Her luminous beauty — seen in doe-like eyes set against perfectly chiseled cheekbones — helped make her one of the first black women to triumph in Hollywood.
Her radiant vocals — tinged with the sorrow of the blues — placed her in an elite class of singers known globally by their first names alone, such as Ella (Fitzgerald) and Billie (Holiday) and Sarah (Vaughan).
Her unblinking defiance of the racism of her era — which once inspired her to hurl a table lamp and other objects at a bigoted heckler — established her as an impassioned figure of the civil rights era.
Lena Horne, the last of a pantheon of black divas who helped thrust African-American culture into the American mainstream, died Sunday at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, at age 92.
“There wouldn’t be a Halle Berry or an Angela Bassett or a Cicely Tyson if there hadn’t been a Lena Horne,” said Dee Dee Bridgewater, the Grammy- and Tony Award -winning singer-actress, who, like generations of performers, counted Horne as an inspiration.
“She crossed the color barriers, even though she had to fight to get there,” added Bridgewater.
“She held a special place where blacks could view her as a heroine, at a time when we needed heroes,” observed David Baker, distinguished professor of music at Indiana University, in Bloomington, Ind.
Horne “maintained a place of dignity that belied the way blacks were treated at the time,” added Baker. Indeed, whether glowing in 1940s films such as “Stormy Weather” or conquering Broadway in 1950s musicals such as “Jamaica” or reaching new audiences with her autobiographical show “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music” in the 1980s, the singer exuded an aura of heightened elegance and refinement. That she was able to extend her distinct musical-dramatic franchise well into the 1990s, releasing several jazz CDs and winning her second Grammy for one of them, “An Evening with Lena Horne” (1995), gave her career an epic span, for it stretched back to 1934, when she bowed at the fabled Cotton Club, in Harlem.
Yet practically every aspect of Horne’s life was marked by emotional turmoil, starting with a comfortably middle-class childhood interrupted by hardships when her parents separated. Beneath the high sheen of her show-biz persona, in other words, Horne struggled with issues of race, privilege, deprivation and social consciousness.
“So many of the things that happened were so ridiculous, you know?” she said in a rare Chicago Tribune interview, in 1998, retaining a hint of the Southern drawl the Brooklyn-born singer acquired growing up in Georgia, when her mother traveled the South as an itinerant actress.
“You wouldn’t be allowed to get on a particular bus, but you’d be asked to sign your autograph.”
Well before Horne faced such situations, however, her family imbued her with a sense of pride that would define her racial attitudes thereafter. Early on, she learned of the impressive legacy of her forebears: Her paternal grandmother held key positions with the NAACP and the National Urban League; her grandfather was the first black member of the Brooklyn Board of Education; her uncle served as an adviser on race relations to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
And Horne never forgot the words of her grandmother, who “taught me about facing down, you know, looking people in their eyes and saying, ‘I don’t like it,’” when a wrong had been committed, she said in the Tribune interview.
That philosophy steeled her for the travails ahead, beginning at the Cotton Club, where she worked as a chorus girl performing for whites-only audiences to help support her struggling mother and stepfather.
“I had my schooling right there in the Cotton Club,” said Horne, describing a celebrated venue where the country’s greatest black artists played to wide acclaim, but under dismal conditions and for minuscule pay ($25 a week for three nightly shows, seven nights a week, in Horne’s case).
“I learned from Ethel Waters, Duke Ellington, Adelaide Hall, the Nicholas Brothers, the whole thing, the whole schmear,” she added, in describing her self-styled musical education. “That was a great place because it hired us, for one thing, at a time when it was really rough (for performers of color).”
But when she decided she wanted to step into the Cotton Club spotlight as a soloist and her stepfather began lobbying on her behalf, one of the club’s owners “beat him up and they pushed his head down a toilet and told him to shut his mouth,” she recalled in a New York Times interview.
Horne fled the club and soon was touring the country with the black bandleader Noble Sissle, in the mid-1930s, and shattering racial precedents by performing with white bandleaders such as Artie Shaw and Charlie Barnet in the early 1940s.
She quickly emerged a major black singer of the era, the amber tone of her voice and the implicit swing rhythms of her phrases helping to bring African-American musical vernacular into the popular culture.
“Her voice was very distinctive — you could tell Lena Horne anywhere,” said Samuel Floyd, Jr., founder of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago. “I don’t know that anybody could match that sound.”
“It was a quality of voice that drew you in like Nat Cole’s voice,” said Baker, the Indiana University professor. “She had wonderful pitch, extraordinary range. She could do any kind of tune, from a love ballad to a swing piece, and make it convincing.”
Perhaps inevitably, the luster of Horne’s vocals, as well as her stunning good looks, won her cameos in major musical films. In 1943 alone she sang the title song in “Stormy Weather” (swathed in a glittering gown) and performed in “Cabin in the Sky,” “Thousands Cheer,” “I Dood It” and “Swing Fever.” Musical sequences in ‘40s pictures such as “Broadway Rhythm,” “Ziegfeld Follies,” “Till the Clouds Roll By” and “Words and Music” made her an internationally known artist.
She became, as she once said, “the first Negro sex symbol” (though devotees of Josephine Baker might have disagreed). But because Horne refused to take the roles of maids and prostitutes routinely accorded black actresses in that time, her movie career was confined to musical performances and never fully blossomed.
Moreover, her outspoken manner did not endear her to Hollywood chieftains or to certain aspects of the movie-going public. In a notorious incident during World War II, she walked onstage at a USO show at Ft. Riley, Kan., only to see that German prisoners of war were sitting in front of black American soldiers.
“I just walked off the stage and went up and sang to the back of the room,” she remembered, in the Tribune interview. “It happened a couple of times, and they finally said, ‘Get her out of the USO.’
“I just reacted as Lena, you know.”
The movie star was becoming a lightning rod for criticism, her scenes — like those of many other black performers — excised from films when they were distributed in the South. Her second marriage, in 1947 to the white MGM composer-arranger Lennie Hayton, inspired violent threats and obscene mail after they went public, in 1950.
Though Horne was under consideration to star as Julie in the 1951 film musical “Show Boat,” the role went to Ava Gardner.
Horne’s close friendship with the politically active singer-actor Paul Robeson, who she said “helped me come to an understanding about my people,” helped finish off her Hollywood career. Widely condemned in anti-Communist publications for her association with Robeson — whose career also was ruined in the era of the “Red scare” — she turned her back on the movies by the mid-‘50s.
“I never had the great urge to be in the movies in the first place, only because I saw that it was Tarzan or nothing,” she said in the Tribune interview. “I never fell for the myth. So when I saw the way things were going, I just got on out.”
Instead, she focused on nightclubs and Broadway musicals, winning particular acclaim in Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s “Jamaica,” opening on New Year’s Eve, 1957.
Yet she never flinched from battles as she encountered them. When a patron in a posh Beverly Hills restaurant referred to her by a vile racial epithet, in 1960, she flung the aforementioned table lamp, several glasses and an ashtray at him.
Her rage, she often explained, owed in part to the strange position she found herself in: A major black star somewhat ostracized by Hollywood yet wealthy enough to have been isolated from everyday black life in America, as well.
But she found release for this anger in the civil rights wars of the ‘60s, she said, working with the National Council of Negro Women, the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, the Urban League and other organizations.
Even so, she faced several personal tragedies. In 1967, she was devastated by the death of composer Billy Strayhorn, arguably her closest friend.
“They had matched souls ... she really never got over his passing,” said Alyce Claerbaut, the composer’s niece. A few years later, in the early 1970s, Horne suffered — within the period of a few months — the deaths of her father, her 29-year-old son and her husband, Hayton.
“I started to change when everybody left me, when I found out that the worst had happened to me and I was surviving,” she told the Tribune. “I began to think about myself, to look back at what I had been given and what I hadn’t had. And I slowly grew into my other self.”
By that she meant a performer who started to show vulnerability in front of the public, rather than just an unattainable elegance. The perfect veneer began to crack, and audiences loved it.
“I was never really aloof — that was people’s image of me — but it came about because I didn’t ever think that I should be anything but perfect for the audience,” she said in the Tribune interview.
“I found out along the way that they like you a little imperfect.”
So well into her 60s, she began turning in some of the best work of her career.
“At first she was not as deep as Ethel (Waters),” said the noted Chicago jazz singer Geraldine de Haas, in citing Horne’s first great influence. “But she grew to be.”
Certainly her 1981 Broadway show “The Lady and Her Music,” which won a Tony, represented a new pinnacle for her, pairing her now searing music with surprisingly candid stage commentary.
“The most awesome performer to hit Broadway in years,” observed Newsweek.
“Sorry, this has to be a love letter,” opined Clive Barnes, in the New York Post.
“The lady’s range, energy, originality, humor, anger and intelligence are simply not to be believed,” wrote Walter Kerr in the New York Times.
But Horne wasn’t done yet. A series of recordings in the 1990s for Blue Note Records, one of the world’s leading jazz label, reminded listeners of her stature as musician, even as she progressed into her ninth decade. Though a slight vocal wobble was apparent on discs such as “Live at the Supper Club” and “We’ll Be Together Again” (an homage to Strayhorn), the interpretive wisdom and signature sound of Horne’s work made them late-in-life classics.
Last year, she was the subject of a 608-page biography, “Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne,” by James Gavin. When Horne was told by a journalist that the likes of Ella, Billie, Sarah and — of course, Lena — never would be heard again, she demurred.
“Oh, I’d love to be thought that good,” she said in the Tribune interview. “That’s a compliment, but I’m not sure I’m the last. “I certainly hope not.”
Horne is survived by her daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley.