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Lena Horne dies at 92; performer altered Hollywood's image of black women

The iconic singer and actress's career spanned six decades, helping to break down racial barriers for women of color in Hollywood.

"Unlike Perry Como and Bing Crosby, who were warm, familiar presences, Lena Horne was a fierce black woman and not a warm and fuzzy presence," Gavin said. "She was formidable and the first black cabaret star for white society."

Ms. Horne said she felt a need to act aloof onstage to protect herself from unwanted advances early in her career, especially from white audiences.

"They were too busy seeing their own preconceived image of a Negro woman," she told the New York Daily News in 1997. "The image that I chose to give them was of a woman who they could not reach. . . . I am too proud to let them think they can have any personal contact with me. They get the singer, but they are not going to get the woman."

For her repertoire, she chose the sophisticated ballads of Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin and Billy Strayhorn. She loved the music but also said she liked surprising the white audience who expected black entertainers to sing hot jazz or blues and dance wildly.

In her singing, Ms. Horne showed great range and could convincingly shift between jazz, blues and cabaret ballads. New Yorker jazz writer Whitney Balliett praised her "sense of dynamics that allowed her to whisper and wheedle and shout." In the early 1960s, Ms. Horne said she felt her sophisticated act sounded increasingly obsolete as she saw a younger generation at sit-ins and marches protesting racial discrimination.

'Good little symbol'

Ms. Horne struggled for years to find a public role on race matters. Her earliest mentors urged her to remain reserved and graceful in public, what she called "a good little symbol." In the late 1940s and 1950s, she chose to focus on quietly defying segregation policies at upscale hotels in Miami Beach and Las Vegas where she performed. At the time, it was customary for black entertainers to stay in black neighborhoods, but Ms. Horne successfully insisted that she and her musicians be allowed to stay wherever she entertained. One Las Vegas establishment reportedly had its chambermaids burn Ms. Horne's sheets.

In 1963, Ms. Horne appeared at the civil rights March on Washington with Harry Belafonte and Dick Gregory and was part of a group, which included authors James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry, that met with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to urge a more active approach to desegregation. Ms. Horne also used her celebrity to rally frontline civil rights activists in the South and was a fundraiser for civil rights groups, including the NAACP and the National Council of Negro Women.

Looking back, she said her legacy on race was complicated by her ambition. She said she married the white conductor and bandleader Lennie Hayton in 1947 -- her second marriage -- to advance her career, because "he could get me into places no black manager could."

"It was wrong of me, but as a black woman, I knew what I had against me," she told the Times in 1981. "He was a nice man who wasn't thinking all these things, and because he was a nice man and because he was in my corner, I began to love him."

Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was born June 30, 1917, in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her mother, an actress, was largely absent from Ms. Horne's early life because of work on the black theater circuit.

Shifted at first among friends and relatives, Ms. Horne was raised mostly by her maternal grandmother, a stern social worker and suffragette in Bedford-Stuyvesant, then a middle-class Brooklyn neighborhood. Ms. Horne said she was influenced by her grandmother's "polite ferocity."

In 1933, when she was 16, Ms. Horne was reunited with her mother and new stepfather, a white Cuban. It was the peak of the Depression, and they lived on relief in Harlem. Ms. Horne was pushed into a job at the Cotton Club by her mother, who knew the Harlem nightclub's choreographer.


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