Jazz singer, actress Lena Horne dies at 92

NEW YORK (AP) - Lena Horne, the enchanting jazz singer and
actress known for her plaintive signature song "Stormy Weather"
and for her triumph over the bigotry that allowed her to entertain
white audiences but not socialize with them, has died. She was 92.
Horne died Sunday at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, according to
hospital spokeswoman Gloria Chin. Chin would not release any other
details.
Horne, whose striking beauty and magnetic sex appeal often
overshadowed her talent and artistry, was remarkably candid about
the underlying reason for her success: "I was unique in that I was
a kind of black that white people could accept," she once said.
"I was their daydream. I had the worst kind of acceptance because
it was never for how great I was or what I contributed. It was
because of the way I looked."
"I knew her from the time I was born, and whenever I needed
anything she was there. She was funny, sophisticated and truly one
of a kind. We lost an original. Thank you Lena," Liza Minnelli
said Monday. Her father, director Vincente Minnelli, brought Horne
to Hollywood to star in "Cabin in the Sky."
In the 1940s, Horne was one of the first black performers hired
to sing with a major white band, the first to play the Copacabana
nightclub in New York City and when she signed with MGM, she was
among a handful of black actors to have a contract with a major
Hollywood studio.
In 1943, MGM Studios loaned her to 20th Century-Fox to play the
role of Selina Rogers in the all-black movie musical "Stormy
Weather." Her rendition of the title song became a major hit and
her most famous tune.
On screen, on recordings and in nightclubs and concert halls,
Horne was at home vocally with a wide musical range, from blues and
jazz to the sophistication of Rodgers and Hart in such songs as
"The Lady Is a Tramp" and "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered."
In 1942's "Panama Hattie," her first movie with MGM, she sang
Cole Porter's "Just One of Those Things," winning critical
acclaim.
In her first big Broadway success, as the star of "Jamaica" in
1957, reviewer Richard Watts Jr. called her "one of the
incomparable performers of our time." Songwriter Buddy de Sylva
dubbed her "the best female singer of songs."
But Horne was perpetually frustrated with the public humiliation
of racism.
"I was always battling the system to try to get to be with my
people. Finally, I wouldn't work for places that kept us out. ...
It was a damn fight everywhere I was, every place I worked, in New
York, in Hollywood, all over the world," she said in Brian
Lanker's book "I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who
Changed America."
While at MGM, she starred in the all-black "Cabin in the Sky,"
in 1943, but in most of her other movies, she appeared only in
musical numbers that could be cut in the racially insensitive South
without affecting the story. These included the Red Skelton comedy
"I Dood It," "Thousands Cheer" and "Swing Fever," all in
1943; "Broadway Rhythm" in 1944; and "Ziegfeld Follies" in
1946.
One of the most glaring exclusions, though, was the MGM remake
of "Show Boat." Horne, who had appeared in the role of Julie in a
"Show Boat" scene in a 1946 movie about Jerome Kern, seemed a
logical choice for the 1951 movie, but the part went to a white
actress, Ava Gardner, who did not sing.
"Metro's cowardice deprived the musical of one of the great
singing actresses," film historian John Kobal wrote.
Early in her career, Horne cultivated an aloof style out of
self-preservation, becoming "a woman the audience can't reach and
therefore can't hurt," she once said.
Later, she embraced activism, breaking loose as a voice for
civil rights and as an artist. In the last decades of her life, she
rode a new wave of popularity as a revered icon of American popular
music.
Her 1981 one-woman Broadway show, "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her
Music," won a special Tony Award. In it, the 64-year-old singer
used two renditions - one straight and the other gut-wrenching - of
"Stormy Weather" to give audiences a glimpse of the spiritual
odyssey of her five-decade career.
A sometimes savage critic, John Simon, wrote that she was
"ageless ... tempered like steel, baked like clay, annealed like
glass; life has chiseled, burnished, refined her."
Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was born in Brooklyn on June 30, 1917,
to a leading family in black society. Her daughter, Gail Lumet
Buckley, wrote in her 1986 book "The Hornes: An American Family"
that among their relatives was an adviser to President Franklin D.
Roosevelt.
She was largely raised by her grandparents as her mother, Edna
Horne, pursued a career in show business. Lena Horne dropped out of
high school at age 16 and joined the chorus line at the Cotton
Club, the fabled Harlem night spot where the entertainers were
black and the clientele white. She left the club in 1935 to tour
with Noble Sissle's orchestra, billed as Helena Horne, the name she
continued using when she joined Charlie Barnet's white orchestra in
1940.
A movie offer from MGM came when she headlined a show at the
Little Troc nightclub with the Katherine Dunham dancers in 1942.
Her success led some blacks to accuse Horne of trying to
"pass" in a white world with her light complexion. Max Factor
even developed an "Egyptian" makeup shade especially for the
budding actress while she was at MGM. But she refused to go along
with the studio's efforts to portray her as an exotic Latin
American.
"I don't have to be an imitation of a white woman that
Hollywood sort of hoped I'd become," Horne once said. "I'm me,
and I'm like nobody else."
Horne was only 2 when her grandmother, a prominent member of the
Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People, enrolled her in the NAACP. But she avoided activism
until 1945 when she was entertaining at an Army base and saw German
prisoners of war sitting up front while black American soldiers
were consigned to the rear.
That pivotal moment channeled her anger into something useful.
She got involved in various social and political organizations
and - along with her friendship with singer-actor-activist Paul
Robeson - got her name onto blacklists during the red-hunting
McCarthy era.
By the 1960s, Horne was one of the most visible celebrities in
the civil rights movement, once throwing a lamp at a customer who
made a racial slur in a Beverly Hills restaurant and, in 1963,
joining 250,000 others in the March on Washington for Jobs and
Freedom when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream"
speech. Horne also spoke at a rally that year with another civil
rights leader, Medgar Evers, just days before his assassination.
It was also in the mid-'60s that her autobiography, "Lena,"
with author-film critic Richard Schickel, came out.
The next decade brought her first to a low point, then to a
fresh burst of artistry. She appeared in her last movie in 1978,
playing Glinda the Good in "The Wiz," directed by her son-in-law,
Sidney Lumet.
Horne had married MGM music director Lennie Hayton, a white man,
in Paris in 1947 after her first overseas engagements in France and
England. An earlier marriage to Louis J. Jones had ended in divorce
in 1944 after producing daughter Gail and a son, Teddy.
In the 2009 biography "Stormy Weather," author James Gavin
recounts that when Horne was asked by a lover why she had married a
white man, she replied: "To get even with him."
Her father, her son and her husband, Hayton, all died in 1970
and 1971, and the grief-stricken singer secluded herself, refusing
to perform or even see anyone but her closest friends. One of them,
comedian Alan King, took months persuading her to return to the
stage, with results that surprised her.
"I looked out and saw a family of brothers and sisters," she
said. "It was a long time, but when it came I truly began to
live."
And she discovered that time had mellowed her bitterness.
"I wouldn't trade my life for anything," she said, "because
being black made me understand."

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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