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Lena Horne, Singer Who Helped Integrate Hollywood, Dies at 92

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May 9, 2010

Lena Horne, Singer Who Helped Integrate Hollywood, Dies at 92



Lena Horne, who was the first black performer to be signed to a long-term contract by a major Hollywood studio and who went on to achieve international fame as a singer, died on Sunday night at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital in New York. She was 92 and lived in Manhattan.


Her death was announced by her son-in-law, Kevin Buckley.


Ms. Horne might have become a major movie star, but she was born 50 years too early, and languished at MGM in the 1940s because of the color of her skin, 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? 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 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, who did not do her own singing. (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 in 1947, 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 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 risqu?.)


In 1945 the critic and screenwriter Frank 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, she 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, she said, ?the only man I ever loved,? 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 abruptly 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, Duke Ellington was the star of the show 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 Caf? 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 Caf? Society and also went to hear her at the Little Troc (the war had scaled Mr. Young?s ambitions down 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.


The N.A.A.C.P. celebrated that 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. Her husband died in 1971; her son died of kidney failure the same 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.?

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How sad.


And here I was hoping she might make it to the second TCM Film Festival next year.


I hope she gets an evening set aside in remembrance - even if it is only a Sunday evening showing *Cabin In The Sky* and *Stormy Weather*.


Kyle In Hollywood

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A fascinating woman and a great talent; although I never saw her Broadway show I did see her at one of her last Carnegie Hall concerts; she was an amazing live performer.


In the 1996 RHINO released a cd of all of her MGM recordings; "Lena Horne At Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer: Ain' It The Truth - Motion Picture Soundtrack Anthology" it is worth tracking down.


I am glad they will be having a Tribute to her on TCM on May 21.

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I was fortunate enough to catch Lena Horne's 1981 Broadway show & while she was beautiful & an awsome entertainer, she had a bitterness about her which unfortunately came through in parts of her performance. We all know why she was bitter after the way blacks were treated then but it made many of us in the audience feel very uncomfortable & thinking that we didn't come to be castigated. That being said, she had a wonderful voice, great musical interpretation ability, a fine actor & while she didn't want to be a symbol, she was someone that we can all be proud of as she has done so much to advance her race. She will be sorely missed but the incredible smile will always be with us.

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At the risk of going slightly off topic, I have heard that another great African-American singer, Nina Simone, was also bitter about the racism she experienced throughout her life. Although these feelings -justified as they undoubtedly were- may have come across in their live performances, they do not in their recordings. So what is left is their talent.

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Several years ago, my mother gave me a book entitled "I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America." Lena Horne was one of about 75 women of colour who were featured. In it, she's quoted as follows:


"Out there in Hollywood, I was completely isolated. I went through some funny times because they didn't know what black people were like. Me and the shoeshine boy were the only two black people out there at the studio, most every day."


"I was always battling the system to try to get to be with my people. Finally, I wouldn't work for places that kept us out. I couldn't get a place to live, so I fought for housing. The mere fact of living had to be fought, because I was black and I never lost sight of that."


"It was a damn fight everywhere I was, every place I worked, in New York, in Hollywood, all over the world."


After reading her words, I gained a new appreciation for what Ms. Horne had been through. She was a showbiz vanguard who opened many doors. Every performer of colour owes her a debt of gratitude. She persevered in spite of the racism that she was forced to battle throughout her early film career. She refused to be relegated to stereotypical servant roles, choosing instead to take the path of greater resistance. She really had a lot of guts.


As a child of the 70s & 80s, I'd looked up to her as a glamourous yet somewhat distant black icon, and I kind of took her for granted. Later, as I came to understand the part she played in film history and the civil rights movement, I developed a deep respect for her. She was an amazing, strong, beautiful, and talented lady. I am going to miss her very much.

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TCM's just announced the tribute to Lena Horne, on the evening of May 21st:


*In memory of the great Lena Horne, who died on May 9th, TCM will present a four-film tribute to the singer/actress on Friday, May 21st.*


*The Current Schedule Will Change to Reflect the Following on May 21st:*


8:00 PM ET *The Duke is Tops*

9:30 PM ET *Cabin in the Sky*

11:15 PM ET *Panama Hattie*

12:45 AM ET *Swing Fever*




*_TCM Remembers Lena Horne, 1917-2010_*


Although Lena Horne never had the movie career she deserved, she managed to make an electrifying impact in her guest appearances and occasional acting roles. An exotic beauty with velvet skin, flashing eyes and a uniquely vibrant voice, she was the first black performer to be signed to a long-term contract by a major film studio (MGM). Because of the tenor of the times (the 1940s and '50s), the studio confined her mostly to isolated numbers that could be cut when the films played the American South. Horne was blacklisted by the film and television industries in the 1950s, possibly because of her sympathetic relationship with Paul Robeson. She compensated for her limited exposure in Hollywood with enormous success in nightclubs and recordings.


Born in 1917 in Brooklyn, Horne left school at age 16 to join the chorus at Harlem's Cotton Club. She made her Broadway debut in a small part in the play Dance with Your Gods in 1934, and her recording debut two years later. Her first film role was in the low-budget, all-black musical *The Duke Is Tops* (1938), in which she plays a young singer with a small-time band who gets a shot at Broadway. Memorably, she sings "I Know You Remember."


Horne's MGM contract began with one of her "specialty" appearances, singing "Just One of These Things" in the Cole Porter musical *Panama Hattie* (1942), starring Ann Sothern. Then came a major role in Vincente Minnelli's all-black musical *Cabin in the Sky* (1943), in which Horne is the seductress who ties to lure Eddie "Rochester" Anderson away from faithful wife Ethel Waters. Horne's songs include "Honey in the Honeycomb" and "Life Is Full of Consequence."


As one of several guest stars in the Gene Kelly/Kathryn Grayson starrer, *Thousands Cheer* (1943), she sings "Honeysuckle Rose." The specialty routines continued with Horne singing "You're So Indifferent" in *Swing Fever* (1943), starring bandleader Kay Kyser; "Jericho" in *I Dood It* (1943), starring Red Skelton; "Paper Doll" in *Two Girls and a Sailor* (1944), starring June Allyson; and "Brazilian Boogie," "Amor" and "Somebody Loves Me" in *Broadway Rhythm* (1944).


In *Till the Clouds Roll By* (1946), a fictionalized biography of Jerome Kern, Horne was given the role of Julie in a condensed version of Show Boat and provides one of the movie's highlights with her smoldering version of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man." When a full-length version of that musical was made by MGM five years later, Horne -- despite having proved how powerful she could be in the role -- was passed over in favor of her friend Ava Gardner.


It was back to the "guest role" routine for Horne, singing "Love" in the all-star *Ziegfeld Follies* (1946); "The Lady Is a Tramp" and "Where or When" in *Words and Music* (1948), starring Mickey Rooney and a host of MGM stars; and "Baby, Come Out of the Clouds" in *Duchess of Idaho* (1950), starring Esther Williams.


After a long absence from films, Horne returned in a dramatic role opposite Richard Widmark in the Western *Death of a Gunfighter* (1969). In the movie version of the stage musical *The Wiz* (1978) she played Glinda the Good Witch in a cast that also included Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.


In the 1980s Horne won a Tony for her one-woman Broadway show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, in which she subsequently toured with huge international success. Her many honors have included three Grammy Awards including a lifetime achievement award in 1989, and a Kennedy Center award in 1984. In June 1997, her 80th birthday was celebrated with the presentation of the Ella Award for Lifetime Achievement in Vocal Artistry.


by Roger Fristoe

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" I'm thankful there is a body of work to stay with us, even though she could have done much more. SO, if someone films the life of Lena Horne, who should star? "


Iris2, what about Hallie Berry? She certainly looks the part. But can she sing?

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I can only imagine what this talented and beautiful woman endured simply because she was born Black. That she persevered and won out is something everybody can draw hope and inspiration from. I hope she is finding the peace in another life denied her for so long in this one. RIP, Lady.

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>misswonderly wrote:

> SO, if someone films the life of Lena Horne, who should star? "


> Iris2, what about Hallie Berry? She certainly looks the part. But can she sing?

Several years ago, singer Janet Jackson was supposed to star in a bio film of Lena. At the time and throughout the last 20 years of her life, Lena toyed with the idea of sanctioning a film showcasing her raise to stardom. There were at least two scripts that were developed, but there was never any agreement on who might star. Even Lena couldn?t give a clear cut opinion on the matter, always changing her mind on who might star or represent her on the screen. She simply gave up on the issue and it has never since been resolved. Recently, there have been rumors floating around that singer Boyance wants to do the film on Lena?s life. While this might be an interesting and certainly a popular choice, it?s difficult to say if Boyance can really have the necessary ingredients to pull it off. Others whose name had popped up at one time or another were Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys, Brandy and Aaliyah; it was the ill-fated, deceased Aaliyah that came close to finally getting something underway and Lena did at one point find her to be appropriate. As for Halle Berry, she already appeared as another famous African-American singer, Dorothy Dandridge; it was a very well produced cable movie. Halle _did_ _not_ sing; her voice was dubbed. I serious doubt that she would consider being in a film about Lena. She is perhaps a little bit too old now. It's likely that Boyance (who has tremendous aspirations to win an Academy Award) will be the current favorite choice. She obviously has the necessary clout and popularity needed to at least get interest into the project and finally get it done.

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