August 31, 2010

Lena Horne, Trailblazing Singer, Actress & Civil Rights Activist, Dies at 92

Talented and courageous, Horne confronted authority and broke barriers for African-American performers.

Iconic singer, dancer, actress and civil rights activist Lena Horne, died May 9, 2010, at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.

According to news reports, no other details of her death were made public.

Horne was one of the first African-Americans to sign a long-term movie contract with a major Hollywood studio when she joined MGM in 1942.

A gifted singer, Horne was known best for her hit "Stormy Weather.”

Early in her film career Horne endured being used as what she sometimes referred to as "window dressing" in white films — her appearances were typically limited to singing performances because they could be easily edited out, if necessary, for play in Southern theaters.

The light-complexioned Horne refused to go along with studio plans to promote her as a Latin American.

She was born in June 30, 1917, in Brooklyn, New York. Following her parents’ divorce, when she was three, she moved frequently with her mother, an actress.

At 16, she became a dancer at the famous Harlem nightspot known as the Cotton Club. She later became a singer there, playing with bandleaders Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.

As she developed a reputation for her singing, she worked in numerous clubs and, according to her official biography, became the first African-American singer to tour with a white group in 1940.

Horne made her first film appearance in the 1938 release The Duke is Tops. Four years passed before her next film Panama Hattie, a comedy starring Red Skelton. The movie was released by MGM, with whom she signed a seven-year contract after being spotted while performing in a New York club by a studio talent scout.

Although she worked regularly, including the popular black musicals Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather, Horne was not happy due to the prejudice — and professional limitations — she faced due to her race. Her disenchantment with the movie business led her to pursue more work on the stage and as a recording artist.

According to news reports, Horne was just two years old when her grandmother, a prominent member of the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, enrolled her in the NAACP. Horne was sparked to pursue activism in 1945, when she was entertaining at an Army base and saw German prisoners of war sitting in front of black American soldiers who were relegated to the rear. After the USO withdrew her from the tour, she used her own money to travel to sing for the troops.

Her progressive political views and friendship with Paul Robeson led to her being blacklisted in the 1950s.

The ’50s also marked one of her greatest triumphs when she starred on Broadway in the musical Jamaica, which premiered in 1957 and ran for over 500 performances.

By the 1960s, Horne was one of the most visible celebrities in the civil rights movement. In one incident, she threw a lamp at a customer who made a racial slur in a Beverly Hills restaurant. In1963 she joined the March on Washington when Martin Luther King. Jr.. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. The same year, she spoke at a rally with civil rights leader Medgar Evers just days before his assassination.

Horne endured personal tragedy in 1970-71 when her father, her husband, former MGM music director Lennie Hayton, and her son from a brief first marriage, all died. Following their deaths she withdrew for a time from performing and public life. Eventually, she was persuaded to return to the stage, with gratifying results.

In addition to her many movies, Horne worked extensively in television, and in the 1960s appeared in several variety series hosted by stars such as Flip Wilson, Perry Como, Dean Martin and Engelbert Humperdinck. Other series appearances included Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and Sesame Street.

In1985 she earned a Primetime Emmy nomination for Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, an episode of the PBS series Great Performances.

In 1989 Horne was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 1995 she won a Grammy for best jazz vocal performance for her album An Evening With Lena Horne.

In the 1960s Horne released an autobiography, Lena, written with author Richard Schickel.

She is survived by a daughter from her first marriage.

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