[Dixielandjazz] Lena Horne Obit LA Times
rsr at ringwald.com
Tue May 11 06:19:48 PDT 2010
Lena Horne Dies at 92; Singer and Civil Rights Activist Broke Barriers
by Dennis McLellan
Los Angeles Times, May 10, 2010
Lena Horne, the silky-voiced singing legend who shattered Hollywood stereotypes of
African Americans on screen in the 1940s as a symbol of glamour whose signature song
was "Stormy Weather," died Sunday in New York City. She was 92.
Horne died at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, a spokeswoman said.
No cause of death was given.
Beginning as a 16-year-old chorus girl at the fabled Cotton Club in Harlem in 1933,
Horne launched a more than six-decade career that spanned films, radio, television,
recording, nightclubs, concert halls and Broadway.
As a singer, Horne had a voice that jazz critic Don Heckman described in a 1997 profile
in The Times as "smooth, almost caressing, with its warm timbre and seductive drawl
-- honey and bourbon with a teasing trace of lemon."
She was, Heckman wrote, "one of the legendary divas of popular music" -- a singer
who "belonged in the pantheon of great female artists that includes Ethel Waters,
Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae."
Horne, 80 at the time and cutting a new album, took a different view.
"Oh, please," she said. "I'm really not Miss Pretentious. I'm just a survivor. Just
When Horne first began dancing in the chorus at the Cotton Club -- three shows a
night, seven nights a week for $25 a week -- she did so to help out her financially
troubled family during the Depression.
By the time she arrived in Hollywood for a nightclub job in 1941, she had been a
vocalist for the Noble Sissle and Charlie Barnet orchestras, had done some recording
and was a cabaret sensation at the prestigious Cafe Society Downtown club in New
York's Greenwich Village.
She created a similar response, performing at the Little Troc, a small club on the
Sunset Strip, where, according to one news account, "she has knocked the movie population
bowlegged and is up to her ears in offers."
Signed by MGM to a seven-year contract in an era when no other blacks were under
long-term contracts at the major movie studios, Horne went on to become one of the
best-known African American performers in the country.
With her copper-toned skin, strong cheekbones and dazzling smile, she was a breakthrough
on the silver screen -- "Hollywood's first black beauty, sex symbol, singing star,"
as Vogue magazine described her decades later.
"I was unique in that I was a kind of black that white people could accept," Horne
once said. "I was their daydream. I had the worst kind of acceptance because it was
never for how great I was or what I contributed. It was because of the way I looked."
Refusing to play maids and other stereotypical roles offered to black actors at the
time, Horne appeared in a nonspeaking role as a singer in her first MGM movie, "Panama
Hattie," a 1942 comedy musical starring Red Skelton and Ann Sothern.
That set the tone for most of her screen appearances in the '40s, a time in which
she appeared in more than a dozen movies, including "I Dood It," "Swing Fever," "Broadway
Rhythm" and "Ziegfeld Follies."
In most of them, she had only cameos as a singer, who was typically clad in a glamorous
evening gown and singing while leaning against a pillar. It became her on-screen
"They didn't make me into a maid, but they didn't make me into anything else either,"
she wrote in "Lena," her 1965 autobiography. "I became a butterfly pinned to a column
singing away in Movieland."
Horne's musical numbers usually were shot independent of the films' narratives, making
them easy to be deleted when screened in the Jim Crow South.
Two exceptions were the all-black musicals in which she was one of the stars: "Cabin
in the Sky" and "Stormy Weather," both released in 1943.
Her memorable rendition of Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen's "Stormy Weather" in the
movie became a hit recording for Horne, as well as becoming her signature song.
A World War II pinup girl, the glamorous Horne in 1944 became the first African American
to appear on the cover of a movie magazine, Motion Picture.
"Anybody who was not madly in love with Lena Horne should report to his undertaker
immediately and turn himself in," actor and friend Ossie Davis said on "Lena Horne:
In Her Own Voice," a 1996 installment of PBS' "American Masters" biography series.
"In the history of American popular entertainment, no woman had ever looked like
Lena Horne. Nor had any other black woman had looks considered as 'safe' and non-threatening,"
Donald Bogle wrote in his book "Brown Sugar: Over One Hundred Years of America's
Black Female Superstars."
"The Horne demeanor -- distant and aloof -- suggested that she was a woman off somewhere
in a world of her own.... who appeared as if all her life she had been placed on
a pedestal and everything had come easily to her. That was the way she appeared to
be.... The reality was another matter."
She was born Lena Mary Calhoun Horne on June 30, 1917, in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Her family lived in the home of her father's middle-class parents. Horne's grandmother
was active in the Urban League, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored
People and the women's suffrage movement.
Horne's father left his wife and daughter when Horne was 3. And her mother, unhappy
living with her strong-willed mother-in-law, soon moved out to pursue an acting career
with a Harlem-based black stock company.
That left young Lena in the care of her grandparents until she joined her mother
on the road in the South a few years later.
Horne was living in Harlem with her mother and her out-of-work stepfather when she
left school at 16 and joined the chorus at the Cotton Club in 1933.
While continuing to work at the club, she made her Broadway debut in 1934 with a
small role in "Dance With Your Gods," an all-black drama that ran for only nine performances.
Leaving the Cotton Club in 1935, she became a featured singer in the all-black Noble
Sissle Society Orchestra but quit two years later to marry Louis Jones, a Pittsburgh
friend of her father's who was about nine years her senior.
At 19, she settled into domestic life in Pittsburgh and gave birth to her two children,
Gail and Teddy. But she and her husband separated in 1940 and were divorced in 1944.
Although Horne gave up show business when she married Jones, money problems during
the marriage prompted her to accept the co-starring role in "The Duke Is Tops," a
low-budget, 1938 African American movie musical shot in 10 days.
She also appeared in "Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1939," a Broadway revue that had
only nine performances.
Moving back to New York after her marriage broke up, Horne was hired as a vocalist
for the Barnet orchestra, becoming one of the first black performers to sing with
a major white band, with whom she had a hit record, "Good for Nothing Joe,"
After leaving the Barnet band in 1941, Horne began an extended engagement at Cafe
Society Downtown, where she first met and became friends with singer-actor and political
activist Paul Robeson.
While under contract to MGM in the '40s, Horne met Lennie Hayton, a white staff composer
and arranger at the studio who became her second husband.
Fearing public reaction when they married in Paris in 1947, they did not announce
their marriage until three years later.
Horne later said she initially became involved with Hayton because she thought he
could be useful to her career.
"He could get me into places no black manager could," she told the New York Times
in 1981. "It was wrong of me, but as a black woman, I knew what I had against me."
But, she said, "because he was a nice man and because he was in my corner, I began
to love him."
But being married to a white man, whom she once said "taught me everything I know
musically," took a toll -- from her impatience with black critics who questioned
the marriage to her sometimes using her husband as a "whipping boy" and making him
"pay for everything the whites had done to us."
Horne's last film for MGM -- a singing cameo in the musical "Duchess of Idaho," starring
Esther Williams and Van Johnson -- was released in 1950, the same year she triumphantly
appeared at the London Palladium.
Primarily due to her friendship with Robeson and her involvement with the Council
for African Affairs and the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee to the Arts,
Science and Professions, both of which were named as Communist fronts, Horne found
herself blacklisted and unable to appear on radio and television in the early '50s.
But the cabaret business remained untouched by the blacklist, and she focused on
her critically acclaimed nightclub/cabaret act.
Her "Lena Horne at the Waldorf Astoria" became RCA Victor's biggest-selling album
by a female vocalist in 1957.
"Lena, for most of us, defined the art of nightclub performing," the late cabaret
singer Bobby Short told USA Today in 1997. "You can't discount her great beauty,
but behind all of that is a great deal of talent and the ability to transmit the
composer's intent to the audience."
Horne, who was able to resume appearing on television in 1956, also starred in the
hit Broadway musical "Jamaica," which ran from 1957 to '59 and earned her a Tony
Unable to stay in many of the hotels she performed in because she was black, Horne
developed what she later described as "a toughness, a way of isolating" herself from
the audience as a performer.
"There was no cuteness or coyness about her," comedian Alan King said of Horne on
"Lena Horne: In Her Own Voice." "Lena came out there and stuck it right in their
face -- boom! She was radiantly and subtly brazen, saying to herself, You want to
take me to bed, but you won't let me come in the front door.'"
Throughout her early career, Horne experienced the injustices suffered by African
Americans at the time.
While touring with the USO during World War II, she was expected to entertain the
white soldiers before appearing before African American troops
A day after performing for white soldiers in a large auditorium at Ft. Riley, Kan.,
she returned to entertain black troops in the black mess hall.
But when she discovered that the whites seated in the front rows were German prisoners
of war, she became furious. Marching off the platform, she turned her back on the
POWs and sang to the black soldiers in the back of the hall.
Horne's long-suppressed anger over the treatment of blacks in white society erupted
in 1960 when she overheard a drunk white man at the Luau restaurant in Beverly Hills
refer to her using a racial epithet.
Jumping up, she threw an ashtray, a table lamp and several glasses at him, cutting
the man's forehead.
When reports of her outburst appeared in newspapers across the country, Horne was
surprised at the positive response, mostly from African Americans.
"Phone calls and telegrams came in from all over," she told the Christian Science
Monitor in 1984. "It was the first time it struck me that black people related to
each other in bigger ways than I realized."
In the early '60s, Horne became more active in the civil rights movement, participating
in a meeting with prominent blacks in 1963 with then-Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy
in the wake of violence in Birmingham, Ala., and singing at civil rights rallies.
In the early '70s, Horne faced three personal tragedies within an 18-month period:
In 1970, the same year her father died, her son died of kidney disease; and Hayton
died of a heart attack in 1971.
Horne later said she "stayed in the house grieving" until Alan King "bullied" her
out of her depression, and she returned to singing and recording.
She also toured with Tony Bennett, as well as doing 37 performances on Broadway of
"Tony and Lena Sing" in 1974. And she played Glinda, the Good Witch in "The Wiz,"
the 1978 movie musical directed by Sidney Lumet, her then-son-in-law.
Then, in 1981, she made a triumphant return to Broadway in the hit "Lena Horne: The
Lady and Her Music."
Horne, then 63, went on to win the Drama Desk Award and a special Tony Award for
her autobiographical show that ran on Broadway for more than a year and led to a
Grammy Award-winning soundtrack album and a cross-country tour of the show before
going to London.
Her rendition of "Stormy Weather" was, naturally, a show-stopper.
She actually sang the song twice, first as she had in the movie when she was in her
20s and, she said in an interview, she couldn't sing it "worth a toot."
Then, at the end of the show, she electrified her audience by singing it again from
the perspective of a woman in her 60s, who had experienced a lifetime of love and
As Horne said in the documentary "Lena Horne: In Her Own Voice": "My life has been
about surviving. Along the way I also became an artist. It's been an interesting
journey. One in which music became first my refuge and then my salvation."
Horne was a Kennedy Center Honors recipient in 1984, and she received a lifetime
achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 1998.
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