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Lena Horne dies at 92; singer and civil rights activist who broke barriers

Horne achieved a place in the pantheon of female jazz vocalists and broke ground in Hollywood as an African American star in the '40s. She also won acclaim on Broadway and as a cabaret performer.

May 10, 2010|By Dennis McLellan and Valerie J. Nelson, Los Angeles Times

"Stormy Weather" was Lena Horne's signature song as well as a chillingly apt metaphor for her career. Long celebrated for her striking beauty and silky voice, she overcame profound racism on her way to becoming one of the best-known African American performers in the country.

At MGM, she had a seven-year contract in the 1940s when no other African American had such long-term deals. But her movie scenes were filmed so they could be easily excised for release in the Jim Crow South.

As a singer in the 1950s, Horne often performed for white audiences in supper clubs then cursed the audience under her breath as she took her bows, her biographer wrote last year.

The glamorous Horne would go on to be "one of the legendary divas of popular music," jazz critic Don Heckman wrote in The Times in 1997, with a voice that almost caressed "with its warm timbre and seductive drawl,"

Horne, whose career spanned more than 60 years, died Sunday of heart failure at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, said her daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley. She was 92.

She made "in-roads into a world that had never before been explored by African American women, and she did it on her own terms," Grammy-winning producer Quincy Jones said in a statement. He called her "one of the great artistic icons of the 20th century."

To help out her family during the Depression, Horne got a job as a 16-year-old chorus girl in 1933 at the fabled Cotton Club in Harlem. She went on to have a career that included film, television, Grammy-winning records, a one-woman Broadway show and untold nightclub appearances.

As a singer, she "belonged in the pantheon of great female artists" that includes Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae, Heckman wrote in 1997.

Horne, then 80 and cutting a new album, took a different view.

"Oh, please," she told the writer. "I'm really not Miss Pretentious. I'm just a survivor. Just being myself."

When she arrived in Hollywood in 1941, she had already sung with the orchestra of white bandleader Charlie Barnet, making it one of the era's few integrated swing bands. She also had been a cabaret sensation at the prestigious Cafe Society Downtown club in New York's Greenwich Village.

At the Little Troc, a small club on the Sunset Strip, the response was similar. "She has knocked the movie population bowlegged and is up to her ears in offers," one news account reported.

After signing with MGM, she broke through as an African American actress on the silver screen. With her copper-toned skin and dazzling smile, she was "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 and rued that she was more popular as a performer because she could "pass" for white.

Refusing to play maids or other stereotypical parts then offered to black actors, Horne had a nonspeaking role as a singer in her first MGM movie, "Panama Hattie," a 1942 comedy.

That set the tone for much of the 1940s as she appeared in more than a dozen films, including "Swing Fever," "Broadway Rhythm" and "Ziegfeld Follies."

In most of them, she had cameos only as a singer and was often clad in a sophisticated evening gown, shown singing while leaning against a pillar. It became her on-screen trademark.

"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 independently of the films' narratives, making them easy to be deleted later when screened in the Jim Crow South.

Two 1943 films were exceptions, the all-black musicals in which she starred — "Cabin in the Sky" and "Stormy Weather."

Her memorable rendition of Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler's "Stormy Weather" in the movie became a hit recording for Horne. It was also the name James Gavin chose for his 2009 biography of her.

A World War II pinup, Horne in 1944 became the first African American to appear on the cover of a movie magazine, Motion Picture.

"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 1980 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 … who appeared as if all her life she had been placed on a pedestal and everything had come easily.... Reality was another matter."

She was born Lena Mary Calhoun Horne on June 30, 1917, in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her father was a gambler who left the family when she was 3, and her mother was an actress.

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