Lena Horne dies at age 92
Posted on Mon, May. 10, 2010
By Rhindi White
STREETGANGS.COM STAFF WRITER
As an actress, she might be the most elegant vision that much of America never saw. For many years Hollywood didn’t think the country was ready for a black leading lady, even one whose elegance and beauty could take an audience’s breath away.
As a singer, she was in her mid-60s before her one-woman tour de force on Broadway in 1981-82 showed everyone in the city and the world just what she could do with a song.
Horne, who died Sunday in New York Presbyterian Hospital at the age of 92, lit up the sky from the moment in 1932 when she took her first steps in the Cotton Club chorus line at age 16. The sky just had a lot of clouds in it for a lot of years.
She began singing in the mid-1930s, with a voice that was powerful and warm yet somehow wistful. It would take her years to really understand her songs, she later said, but the voice was always there.
The movies came next. Her tall-and-tan glamour and flashing brown eyes, not to mention a smile that could melt the polar icecap, turned her into the kind of screen goddess who would, in the phrase of the day, make a bulldog jump the fence.
But even though she also went on to star in nightclubs and on Broadway, it would take almost half a century before America would fully embrace Lena Horne – because throughout her prime performing years, neither Hollywood nor the music business was ready to give a “colored girl” a full fair shot in the mainstream.
She breached the barrier occasionally, winning a Tony nomination for her starring role in the 1957 Broadway show “Jamaica” with Ossie Davis. But Hollywood would rarely let her act at all, instead limiting her to musical “inserts.” Producers would darken her skin with a special makeup called “Egyptian Dark,” put her in a beautiful outfit and have her sing a song that could be snipped out of the print that was sent to Southern theaters, where some of the owners said their patrons didn’t cotton to race-mixing on the screen.
“I was like a butterfly pinned to a pillar,” Horne would later say, but she had little choice. When she pressed hard in 1951 for the role of the tragic Julie in the film remake of “Show Boat,” MGM decided it was too risky to have a black actress play a black character and instead cast Ava Gardner.
“I had things in my life that helped me fight off the bitterness,” Horne said in a 1982 interview. “But I didn’t really enjoy my career until I was 50. I always felt like an outsider.”
Born in Brooklyn in 1917 to parents who would soon divorce, Horne was raised by her grandmother for the first years of her life. When she was 19 she married Louis Jones, and they had two children, Gail and Teddy, before divorcing in 1944. Gail would become a well-known author as Gail Lumet Buckley, while Teddy died in 1970 of kidney failure.
Tags: 1932, cotton club, Egyptian Dark, Jamaica, Lena Horne, Presbyterian Hospital