Lena Horne harbored a tempestuous relationship with her own striking beauty. Her appearance provided a gilded pathway to prominence, but also constructed the glass ceiling that stymied her career during the early 20th century.
Yet, Horne’s beauty did not eclipse her talents and innate showmanship, although she was initially a reluctant entertainer.
“I didn’t want to be in show business; I wanted to be a teacher,” Horne said in a 1994 press release introducing her album, We’ll Be Together Again. “But it happened to me and I’ve been very, very lucky.”
The 92-year-old entertainer, who died May 9 at New York Presbyterian Hospital, was born in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant section during an era rife with social ills. For a generous portion of her career, America’s manifestations of racism, colorism and sexism would be an omnipresent burden.
“The ‘40s audience accepted only those Black beauties whose color could, when so desired, be overlooked,” said AFRO columnist Rosa Pryor-Trusty, author of African-American Entertainment in Baltimore. “White audiences could watch a Lena Horne or Katherine Dunham without feeling uncomfortable, without being reminded of ghettos or poverty or [becoming] more fixated on color, or again, the absence of it.”
But Horne, as headstrong as she was attractive, refused White film directors who suggested she change her last name to reflect a more “exotic” pedigree.
The olive-hued singer had been a member of the NAACP since age 2 and her parents, Edna Scottron and Edwin Horne, were among author W.E.B. DuBois’ “talented tenth.”
Nonetheless, Horne’s upbringing was a difficult one. Her parents divorced when she was 3 and she spent much of her childhood boarding with relatives while her mother, a dancer, traveled with a troupe.
At age 16, Horne made her stage debut at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club, where she developed lifelong friendships with jazz greats such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Jimmy Lunceford. She went on to perform with various orchestras, married and had two children, although the union ended in divorce.
Several years later, a chance encounter with a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) talent scout led Horne and her father to the company’s executive offices. In an interview, the singer — whose refined onstage persona and vocal prowess had already made her a national star — described the meeting’s most tense moment.
“I’d like my daughter to be in your movies,” Edwin Horne had to MGM leaders, “but not as a maid. It wouldn’t be realistic.”
The studio agreed, but never helped catapult Horne’s career to peak strata like her White contemporaries Heddy Lamarr and Jean Parker. While she was never cast as a maid, tribal woman or any other stock “Black” character, her roles became a revolving assortment of brief song-spots that were cut in Southern theaters.
Her first three films — Swing Fever, Cabin In The Sky and Stormy Weather — marked the pinnacle of her relationship with MGM.
In a press release, Horne likened herself to a “butterfly pinned to a column, singing away in movieland.” But while her film career appeared paralyzed, she had become a headlining theater performer and an avant-garde sex symbol whose beauty saw no racial limitations.
“Ms. Horne paved the way for Black entertainers in so many ways. During a time when being Black held one back from being successful in mainstream media, Lena Horne literally kicked down doors with her amazing talents and stunning beauty,” said musician and producer Curtis Hudson, who penned Madonna’s 1983 breakout song “Holiday.” “Without Lena Horne, there would be no Beyoncé or Rihanna. My father was in World War II and he told us that Lena Horne's music and her pinup pictures made them so proud, they were able to go on and fight the many battles they fought.”
Horne’s political views and headstrong nature were most apparent during her performances for the country’s military men. An active participant in the Civil Rights Movement since the 1940s, Horne refused to entertain segregated audiences or perform before groups where German prisoners of war (POWs) were seated in front of Black soldiers.
President Barack Obama called Horne one of America’s “most cherished entertainers” in a statement and lauded her refusal to appear before crowds divided by race.
However, her support of organizations like the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee and the Council on African Affairs created rifts in Hollywood and Horne was added to a “blacklist” of suspected Communists in 1947.
For more than a decade, Horne poured her efforts into causes that promoted peace and social justice. In 1958, she was inducted into Delta Sigma Theta Sorority as an honorary member and in the ‘60s, when race riots and overt bigotry climaxed, she participated in the March on Washington.
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton remembered the Tony Award-winning star for her pioneering role in media and civil rights.
“As a child growing up in segregated D.C., when blacks routinely saw insulting images of themselves from Hollywood, many, like me, learned from Lena Horne’s open resistance, and she taught us that talent and hard work could transcend racism and hatred in our country,” said Holmes Norton in a statement. “She was such a universally loved singer and actor that she performed well past the prime of most great talents. However, she never exhausted her unflagging determination to fight for equal rights for all people.”
Horne resumed performing in the early ‘80s and appeared in The Wiz, which featured Michael Jackson, and a one-woman Broadway production, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music.
On stage, the songstress explored the duality of being America’s first Black sex symbol while others of her race fought and died for justice. With humor and a hint of bitterness, she also divulged the ironies of being both too Black and not Black enough for Hollywood and the ramifications of being Lena Horne — both bold and beautiful.
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