Barrier-breaking jazz star Lena Horne dies at 92
Associated Press | 5/12/2010, 5:42 a.m.
NEW YORK — Lena Horne, the enchanting jazz singer and actress who reviled the bigotry that allowed her to entertain white audiences but not socialize with them, slowing her rise to Broadway superstardom, has died. She was 92.
Horne died Sunday at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, according to hospital spokeswoman Gloria Chin. Chin would not release any other details.
Horne, whose striking beauty and magnetic sex appeal often overshadowed her sultry voice, was remarkably candid about the underlying reason for her success.
“I was unique in that I was a kind of black that white people could accept,” she once said. “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.”
In the 1940s, she was one of the first black performers hired to sing with a major white band, the first to play the Copacabana nightclub and among a handful with a Hollywood contract.
In 1943, MGM Studios loaned her to 20th Century-Fox to play the role of Selina Rogers in the all-black movie musical “Stormy Weather.” Her rendition of the title song became a major hit and her signature piece.
On screen, on records and in nightclubs and concert halls, Horne was at home vocally with a wide musical range, from blues and jazz to the sophistication of Rodgers and Hart in songs like “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.”
In her first big Broadway success, as the star of “Jamaica” in 1957, reviewer Richard Watts Jr. called her “one of the incomparable performers of our time.” Songwriter Buddy de Sylva dubbed her “the best female singer of songs.”
But Horne was perpetually frustrated with the public humiliation of racism.
“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. ... It was a damn fight everywhere I was, every place I worked, in New York, in Hollywood, all over the world,” she said in Brian Lanker’s book “I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America.”
While at MGM, she starred in the all-black “Cabin in the Sky,” in 1943, but in most of her other movies, she appeared only in musical numbers that could be cut in the racially insensitive South without affecting the story. These included “I Dood It,” a Red Skelton comedy; “Thousands Cheer” and “Swing Fever,” all in 1943; “Broadway Rhythm” in 1944; and “Ziegfeld Follies” in 1946.
“Metro’s cowardice deprived the musical of one of the great singing actresses,” film historian John Kobal wrote.
Early in her career Horne cultivated an aloof style out of self-preservation, becoming “a woman the audience can’t reach and therefore can’t hurt,” she once said.
Later she embraced activism, breaking loose as a voice for civil rights and as an artist. In the last decades of her life, she rode a new wave of popularity as a revered icon of American popular music.