: Although she took abuse at times from both ends — “too black” for superstardom, “too white” for black audiences — Lena Horne epitomized class, dignity and elan like no artist of her time.
(1917 – 2010)
Horne, a true New Yorker, was 92 when she died Sunday night at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. She leaves a legacy that only music historians could truly appreciate.
Horne was the first black performer signed to a long-term deal by a major Hollywood studio. She moved from Brooklyn to Harlem to be onstage, and later caused a stir marrying a prominent arranger who happened to be white — and gay.
Famed drama critic Brooks Atkinson put Horne on the map when he singled her out in a Broadway review, “Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1939.”
Then came a trip to Hollywood and a breakthrough performance in “Stormy Weather,” caressing a signature title song that forever remained linked to her career.
“Cabin in the Sky,” directed by Vincente Minnelli, ignited Horne’s sexiness as she played the devil’s handmaiden (few know about the bubble- bath number that MGM cut from the film).
Stardom wasn’t far behind. As her fame grew, Horne toured Army camps for the U.S.O., then got into hot water for criticizing the way black soldiers were treated.
“The whole thing that made me a star was the war,” she once said. “Of course the black guys couldn’t put Betty Grable’s picture in their footlockers. But they could put mine.”
Horne then conquered television, appearing on various shows; nightclubs; and on recordings.
Suffice to say if there were no Lena Horne, there may not have been a Diana Ross (Speaking of Ross: Horne’s last role, in 1978, was as Glinda the Good Witch in the film version of the all-black Broadway musical, “The Wiz.”)
But never stopped moving. What made Horne different from most black female entertainers was her activism, especially when the subject was civil rights.
And she not only continued recording, but took it back to the state in 1981 with her own: “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music.”
It won her a Tony, not to mention the continued admiration of many who still hear her voice clear as day the morning after she passed.