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

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 11, 2010; B05

Lena Horne, 92, an electrifying performer who shattered racial boundaries by changing the way Hollywood presented black women and who enjoyed a six-decade singing career on stage, television and in films, died of a heart ailment May 9 at a hospital in New York.

Ms. Horne, considered one of the most beautiful women in the world, came to the attention of Hollywood in 1942. She was the first black woman to sign a meaningful long-term contract with a major studio, a contract that said she would never have to play a maid.

"What people tend not to fully comprehend today is what Lena Horne did to transform the image of the African American woman in Hollywood," said Donald Bogle, a film historian.

"Movies are a powerful medium and always depicted African American women before Lena Horne as hefty, mammy-like maids who were ditzy and giggling," Bogle said. "Lena Horne becomes the first one the studios begin to look at differently. . . . Really just by being there, being composed and onscreen with her dignity intact, paved the way for a new day" for black actresses.

He said Ms. Horne's influence was apparent within a few years of her leaving Hollywood, starting with actress Dorothy Dandridge's movie work in the 1950s. Later, Halle Berry, who won the 2001 Best Actress Oscar for "Monster's Ball," called Ms. Horne an inspiration.

Ms. Horne's reputation in Hollywood rested on a handful of musical films. Among the best were two all-black musicals from 1943: "Cabin in the Sky," as a small-town temptress who pursues Eddie "Rochester" Anderson; and "Stormy Weather," in which she played a career-obsessed singer opposite Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.

In other films, she shared billing with white entertainers such as Gene Kelly, Lucille Ball, Mickey Rooney and Red Skelton but was segregated onscreen so producers could clip out her singing when the movies ran in the South.

"Mississippi wanted its movies without me," she told the New York Times in 1957. "So no one bothered to put me in a movie where I talked to anybody, where some thread of the story might be broken if I were cut." In Hollywood, she received previously unheard-of star treatment for a black actor. Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios featured Ms. Horne in movies and advertisements as glamorously as were white beauties including Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable.

Nevertheless, Ms. Horne was frustrated by infrequent movie work and feeling limited in her development as an actress. She confronted studio officials about roles she thought demeaning, a decision that eventually hurt her.

James Gavin, a historian of cabaret acts who has written a biography of Ms. Horne, said: "Given the horrible restrictions of the time, MGM bent over backward to do everything they could. After MGM, she was an international star, and that made her later career possible, made her a superstar."

Ms. Horne appeared on television and at major concert halls in New York, London and Paris. She starred on Broadway twice, and her 1981 revue, "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music," set the standard for the one-person musical show, reviewers said. The performance also netted her a special Tony Award and two Grammy Awards.

Gavin said Ms. Horne cultivated a "ferocious" singing personality through her flashing eyes and teeth.

"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.

"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."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company