Singer, actress and civil-rights icon [artist id=”610441″]Lena Horne[/artist] died on Sunday night in New York at the age of 92 of undisclosed causes. The jazz icon, whose signature song was “Stormy Weather,” famously fought racist attitudes in Hollywood in her efforts to become the first black leading lady on the big screen. She died at New York-Presbyterian/ Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan, according to The New York Times.
Horne came to Hollywood in the 1940s and tried to break into the movies. Though she earned a contract with MGM, she was barely cast in her early career because of the color of her skin. Ironically, the paper noted, she was so light skinned as a girl that other black children accused her of having a “white daddy.”
Early in her career Horne earned fleeting roles in big-screen musicals such as 1946’s “Ziegfeld Follies,” appearing in one or two numbers that could easily be cut from the movie when it played in the South, where the idea of a black performer appearing in any role that was not subservient amid an all-white cast was unacceptable.
She was born Lena Calhoun Horne on June 30, 1917, in Brooklyn, New York. Her paternal grandparents were early members of the NAACP civil-rights organization and in a precursor to her lifelong battle on behalf of equal rights, Horne was the cover girl for the NAACP’s monthly bulletin in October 1919 when she was 2 years old. After her parents’ divorce, Horne was largely raised by her grandparents. When she was 16, her mother pulled her out of school to audition for the dance chorus at the famous Harlem night spot, the Cotton Club.
Horne made her Broadway debut a year after joining the Cotton Club chorus, appearing in the short-lived “Dance With Your Gods” in a voodoo dance sequence in 1934. She married at 19 and gave birth to two children before attempting to launch her movie career.
Blessed with stunning good looks, an elegant, slightly mysterious stage presence and an unmistakably sexy allure, Horne’s big Hollywood debut was a disappointing one-song appearance in the 1942 musical “Panama Hattie.” According to the Times, she had better luck in a pair of all-black musicals from 1943, including “Stormy Weather,” which included the achingly sad title track that would become her signature song and which helped earn her the nickname “Negro Cinderella” early in her career. She refused to take the stereotypical roles offered to black performers — such as prostitutes and slaves — holding out for more substantial parts, which, in turn, limited her ability to appear in major films.
She became the top-earning black performer in Hollywood by 1945, playing lucrative nightclub gigs and gaining popularity among both white and black G.I.’s during World War II, who often kept pictures of her in their footlockers. While doing U.S.O. tours, she openly criticized the treatment of black troops, which earned her a rebuke from the organization. She secretly married white arranger/conductor Lennie Hayton in 1947, and she claimed that the combination of her U.S.O. comments and friendships with such left-leaning civil-rights figures as singer Paul Robeson got her blacklisted in Hollywood, preventing her from working for nearly a decade after her MGM contract lapsed in 1950.
Horne continued to make some TV appearances during that time on shows such as “What’s My Line” and “The Judy Garland Show,” as well as singing in nightclubs and recording albums. By the early 1960s she became actively involved in the civil-rights movement, participating in protests and marches, including the 1963 March on Washington, as her film career began to fade. Her final acting gig in 1978, in which she played Glinda the Good Witch in the big screen version of “The Wiz,” came nearly a decade after her only substantial leading role, as a brothel madam in love with Richard Widmark in 1969’s “Death of a Gunfighter.”
In addition to two Grammy awards, she won a special Tony Award for her 1981 one-woman Broadway show, “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music,” and continued to release albums into the 1990s and tour extensively in Europe and North America.