Lena Horne, Singer and Actress, Dies at 92

By Robert Simonson
10 May 2010

 Lena Horne
Lena Horne

Lena Horne, the elegant and statuesque singer who broke down color barriers by becoming one of Hollywood's first African-American female stars, and who later made a triumphant return to Broadway, died on May 9 at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. She was 92 and lived in Manhattan.

Ms. Horne first came to prominence in the 1940s, as a highly noticeable singing supporting player in MGM musicals such as "Panama Hattie" (1942), "Thousands Cheer" (1943), "Cabin in the Sky" (1943), "Broadway Rhythm" (1944), "Two Girls and a Sailor" (1944), "Ziegfeld Follies" (1946) and "Words and Music" (1948). She rarely did more than sing a song or two, but her vocal performances were often among the highlights of the movies. Tall, beautiful and regal-looking, she easily took on the role of movie star, and would have been a bigger one if not for the limitations placed on black entertainers in Hollywood.

Her most famous film appearance was probably in "Stormy Weather" (1943), an all-black musical in which she did little more than sing the title tune. But she sang it so well that the sequence has become well known to movie enthusiasts as an iconic moment of the movie musical era. "Stormy Weather" also became Ms. Horne's signature tune.

Despite the frustrations of Hollywood's racial codes, by 1945 Ms. Horne was a successful performer, fetching top prices for radio and nightclub performances. She admitted that the advent of World War II helped her visibility. "The whole thing that made me a star was the war," Ms. Horne said in the 1990 interview. "Of course the black guys couldn’t put Betty Grable’s picture in their footlockers. But they could put mine."



In the 1950s, her liberal views and outspokenness on issues such as segregation largely ended her movie career. She turned to the studio, recording extensively with RCA. Ms. Horne became a headliner at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles and the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, where she played a famous engagement in 1957. A live album, "Lena Horne at the Waldorf-Astoria," became the largest-selling record by a female artist in the history of the RCA-Victor label.

Still, when she burst back onto the seen as the star of her own one-woman show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, it was as if the public was discovering her anew. Initially, the Nederlander Organization, Michael Frazier and Fred Walker had booked her for four weeks into the Nederlander Theatre on W. 41st Street. But critics hailed her talents, and the show ran for 14 months and won a Tony Award.

The production was videotaped for television broadcast and home video release. A tour began at Tanglewood (Massachusetts) during the July 4, 1982, weekend, and play 41 cities in the U.S. and Canada. It also played in London for a month in August and ended its run in Stockholm, Sweden, Sept. 14, 1984. Additionally, the cast album won a Grammy Award.

Ms. Horne had previously been nominated for a Tony Award for the hit 1957 Harold Arlen musical Jamaica, in which she starred, singing "Ain't It the Truth?"

Lena Calhoun Horne was born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn on June 30, 1917, into middle-class surroundings. Her paternal grandparents, Edwin and Cora Horne, were early members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, according to the New York Times, and in October 1919, when she was only two years old, little Lena was put on the cover of the NAACP's monthly bulletin.

Ms. Horne was raised by Edwin and Cora Horne when her parents, Edna, an actress, and Teddy Horne, a numbers runner, split up in 1920, Edna leaving for a life in the theatre. Lena grew up in an upper-middle-class black community in the Hill District community of Pittsburgh, PA. Her mother returned after four years.

The elder Ms. Horne's stage dreams did not end there, however. She had her 16-year-old daughter audition at the the famous Harlem nightclub, the Cotton Club. She was hired, dancing alongside star Duke Ellington, and in 1934 made her Broadway debut in Dance With Your Gods. Another Broadway turn was Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1939. She credited Ellington's songwriting collaborator, Billy Strayhorn, as coaching her as a singer.

Ms. Horne was discovered by impresario Felix Young while she was singing at the Greenwich Village nightclub Café Society. He took her to L.A. to star at the Trocadero, a nightclub he was planning to open in the fall of 1941. Soon after she debuted, she was heard and hired by Arthur Freed, the producer of MGM’s musicals, and his boss, Louis B. Mayer. She became the first black performer to sign a long-term contract with a major Hollywood studio.

Ms. Horne married Louis Jones when she was 19, and had two children, Gail and Teddy. The marriage ended soon afterward. Ms. Horne kept Gail, but Jones insisted on keeping Teddy. In 1947, Ms. Horne married again, this time to the prominent white arranger, conductor and pianist Lennie Hayton, who was for many years both her musical director and MGM’s. The marriage took place in France and was kept secret for three years, for fear of public reaction.

Ms. Horne is survived by her daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley. Her husband died in 1971; her son died of kidney failure the same year.