisoners of war seated in front, while African-American soldiers were in the rear. During the 1950s, her friendship with Paul Robeson, an avowed Communist, led to her being listed in anti-Communist publications such as Red Channels and Counterattack.

Horne had some difficulty finding work during this period, but gradually overcame this obstacle too.  In 1956 she appeared in the film “Meet Me in Las Vegas” and signed a long term contract with RCA Records. “Lena Horne at the Waldorf Astoria” became the largest recording by a female performer in the label’s history. Horne also made her impact felt on TV, with guest slots on Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, Perry Como, and later in the 1959 special Lena in Concert and the 1979 Harry and Lena, pairing her with Harry Belafonte.

She returned to Broadway in a Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg 1957 musical “Jamaica” which ran more than a year. Another attempt at the stage, Nine O’Clock Revue” in 1961 closed out of town. Throughout the 1960s, Horne traveled extensively throughout the South and became one of the most visible celebrities of the civil rights movement. She added songs about racial oppression to her act and never tired of campaigning and speaking on the subject of racial oppression.

Horne returned to the screen in 1969 in a non singing role “Death of a Gunfighter” and made her final screen appearance as Glinda the Good Witch in the film version of the Broadway musical “The Wiz” in 1974, directed by her son-in-law, Sideny Lumet.

In the early 1970s Horne endured the deaths of her father, her husband Hayton and her son Edwin. And it was not until 1974 that she returned compeletely to performing, appearing with Tony Bennett in Tony and Lena at the Minskoff Theater.

The height of her career came in 1981, in “The Lady and Her Music,” in which she performed all her best loved songs and stories of her rich, full life. The show, originally scheduled for six weeks, ran 333 performances and brought a special Tony, a Drama Desk Award and two Grammys. Horne took the show on tour and it was taped for TV in 1984, she same year Horne was honored by the Kennedy Center. 

See Review of “Cabin in the Sky” (1943).