Lena Horne

Lena Horne obituary in “The Independent” in 2010.

A few decades ago the roles for black performers in Hollywood movies were deliberately kept peripheral to the plots, so that their appearances could easily be edited out for screenings in the American south. Black singers and musicians were barred from taking rooms in the same hotels in which they were performing. Partners in an interracial marriage might decide to leave the US and move to more hospitable locations, such as Paris, to avoid hate mail and threats. All this and more happened to the singer and actor Lena Horne, who has died aged 92.

Horne not only rose above it all, but also significantly contributed to changing the situation. The velvet-voiced, multi-talented Horne first negotiated, and then resisted, the worst that a racist entertainment industry could throw at her. She rose to its summit as an original creative artist and a free woman whose style, beauty, eloquence and independence made her a role model for millions.

Horne shared stages with Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Billy Eckstine, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and many other legends of American music during her long and varied career.

She became one of the first African Americans to cross the music-business colour divide and tour with an all-white band, singing for the successful Charlie Barnet swing orchestra in 1940 and sometimes sleeping in the band bus when hotels would not let her enter with her colleagues. She became a favourite pin-up among black servicemen, but would nonetheless refuse to perform on wartime tours in which black GIs were either excluded from the audience, or on occasion placed behind the German PoWs in the seating arrangements.

Singled out by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to break the Hollywood colour bar and sign a longterm deal with a Hollywood studio, Horne emerged during the 1940s as the highest-paid African-American actor in the US, an achievement firmly supported by her family. Horne’s father accompanied her to an early meeting with MGM boss Louis B Mayer. On being told his daughter could play a film role as a maid, he informed the mogul that he could afford to hire his own maids and didn’t need to have his offspring playing one.

Political pressure from the black community began to have an effect on the studios. The groundbreaking films Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather (both 1943) saw the first pivotal movie roles for African Americans, with Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington alongside Horne in the cast of the former. But there was a price to pay for becoming a young figurehead in the early years of the campaign for black advancement. Horne had to endure frequent abuse, all the way from supposed compliments (“the café au lait Hedy Lamarr” or the “chocolate chanteuse”) to outright vituperation. She was prepared at first to bite her lip about it so that subsequent generations wouldn’t need to. The store of anger she built up in those years took its toll, and was not really released until a more open defiance was endorsed by the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Horne was born in Brooklyn, New York. Her parents divorced, and as a child she travelled with her sometime-actor mother, searching for work on the tent shows and vaudeville circuit in the 1920s. The troupe she was with had to run from a small town in Florida in which a lynching had just occurred.

When her mother remarried, the young Lena was raised by her grandparents. She attended Washington high school in Atlanta, and then Girls high school (now Boys and Girls high school) in Brooklyn. Her paternal grandmother, Cora Calhoun Horne, was a political activist who persuaded Lena to join the NAACP. At 16, having dropped out of high school, Horne became a dancer at Harlem’s Cotton Club, encountering the music of Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Billie Holiday, and meeting all the stars that performed there.

The Cotton Club had a black programme aimed exclusively at a rich white clientele, and the pressures were hard to take. Horne’s stepfather was assaulted and thrown off the premises for suggesting that the girl might sing as well as dance at the club.

Horne made her Broadway debut in the chorus of the 1934 show Dance With Your Gods. From 1935 to 1936 she was the principal vocalist with the all-black Noble Sissle Society Orchestra. But although she was beginning to sense the combination of storytelling, timing and sonorous power that would make her name as a vocalist, she briefly abandoned a musical career for domesticity in Pittsburgh, marrying Louis Jones at 19, and giving birth to two children, Gail and Teddy. She and Jones were divorced in 1944.

Returning to the New York jazz scene, Horne followed Holiday into Greenwich Village’s left-liberal Café Society club. She then went to Hollywood to play the Little Troc club, and was noticed there by the MGM music supervisor Roger Edens, who brought her to the film company as a potential singer and actor.

Horne’s first film for MGM (in which she sang two songs, as well as having her skin lightened by the application of a makeup called Light Egyptian) was Panama Hattie (1942), with Horne as what she was later to describe as “window dressing”. Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather changed all that. Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s theme song for Stormy Weather became Horne’s own theme song too, and was associated with her for the remainder of her career. Few of Horne’s quick succession of other films in the 40s and 50s cast her in as favourable a light. The musicals Swing Fever, Ziegfeld Follies and Meet Me in Las Vegas had easily-excised Horne roles to placate the southern distributors. She also found herself forced to reject suggestions that her light skin colour might make her ideal for Latin roles.

Horne was, however, learning a lot about vocal technique and audience-handling in this period, being meticulously coached by the MGM singer, actor and comedian Kay Thompson, and funded for singing tours by the studio to promote the films as a vocalist. The records Stormy Weather, ‘Deed I Do and As Long As I Live were all hits for her in the 40s.Advertisement

In 1947 she married the white pianist and arranger Lennie Hayton, but the delicate politics of the match led the couple to move to Paris for a while, and they avoided publicly announcing the marriage for three years. When they did, Horne was exposed to threats from both whites and blacks. Horne responded: “When I look at Daddy [Hayton], I don’t think he’s white. I think he’s a man who’s been kind to me.” This second marriage was an initially practical and convenient relationship that deepened significantly over its 24-year course. Horne became a close friend of the singer Paul Robeson, who was pursued for his alleged communist sympathies by the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s. They affected Horne too, and prevented her from appearing on film and television over a seven-year period when she was reaching her creative peak. She continued to work at nightclubs, however, and became a peerless performer in these more flexible and intimate circumstances.

Several highly regarded Horne albums, including Lena Horne at the Waldorf Astoria (1957) and Lena Horne at the Sands (1961), emerged from this period, as did a Top 20 US chart hit with Love Me Or Leave Me in 1955, and the classic 1959 album Porgy and Bess, which partnered her with Harry Belafonte. Horne also took a leading Broadway role for the first time in 1957, when she played opposite Ricardo Montalbán in Arlen and Yip Harburg’s musical Jamaica.

Horne took part in the civil rights march on Washington in 1963, and had travelled to Mississippi to speak alongside Medgar Evers on the night Evers was assassinated that summer. Horne said: “Nobody black or white who really believes in democracy can stand aside now; everybody’s got to stand up and be counted.” She began to appear regularly at rallies organised by the National Council for Negro Women.

Throughout the 1960s Horne recorded prolifically, returned to TV and took on a straight movie role opposite Richard Widmark in the 1969 film Death of a Gunfighter. By playing a frontier madam in this western, she was criticised in some quarters for accepting work that seemed to cast black women in a negative light. The next decade was overshadowed by tragedy – between 1970 and 1971, Horne’s father died, her husband died of a heart attack and her son Teddy died of a kidney ailment. Horne worked little until her appearance as Glinda, the Good Witch, in The Wiz (1978), the all-black version of The Wizard of Oz. The film was directed by Horne’s son-in-law, Sidney Lumet (who had married Gail in 1963), and starred Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.

In 1980, Horne received an honor- ary doctorate from Howard University. By that time, she had relaxed her opinion that, having not attended college herself, she might be demeaning higher education by accepting. “By the time Howard presented the doctorate to me,” Horne said, “I knew I had graduated from the school of life, and I was ready to accept it.”

By 1981, the momentum of Horne’s artistic career had returned to something like its old drive. An autobiographical one-woman show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, opened on Broadway, ran for over a year and then toured internationally. It brought her a raft of prizes, including a Tony award and two Grammys.

By the end of the 1980s, she was curtailing her public appearances. But the absence made her account of the songs of Billy Strayhorn (she had always cited Duke Ellington’s star arranger as her biggest musical influence) at the 1993 JVC jazz festival an unexpected triumph. The performance triggered another album, We’ll Be Together Again, the following year.

Horne made her final concert appearances, at New York’s Carnegie Hall, during this period. In 1996 she won another Grammy for best vocal jazz performance on the album An Evening With Lena Horne. In 1998 she confirmed that her formidable powers were intact with an evocative performance of Stormy Weather on the Rosie O’Donnell Show on American television. She revisited the recording studios once more, to contribute to Simon Rattle’s Classic Ellington album in 2000.

After years of swallowing her anger and riding with the punches, Horne was able to ascend to a vantage point in her life where she could finally say: “My identity is very clear to me now. I am a black woman, I’m not alone, I’m free. 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.”

Believe in Yourself, her closing song from The Wiz, fittingly replaced Stormy Weather as the climax of Horne’s late-career shows.

She is survived by Gail.

• Lena Mary Calhoun Horne, singer and actor, born 30 June 1917; died 9 May 2010

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