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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.

"I could carry a tune, but I could hardly have been called a singer," Ms. Horne said. "I was tall and skinny, and I had very little going me for except a pretty face and long, long hair that framed it rather nicely." Ms. Horne began by wearing three large feathers and doing a fan dance, but she took singing lessons and gradually won better parts.

Ms. Horne made $25 a week for three shows nightly seven days a week. Her stepfather went to see the racketeering club owners to raise Ms. Horne's salary. In reply, they had his head shoved down a toilet, Ms. Horne said.

Exhausted by 19, she fled to her father's home in Pittsburgh and married a friend of his, Louis J. Jones, a minor Democratic Party operative. She and Jones had two children, Gail and Edwin, but the marriage disintegrated over money quarrels.

Helped by record producer John Hammond, she won a long engagement at Manhattan's Cafe Society Downtown, the first integrated nightclub in the United States. She had a stormy affair with married boxer Joe Louis, a regular at the nightspot, and befriended entertainer and social activist Paul Robeson. Her friendship with Robeson, a communist sympathizer, was a key factor that led to her brief blacklisting a decade later.

Challenged the system

The work at Cafe Society Downtown prompted ecstatic reviews and led to Ms. Horne's career onscreen. Working closely with NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White, Ms. Horne said she wanted to "try to establish a different kind of image for Negro women." They successfully challenged the casting system that had long marginalized black performers onscreen by having them portray servants, minstrels or jungle natives.

To Ms. Horne's surprise, her efforts to overcome servile screen parts were resented by many black actors who viewed her as a threat more than a pioneer. She said she was perceived as a danger to the system of informal "captains" in the black acting community, who worked as liaisons with film producers when they needed "natives" for the latest Tarzan picture.

"I was not trying to embarrass anyone or show up my colleagues," Ms. Horne told Richard Schickel for his biography, "Lena" (1965). "I was only trying to see if I could avoid in my career some of the traps they had been forced into. It was no crusade, though of course I hoped that if I could set my own terms in the movies and also be successful, then others might be able to follow."

Bored from infrequent movie work, she began taking outside singing engagements and devoted more time to advocating fair employment and anti-lynching laws. She also filed a complaint with the NAACP when she sang for soldiers at Fort Reilly, Kan., on a studio-sponsored tour and saw German prisoners of war seated ahead of black soldiers. This complaint irritated the studio.

MGM producer Arthur Freed was also unhappy that Ms. Horne refused to act in a Broadway show he had backed, "St. Louis Woman." She said the black characters were cliches and offensive. She said Freed took revenge by turning down her requests for plum movie assignments.

Ms. Horne returned to a lucrative singing career. At one point in the mid-1950s, she made $12,500 a week singing at Las Vegas casinos. Her 1957 best-selling album of jazz standards, "At the Waldorf Astoria," captured her at a peak moment -- at the tony New York hotel where she long performed, backed by an orchestra conducted by her husband, Hayton.

Hayton, from whom she had long been separated, died in 1971; her son died about the same time from a kidney ailment. Survivors include her daughter, the writer Gail Buckley; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Ms. Horne spoke of her 1981 one-woman show as the most liberating moment of her life, saying her identity was clear to her because "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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