Monday, May 10, 2010
Back in the day, whenever a Black person appeared on TV, black folks called each other to make sure nobody missed it.
"Black folks on TV!"
This was especially true whenever Lena Horne was on perhaps a show like Ed Sullivan or Dean Martin, the phone wires burned up!
"You got Lena on!"
Lena Horne, the beautiful actress/jazz singer who broke color barriers in Hollywood and fought for civil rights during a seven-decade career that took her from being a $25 a week dancer at the Cotton Club in Harlem to Hollywood and the Broadway stage, has died. She was 92.
Horne became one of the highest-paid black entertainers in America by 1943. She was one of the last survivors of the era of popular music that produced Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.
Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was born on June 30, 1917, into a professional middle-class family in Brooklyn, New York. Her paternal grandmother, Cora, was a community leader and a feminist, and she had her 14-month-old granddaughter Lena appear on the cover of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s October 1919 “Branch Bulletin.” At age 16 Lena Horne got a job dancing at the Cotton Club.
In 1941, Horne signed a seven-year movie contract with MGM that made her the only black woman with a long-term studio deal. She appeared in a dozen films over the next decade, mostly in singing roles that could be excised when the films were shown in white theaters in the U.S. South.
“They didn’t make me into a maid, but they didn’t make me anything else, either,” she later wrote. “I became a butterfly pinned to a column, singing away in Movieland.”
To MGM, Lena Horne was a double edged sword of racial difficulty. She had Caucasian enough looks to be accepted by white audiences but too dark-skinned to be considered for a starring role in segregated America. OK, but, she was nonetheless seen as too light and beautiful to play a maid.
The ridiculousness of racism was never made clearer than this stupid "dilemma." Nevertheless, she was a trailblazer.
“She opened so many doors as the first beautiful black woman in movies,” actress Leslie Uggams told Jet magazine in 2007. “Black women were only allowed to play maids in the movies, and all of a sudden, the black community had this goddess.”
She had major roles in all black productions “Cabin in the Sky” and “Stormy Weather” in 1943. In other films such as “Panama Hattie” (1942) and “Swing Fever” (1943) she was used primarily in musical numbers.
Horne acted on her convictions about racial equality. During a World War II show for U.S. troops in Kansas, she walked off the stage because German prisoners of war were seated in front of black soldiers.
Because of her friendship with Paul Robeson, the black actor and activist, she was blacklisted from film, television, radio and recording in 1950. The blacklist did not effect cabaret. She prospered as a nightclub entertainer, appearing with Count Basie, Tony Bennett and Harry Belafonte and by 1956 returned to the movies as the blacklist was lifted.
In 1957, Lena Horne appeared at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel and starred in the Broadway musical “Jamaica” in 1957 to 1959.
During the 1960s, Horne appeared at rallies for civil rights throughout the South. In 1963, she marched on Washington with Martin Luther King.
“Whatever petitions I’ve signed or benefits I’ve played I’ve not done because I had any broad or deep political program I was pushing,” Horne wrote in her autobiography. “I had just learned from my father and from my grandmother not to take any nonsense from anybody."
In 1971 and 1972, she suffered the deaths of her husband, her father and her son, Teddy, in a period of 12 months and briefly retreated from public life.
“She was finally devastated,” Horne’s daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley, wrote in a book on her family. “She retired to Santa Barbara, California, to plant cacti.”
After emerging from that crisis, she began to enjoy performing more.
“It took 1960s politics and 1970s personal grief for her to have the courage to present herself to an audience,” Buckley wrote.
She played Glenda the Good Witch in “The Wiz” (1978), directed by Sidney Lumet, Gail Buckley’s former husband. Her “Lena: The Lady and Her Music” played to sold-out crowds on Broadway for 333 performances in 1981 and 1982 and won a special Tony Award and two Grammys. Newsweek said of her performance: “Lena Horne is a revelation -- of astonishing power and complexity.”
Horne continued to record through the 1990s, releasing her last studio recording, “Soul,” in 1999. Her last major public appearance was in 1999 at an all-star salute, “Lena: The Legacy,” at Avery Fisher Hall in New York’s Lincoln Center.
Beautiful, sexy, sultry, sassy and outspoken, Lena Horne. Thank you and R.I.P.