Groundbreaking singer, performer and film star Lena Horne died Sunday in New York at the age of 92. Horne, the first African American to sign a long-term contract with a major film studio, broke down racial barriers, most memorably with “Stormy Weather,” a film that would feature a song that became one Horne’s classic renditions.
Born in Brooklyn on June, 30, 1917, to a middle-class black family, Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was the product of an early civil rights movement, from a leading family in the black bourgeoisie. Her grandparents were early members of the NAACP and enrolled a then 2-year-old Horne, who appeared on the cover of the organization’s monthly newsletter.
When she was 16, Horne was pulled out of school by her mother, a struggling actress, to audition for the chorus of the Cotton Club, a Harlem nightclub that catered to white audiences. From there Horne danced on Broadway, was married, had two children, was divorced, and was signed to MGM in the 1940s.
In spite of her crossover appeal, Horne credited WWII with her success. “Of course the black guys couldn’t put Betty Grable’s picture in their footlockers. But they could put mine,” she said in a 1990 interview.
That success paved the way for future black performers. In a 1997 PBS interview, Horne recalled: “My father said, ‘I can get a maid for my daughter. I don’t want her in the movies playing maids.’”
In the 1960’s, she joined the march on Washington, and she came to Mississippi to be with Medger Evers and to speak to the NAACP on what turned out to be the night Evers was fatally shot. “Nobody black or white who really believes in democracy can stand aside now; everybody’s got to stand up and be counted,” said Horne.
“Lena had a tremendous sense of social responsibility that went side by side with her up there trying to just sing and perform her best,” said biographer James Gavin, author of ‘Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne,’ to Jeffrey Brown last year.
After her film career faltered, Horne found success in night clubs and on records. In 1981, her one-woman show, “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music,” ran for 14 months and won a Tony Award.
“My identity is very clear to me now,” said Horne. “I am a black woman, I’m not alone, I’m free. I no longer, I say I’m free 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.”
Horne stopped speaking publically in 2000. Her husband, MGM music director Lennie Hayton died in 1971; her son died of kidney failure the same year. Horne is survived by her daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley.
In 1997, the NewsHour celebrated Horne’s 80th birthday with a look at her life as an entertainer and civil rights activist. Jazz star Nancy Wilson sang Horne’s praises to Margaret Warner:
We’ll have more about Horne’s life and legacy on Monday’s NewsHour.
Here’s Horne singing “Stormy Weather”: