Aljean Harmetz at NYT:
Lena Horne, who broke new ground for black performers when she signed a long-term contract with a major Hollywood studio and who went on to achieve international fame as a singer, died on Sunday night in Manhattan. She was 92.
Her death, at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, was announced by her son-in-law, Kevin Buckley. She lived in Manhattan. In a message of condolence, President Obama said Ms. Horne had “worked tirelessly to further the cause of justice and equality.”
Ms. Horne first achieved fame in the 1940s, became a nightclub and recording star in the 1950s and made a triumphant return to the spotlight with a one-woman Broadway show in 1981. She might have become a major movie star, but she was born 50 years too early: she languished at MGM for years because of her race, although she was so light-skinned that when she was a child other black children had taunted her, accusing her of having a “white daddy.”
Ms. Horne was stuffed into one “all-star” film musical after another — “Thousands Cheer” (1943), “Broadway Rhythm” (1944), “Two Girls and a Sailor” (1944), “Ziegfeld Follies” (1946), “Words and Music” (1948) — to sing a song or two that, she later recalled, could easily be snipped from the movie when it played in the South, where the idea of an African-American performer in anything but a subservient role in a movie with an otherwise all-white cast was unthinkable.
David Wild at Huffington Post:
Upon hearing the news of Horne’s death, I found myself wanting to read some accounts of this remarkable woman’s life to see how people made sense of her remarkable if stormy American life. I noticed that Lena Horne’s Wikipedia entry — already updated with the date of her death — begins by describing her as “an American singer, actress and dancer.” She was all that, but in her life, she was and meant so much more.
To me, Lena Horne was one of the world’s all-time class acts, a freedom fighter, an original, a radiant beauty, an enduring icon, a brave civil rights advocate and a great lady of standards. Early in her career, before she was blacklisted for her political views, Lena Horne was wrongly pressured to be something that she wasn’t because of the strange racial politics of Hollywood. “I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become,” Lena Horne once said. “I’m me, and I’m like nobody else.”
She was Lena Horne, and nobody else will ever be like her again.
Mary Curtis at Politics Daily:
“Features chiseled out of marble” – that’s how my father described Lena Horne. He did it so emphatically and so often that we would laugh, the “we” being my siblings and me. The five of us got a kick out of the devoted husband and father having such an obvious crush. I swear his eyes would stare off into the distance each time he said her name.At first, I didn’t get it. Horne’s stylized, cabaret style left me cold when I would catch an old movie or a TV variety hour. But then I grew up and, as regularly happens, realized Daddy was right.[…]My dad – who kept up with her career via TV from his dining room throne — wasn’t surprised by the mix of fire and ice in this icon of men of a certain age. (On television’s popular “Sanford and Son,” Redd Foxx’s adoration of Horne was a running theme culminating in a guest appearance by the lady herself that stunned Fred Sanford and his buddies.) African-Americans of Dad’s and Horne’s generation wore their masks in the sometimes hostile world they had to navigate; they had to hold a little of themselves to themselves to keep sane.My father wasn’t a Metro Goldwyn Mayer star, but he looked like one to me in his alligator shoes and sharp pocket squares. At dances, my mother’s unmarried friends coveted him as a partner. But in second and third jobs as a bartender or waiter, he served those with one-tenth of his dignity – and he did it with a smile.He loved Horne’s beauty; he understood her fight.I was lucky enough to see Lena Horne perform, in a revival of “Pal Joey” in the late 1970’s in Los Angeles. She was gorgeous and in great voice.“I no longer have to be a ‘credit;’ I don’t have to be a ‘symbol’ to anybody,” she is quoted as finally saying. “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.”That’s for sure. Though she had been living out of the spotlight for years in New York, I imagine her chiseled features as agelessly beautiful as ever. And if you believe in such things – and I have to confess I do — my dad can at last see his idol up close.
Nell Minnow at Beliefnet:
Ms. Horne was the first African-American to sign a major studio contract, in the 1940’s. It specifically provided that she would never have to play a maid. She started singing at the Cotton Club when she was only sixteen years old. She had major roles in the earliest studio films featuring an all-black cast, “Cabin in the Sky” and “Stormy Weather,” named for her signature song.
Wikipedia notes that she
was never featured in a leading role because of her race and the fact that films featuring her had to be re-edited for showing in states where theaters could not show films with black performers. As a result, most of Horne’s film appearances were stand-alone sequences that had no bearing on the rest of the film, so editing caused no disruption to the storyline; a notable exception was the all-black musical Cabin in the Sky, although one number was cut because it was considered too suggestive by the censors. “Ain’t it the Truth” was the song (and scene) cut before the release of the film Cabin in the Sky. It featured Horne singing “Ain’t it the Truth”, while taking a bubble bath (considered too “risqué” by the film’s executives). This scene and song are featured in the film That’s Entertainment! III (1994) which also featured commentary from Horne on why the scene was deleted prior to the film’s release.And during the Red Scare, she was black-listed and not allowed to appear in films. But she continued to work for civil rights, and refused to perform for segregated audiences. Her example of courage and integrity and her matchless voice will continue to inspire us.
Jos at Feministing:
Horne’s grandmother enrolled her in the NAACP when she was two. She helped Eleanor Roosevelt fight for anti-lynching legislation and supported the rights of Japanese Americans following World War II. She was active in the civil rights movement, speaking and singing at protests and marching for civil rights in the 1960s.
Horne is probably best remembered by folks my age for playing Glinda in “The Wiz” and performances on shows like “Sesame Street” and “The Cosby Show.” But before that she did the hard work of breaking down a lot of barriers for women of color in popular entertainment.
From a 1990 interview: “The whole thing that made me a star was the war. Of course the black guys couldn’t put Betty Grable’s picture in their footlockers. But they could put mine.”
Stormy weather, indeed.