Lena Horne, the beautiful singer, actress and activist who broke racial boundaries when she signed a long-term contract with MGM in the early 1940s — a contract that stated the Brooklyn-born performer would never have to play a maid, a role to which black actresses were often consigned before Horne came along — died of a heart ailment at the age of 92 on May 9 in Manhattan.
“What people tend not to fully comprehend today is what Lena Horne did to transform the image of the African-American woman in Hollywood,” film historian Donald Bogle told The Washington Post. “Movies are a powerful medium and always depicted African-American women before Lena Horne as hefty, mammy-like maids who were ditzy and giggling. Lena Horne becomes the first one the studios begin to look at differently. Really just by being there, being composed and onscreen with her dignity intact, paved the way for a new day” for black actresses.
While Horne found fame on the Silver Screen in the 1940s, she was rarely given significant roles. Instead she usually appeared in musicals, during which she’d sing a song or two in scenes that were often cut when the movies played in the South, where many people objected to an African-Americans appearing in films in non-subservient roles. “Mississippi wanted its movies without me,” she told The New York Times in 1957. “So no one bothered to put me in a movie where I talked to anybody, where some thread of the story might be broken if I were cut.”
Horne was also popular with American soldiers during World War II, touring Army camps for the U.S.O. and appearing more than a dozen times on the Army radio program “Command Performance.” “The whole thing that made me a star was the war” she said in a 1990 interview. “Of course the black guys couldn’t put Betty Grable’s picture in their footlockers. But they could put mine.”
When Horne’s association with MGM ended in 1950, she continued finding success as a nightclub performer and conquered new ground as a recording artist. Her 1957 album Lena Horne at the Waldorf-Astoria was a Top10 hit and became the best-selling album by a female singer in RCA Victor’s history. She returned to the Big Screen in 1969, playing Richard Widmark’s love interest in Death of a Gunfighter. She turned in her final film performance in 1978, playing Glinda the Good Witch in The Wiz. In 1981, her one-woman show Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music began its 14-month run on Broadway, garnering one special Tony award and two Grammys along the way.
She was still singing and recording well into the 1990s, recording her last three albums for Blue Note between 1994 and 1998. “She was one of the great jazz singers, right up there with Sarah and Ella,” said Bruce Lundvall, Blue Note’s chairman emeritus. “It was such an honor to have her on Blue Note to make her final recordings. She was a joy to work with.”
In 2006, Horne’s longtime musical director and guitarist Rodney Jones compiled the retrospective collection Seasons of a Life from the singer’s Blue Note recordings.
Photo credit: John Abbott