Internationally renowned singer, actress and activist, Lena Horne died last night, Sunday May 9, 2010 in Manhattan, New York. At 92 years-old, the famed actress, who helped integrate black performers into Hollywood’s once racially exclusive world, lived a full and storied life. She achieved a host of firsts in her lifetime, including becoming the first African-American performer to receive a contract from a major Hollywood studio. Accomplishing this success was no easy feat for Lena, who for many years was almost exclusively relegated to singing musical numbers, which could easily be edited out of films.
“The only time I ever said a word to another actor who was white was Kathryn Grayson in a little segment of “Show Boat” included in “Till the Clouds Roll By (1946),” a movie about the life of Jerome Kern,” said Ms. Horne in a 1990 interview.
Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1917, Horne began her music career at New York City’s Cotton Club, in 1934. In the early 1940s, she became a jazz recording artists with RCA records, but left a short time thereafter to headline a nightclub gig on the west coast. During the same time, Horne also made her debut on the silver screen, mostly appearing in MGM musicals—her most famous, Cabin in the Sky (1943). Horne, unfortunately, was never featured as a leading actress because of her race. At the time, there existed strict rules in many theatres, which banned films featuring African American performers.
By 1945, Lena had become “the nation’s top Negro entertainer,” according to screenwriter and critic Frank Nugent. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Lena continued to act in films, television and produce music which have become classics. She played Glinda the good witch in “The Wiz” (1978), the film version of the all black Broadway music, based on the “Wizard of Oz.” In 1981, she won two Grammy awards for her album “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music.”
Horne is survived by her daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley. The gifts given to the world throughout Ms. Horne’s six-decade career— her activism, vivacity, sass and powerfully expressive voice, will be enjoyed by generations to come.