Lena Horne (1917-2010) is an American singer and actress from the 1940s and 1950s, best known for singing “Stormy Weather” (1943). She had beauty, talent, grace, courage and was proud to be black. She was one of the best paid black performers of the 1940s but then was blacklisted by Hollywood in the 1950s.
She was born in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn in New York in 1917 - within five years of the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Dorothy Dandridge. Her family was solidly middle-class, having university degrees and important positions in the NAACP and the Urban League.
By 1933 at age 16 she was already dancing at the Cotton Club in Harlem, where Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington looked out for her in a fatherly way. Later she appeared on Broadway and went on the road as a band singer. She was once with a white swing band, but the racism from audiences, hotels and restaurants was too much. (Even after she became famous some white people still called her “nigger” to her face.)
In 1941 she went to Hollywood and in time signed with MGM, making her the first black woman to land a big Hollywood contract. The other black actors hated her because she refused to take stereotyped parts like they did, like maids and African natives. Hollywood did not know what to do with her, so in most films she does not play a character at all but appears as a singer, looking beautiful and graceful. They cut out her parts when they appeared in the American South.
In 1947 she married one of the top white musicians at MGM. In those days California had laws against race mixing, so they got married in Paris. But after that she rarely got parts in films.
In 1951 she tried out for the part of a mixed-race character in “Showboat”. She was light-skinned but she still lost the part to a white actress, Ava Gardner. They darkened Gardner’s appearance and told her to learn to sing like Lena Horne. That allowed them to avoid showing a white man kissing a true black woman.
Soon after Hollywood blacklisted her as someone who favours communism. She was no further to the left than, say, Eleanor Roosevelt, but she was friends with Paul Robeson, who was a communist, and she was for civil rights for blacks.
She left Hollywood to become a singer. She sang in night clubs and became RCA’s top-selling female singer of all time.
In the 1970s she appeared in television ads, like for Sanka, and was Glinda the Good Witch in “The Wiz” on Broadway.
In the early 1980s she appeared in what became the longest running one-woman show on Broadway. She continued her singing into the 1990s, making her last recording in 2000. She passed away Sunday night.
Rest in peace.