The star of stars, who was such a key figure in paving the road for Halle Berry, Angela Bassett, Vanessa Williams, Diana Ross and just about every other Black female star, made her transition on Sunday, May 9, at the age of 92. She would have been 93 on June 30. A remarkable life, an amazing career. She had style and was an original.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Ms. Horne stepped into the world of show business when she was in her mid-teens, landing a spot in the Cotton Club chorus line, although years later she acknowledged that she wasn’t the greatest dancer. Her heart was in singing, and a few years later she was hired to sing with the popular orchestra of Noble Sissle and traveled extensively. Later, she joined another well-known orchestra, led by Charlie Barnet.
The excitement of being with the orchestras and being on the road so much became tiresome, so Ms. Horne decided to concentrate on nightclub work. Her voice, style and beauty made it possible for her to secure an engagement at the famous Café Society in New York City.
Now that she was on solid ground as a vocalist, Ms. Horne began focusing on movies. She was, in fact, the first African American to sign a long-term contract with a major Hollywood studio (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, more commonly known as MGM). However, film work for Black people was hard to come by. She made her big screen debut in “Panama Hattie,” a 1942 film.
Although she appeared in a number of musicals, due to the racial climate of those times, Ms. Horne was frequently edited out because certain theaters in the South would not show films with Black actors and actresses. Also, Max Factor was called in to create a special makeup for Lena Horne to “make her look more colored.” It was called Light Egyptian.
HOWEVER, in 1943 she did star in two all-Black musical dramas, “Cabin in the Sky” and “Stormy Weather,” both of which are considered classics, certain racist elements notwithstanding. “Cabin in the Sky” also starred Ethel Waters and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. Her co-star in “Stormy Weather” was Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. The title number became her signature song.
The latter film is also of significance because of the many other top Black performers it features, mostly in cameo roles, including the Nicholas Brothers, Cab Calloway, Katherine Dunham and Fats Waller.
Ms. Horne had hoped to land the role of Julie LaVerne in MGM’s “Show Boat,” but the studio chose Ava Gardner instead. The ladies had become good friends and both would periodically get in trouble with the MGM executives because of their outspokenness.
EVENTUALLY, Ms. Horne became disenchanted with Hollywood, frustrated by a lack of work and having to deal with blatant and subtle racism. She said she would not be “an imitation of a White woman.” She also refused to play maids and hookers. She returned to nightclubs and became one of the most sought after performers, appearing in the finest venues.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Ms. Horne was also a constant presence on variety TV shows, including those of Perry Como, Ed Sullivan, Andy Williams and Judy Garland. In 1969 she starred in a special of her own, “Monsanto Night Presents Lena Horne.”
Later, she appearances on such television programs as “The Cosby Show,” “Sanford and Son” and “A Different World,” as well as “The Muppet Show” and “Sesame Street.”
IN THE EARLY 1980s, Ms. Horne, now in her mid-sixties and still stunningly beautiful, headlined a spectacular autobiographical stage production called “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music.” The show was a huge and enduring success on Broadway. She received a Tony Award and the cast album earned her a Grammy.
Highpoints of the show included “From This Moment On,” “I Got a Name,” “Stormy Weather,” “Life Goes On,” “Watch What Happens,” “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” Yesterday When I Was Young” and “If You Believe,” the powerful song she sang in “The Wiz.” She later took the show on the road, including an engagement at Pine Knob.
The album is a must-have.
MS. HORNE had always been active in the Civil Rights Movement, setting aside the glitz and glamour of show business. She said, “I had to be with my people.” She participated in the March on Washington and worked on behalf of the NAACP, the National Council of Negro Women, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committ (SNCC).
In 1994, Ms. Horne recorded one of her finest albums, on the Blue Note label, titled “We’ll Be Together Again.” The outstanding performances include “Something to Live For,” “Old Friend,” “Havin’ Myself a Time,” “I’ve Got to Have You,” “My Buddy” and the title song.
Lena Horne married Louis Jordan Jones in 1937. They had two children, Gail and Edwin. Her son died in 1970. Her second marriage was to musician Lennie Hayton, in 1947. He passed in 1971. Her granddaugher, Jenny Lumet, is a successful screenwriter.
In her Broadway show, Ms. Horne said to the audience playfully, “I must be doing something right because I’m still up here rollin’ on, and on, and on!”
Lena Horne, who said she never stopped learning, did a lot of things right, and the world is a better place for her having been here. — SVH